Just about two months ago, Kabir Khan was the toast of both audiences and critics with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a film with a heart. With its naïf hero and its cute as a button kiddo star, the film was nevertheless political. It pleased Indian and Pakistanis alike, an admirable achievement, considering that Pakistanis complain of being reduced to caricatures in Bollywood movies.
Now comes Phantom, replete with some very problematic jingoism of the most juvenile kind, somewhat like a mindless video game that allows young, hormonally charged adolescents to get off by gunning down targets. The problem is the film takes itself much too seriously. This flaw could be overlooked if the film at least kept the viewer engrossed; instead it is listless and fails to even evoke rah-rah patriotism. Some Pakistanis are said to be upset that Khan has now resorted to bashing their country; they shouldn’t, because no one else is going to take this seriously for half a minute.
So is Kabir Khan blowing hot and cold, first getting soppy about Indo-Pak ties and then setting out to teach them a lesson, a bit like our foreign policy, shaking hands one day and a few weeks later refusing to even talk to them. What is he up to?
You can tell it is a Kabir Khan film by one or many of the following features—a political angle, strong Muslim characters (more often than not in situations that allow them to be patriotic), story lines that refer to current affairs, international locations, good looking characters and smart camera work. All these are drawn from his experience as a film maker which took him all over the world to make documentaries. Sometimes, he gets the mix right – his first effort, Kabul Express showed he was a cut above many of his Bollywood peers, the kinds who invested much more in the stunts than in a good story. Occasionally, the weak script of a Kabir Khan movie is elevated by a star with fantastically high wattage, like Salman Khan, who turned an improbable story like Ek Tha Tiger into a runaway hit. All the above mentioned boxes got ticked in that film too. It is therefore fair to ask if Kabir Khan has made five films or one film five times.
Yet with Phantom, the same combination of ingredients collapses like a very poorly made soufflé. Nothing comes together—not the stars, who have not a milligram of frisson between them, not the locations that are poorly exploited (barring some scenes in ‘Pakistan’), nor the plot, that has weak links that look fragile to the viewer and not even, ironically, the flag waving. Not for a minute did this writer – nor anyone else in the poorly filled theatre on the very first day – applaud even once during those cringe-making speeches about taking revenge for the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. There is just no redemption or catharsis, much less vicarious closure.
The story, based on a novel by crime writer Husain Zaidi is simple enough—a disgraced soldier of the Indian army is sent out to kill the masterminds of the attack who (mostly) roam free with impunity. India cannot do anything to get at them – “all we do is play cricket”, says Clean Cut Patriot to his bosses in RAW. “Look at America,” probably referring to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Handled well, this could become a sharp political drama; here it is little more than a short debate between Boring Looking Minister and Colourless RAW Chief, following which the latter decides to send off Daniyal Khan, the Phantom, who has been hiding on a snowy mountain to work off his angst (reminiscent of Rambo and many other characters).
In London, he meets Mannequin Who Looks Gorgeous and also Speaks, Nawaz Mistry, possibly the first non-caricatured Parsi character in a mainstream Hindi film. She works for a security consultancy Dark Water (bravo researchers) and gets 10,000 quid for pointing out a Pakistani who has settled in London after getting his face reshaped. He is soon despatched to his maker.
Next is David Coleman Headley in a Chicago prison, where Daniyal is jailed too. Cue several montages of Daniyal watching Headley working out his routine. (The film is big on montages). Headley too is killed off when a toxic chemical gets sprayed on to his body via the shower.
After which its off to Pakistan to get the big one, Hafiz Saeed himself, except that he is called Hariz Saeed, which is a bit odd since Headley was named in the film. Here the film picks up some speed. The coming together of the plot to assassinate him, though stretching credibility, is full of small human touches to the story which otherwise was getting sunk under its own deadweight and a few explosions.
Sadly, for a man who made Bajrangi Bhaijaan with its unusual story, Phantom is cliché central, with inspiration drawn from scores of Hollywood blockbusters. Saif Ali Khan had a somewhat similar role in Agent Vinod, where he seemed to be having a fun time; here he has dialled in his performance. It’s not his fault; he doesn’t really know who he is supposed to be—the man trying to get back into favour with the army, a professional on an assignment, or – and this is hinted so barely that it never sinks in – a son wanting to win his father’s respect.
Kabir Khan has used Katrina in several movies; her weaknesses must be apparent to him now. Plainly speaking, she has a problem emoting. Ironically, hers is the better written role, but it is way beyond her reach to interpret it.
As for the ending, I will only say this: I was really surprised that the director did not put in a shot or two of the Prime Minister, an edited montage of the Republic Day parade and the national anthem. Maybe that would have got the punters fired up.