BLAST MAN STANDING
Yet another story about yet another terrorist. The hardware is there, but where’s the heart?
NOV 22, 2009 – KURBAAN WEARS ITS HOT-BUTTON topicality proudly, like a gleaming medal that’s been well and truly earned. And the members of the cast do most of the earning, each one entrusted with disbursing a bit of the sugar-coated bitter medicine. Saif Ali Khan plays Ehsaan, who not only teaches a course titled “Muslim Identity in the Modern World,” but does so in jeans – he’s that liberal a Muslim. At the other end of the soapbox spectrum lies Abbu (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who bemoans the fact that his US-bred television-reporter son, Riyaz (Vivek Oberoi), doesn’t think like a Musalmaan but more along the lines of an American. Riyaz, meanwhile, sneaks into Ehsaan’s lecture, one day, and engages in a heated debate with white-Americans, arguing that if 3000 people were killed on 9/11, over 15000 have perished in Afghanistan over the years. Even the ultra-conservative Nasreen (Kirron Kher) – in her ultra-limited screen-time – sneaks in a few sound-bytes about how the West’s lust for oil has rained fire on her homeland.
But Avantika (Kareena Kapoor) has precious little to say. As the token Hindu caught between the “good” (i.e. peace-loving) Muslim and the “bad” (i.e. jehadi) Muslim – I’m generalising a little – you might think she’d be called upon to represent a community trapped between the sentimentalities of the past (Hindu-Muslim bhai–bhai, and all that) and the suspicions of the present. Her father, played by Aakash Khurana, has a beautiful line where he expresses his misgivings about Ehsaan becoming his son-in-law – not because he’s a Musalmaan but because the lesser the difference between the partners, the better. (And who can deny the rift that has widened ever-so-gradually between Allah and Ram?) It’s the kind of dialogue that (unlike the film) locates the personal amidst the political with minimal fuss. But Avantika adds nothing to the discourse. If she’s an instrument of change, it doesn’t register forcefully. If she’s a mouthpiece for ideology, that’s not evident either. She’s simply a pawn. She’s nothing.
And that’s a pity, because for a while, she seemed to be shaping into something. Either producer Karan Johar or director Rensil D’Silva, I’ll bet, are huge fans of Ira Levin – for the portions of the film that unfold as Avantika and Ehsaan move from New Delhi to New York play like The Stepford Wives-meets-Rosemary’s Baby. The newlywed housewife curious about a strange suburbia, the instant welcome from cheery neighbours, the robotically subservient wives and the husbands who exclude them from matters of importance, the fanatical (almost cultish) devotion to a devilish cause – it’s all in here in some shape or form. And here’s where I began to wonder if Avantika would become (a) a Stepford Wife, brainwashed and programmed to fulfill a purpose, or (b) like Rosemary, a hormonal Cassandra whose hysterical doomsday prophecies no one will believe.
But having thrown up a whole bunch of questions in the air, the director hunkers down to focus on the most uninteresting of them all: should the red wire be snapped in order to stop the bomb, or the blue wire? The abstract political and personal issues surrounding Avantika evaporate as we’re plunged headlong into the what-where-how of an overfamiliar bombing plot – though, to be fair, these portions are staged quite well. There’s a clickety-clack mechanical efficiency – which is at least a craft, if not exactly an art – in the way the film lurches to its reasonably involving conclusion. Along the way, of course, we’re asked to gloss over the idiocies we now take for granted in thrillers of this nature – the all-too-easy ways in which terrorist cells are infiltrated, the undercover good-guy discovering a vital piece of information and opting to announce it to the world that very instant (in the vicinity of the villains), and insultingly convenient changes of heart.
While not exactly a bad film (translation: at least it’s staged and serviced better by its cast than New York was), it’s a mystery why Kurbaan isn’t much more. Why is this film – a Karan Johar production for crying out loud – so embarrassed about taking an emotional stand? Why is the hero-heroine meet-cute so juvenile? (For all its latter-half faults, the similarly themed Fanaa at least got the meeting-mating rituals right.) When a character has lost a son and when he finds his wife pregnant again, why don’t we feel what he’s feeling? Why, for that matter, don’t we register what Avantika is beginning to feel about her nightmarish situation? Why does she recede so far into the background that she practically blends in with the wallpaper? Why does everyone (and everything) feel so remote, as if occurring in a dream dimension far, far away? As I said, a dozen questions, and the only one the director is really interested in is: red wire or blue wire?
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