If there were awards for Most Schizophrenic Director, Kabir Khan would be winning them all. After extending an olive branch to Pakistan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he dons war paint and drops an A-bomb in Phantom, which begins with news footage and photographs from the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. The film goes on to name Lashkar-e-Taiba, and has characters based on David Coleman Headley and Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. But what follows isn’t a grabbed-from-the-headlines thriller like Zero Dark Thirty. Phantom isn’t about what actually happened. It’s about wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-this-happened – if, instead of merely suspending cricket matches after terror attacks on our soil, we marched into Karachi and pumped bullets into those basterds. So yes, the film is more along the lines of Inglourious Basterds. It’s a rah-rah reimagining of history based on S Hussain Zaidi’s novel Mumbai Avengers, and it begins, appropriately enough, with a breathless mutual-funds-are-subject-to type disclaimer about the places, people and events depicted here. Translation: If you could taste films, this one would be positively brackish from all the pinches of salt.
There will be finger-waggers who say this sort of eye-for-an-eyeing is irresponsible and dangerous, but Khan is careful to make his protagonist a Muslim (Daniyal Khan, played by Saif Ali Khan) – like Wisam Ahmad Kashmiri in Vishwaroopam and Wali Khan in D-Day, that other reimagining of recent history. So it doesn’t become a religious crusade anymore – rather, it’s about how Muslims are patriots too. That, I think, is a pretty important message for these times. The casting, too, gently emphasises this. The earnest young Hindu RAW officer who dreams up this revenge plan is played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub – and he’s wonderful, as usual. My favourite moment in the film came after Daniyal kills one of India’s enemies, and the Ayyub character hears of this and makes a fist, his face flushed with the kind of feeling that fills us when Sehwag smashes a 309 at Multan.
As a model of exposition and character-building, Phantom is fairly routine, dull even. But as a mechanical contraption, it works – sometimes brilliantly. The action scenes are smashingly staged – all in real time, without people and things sailing through the air in slo-mo. An early car chase in Chicago isn’t just about the action choreographer doing his job, the way it usually is in our films. It owes as much to the cinematographer and the editor, giving us the you-are-there feel as well as the you-are-watching-it-from-a-distance feel. After the film, I looked up the name of the editor. There were two: Aarif Sheikh and Aditya Banerjee. It figures. The big (and complex) set pieces are brilliantly pieced together. Of course, part of this is a function of the screenplay too. But the editing is what we see, all that cross-cutting between people and places. It helps that the film stays focused on the mission at hand. Daniyal gets a bit of character detailing involving estranged parents, but just a bit. They’re just part of the background. We see the father’s disappointment, the mother’s weariness – that’s all that’s needed.
The romance, too, plays out in the background. It’s obvious that Daniyal and co-conspirator Nawaz (Katrina Kaif) are drawn to each other, but they behave like the pros they have to be in this line of work. The director isn’t interested in humanising the villains either, the way Kamal Haasan did in Vishwaroopam, giving us glimpses of the family, the surroundings, the life of the villain played by Rahul Bose. The villains in Phantom are essentially dartboards – exactly what’s needed. Any more nuance and this would be a very different movie. So it’s interesting to note who Khan chooses to flesh out. The people we get to know really well, whom we are invited to sympathise with, are all Pakistani – the average Pakistani who doesn’t want war any more than the average Indian does. A cafe owner. His not-very-bright employee. A nurse. Say what you will about Phantom’s jingoism, it at least tries to make us see that there is another side, something that Manoj Kumar never did in all his East-versus-West tirades.
But the leads keep pulling the film down. By now, Katrina-bashing has become a legitimate sport among serious moviegoers, whose delight in her dramatic turns matches that of a hungry crocodile that’s just discovered a swimming Sumo wrestler. She does not disappoint. She messes up the simplest lines, like: Government forces ad-vanes kar rahe hain. In order to explain that ad-vanes, they try to pass her off as a Parsi. Later, she pretends she’s in labour. The screaming isn’t hers. It’s coming from Stanislavsky. Khan is really ambitious. He gives Kaif one of those “cuckoo clock” scenes – you know, from The Third Man, where the essence of the character is distilled into a long monologue. I couldn’t watch. I suppose this scene is why the film got its U/A rating – young children should proceed with extreme caution. Worse, Kaif ends up with scenes opposite Sohaila Kapoor, who plays that Pakistani nurse as a soul wracked by unfathomable torment. Her son turned out to be a jihadi. It’s just a few scenes, but Kapoor makes us feel the love for her son and the hate for what he became and the people who made him that way. Kaif just sits across and watches blankly. She was probably thinking, Lady, you may know how to act, but I’m the one with the fat L’Oréal contract.
As for Saif, he’s playing a character drawn from the Lord Jim template, a man with a disgraced past who now tries to redeem himself. Recall how devastatingly Amitabh Bachchan played such a character in Kaala Paththar, filled with rage and self-loathing, and look at how superficial Saif is in comparison – the externalisation of all this inner roiling is manifest in a mildly furrowed forehead. You want to hand him a glass of water and a Saridon. I can’t put my finger on it – he’s not bad, exactly, but the spark is missing. There was a time I bought Saif in the unlikeliest of characters, like the one he played in Omkara. Today, he isn’t even able to sell a Happy Ending. Watching him here, I thought of Abhishek Bachchan in last week’s All Is Well. There’s probably good money in Bollywood now for someone who can help lost actors find their way again.
- Bajrangi Bhaijaan = see here
- Mumbai Avengers = see here
- Vishwaroopam = see here
- D-Day = see here
- Government forces ad-vanes kar rahe hain = Government forces are advancing.
- jihadi = see here
- Omkara = see here
- Happy Ending = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.