Cast: John Abraham, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Katrina Kaif
Director: Kabir Khan
Rating: *** & 1/2
Irrfan Khan plays a Muslim FBI agent in this film. His calm, studied swagger often relates itself to the dramatic timing of an actor like Al Pacino, no less.
Speaking to his under-cover agent, also a Muslim, on the excesses of racial-profiling and illegal detentions in America after 9/11, he says: While that be true, he still is a Muslim, entrusted with an incredibly sensitive Islamic terror case. This, also, can only happen in America.
It’s the freedom of this society that he wishes to protect. He makes no distinction between a ‘legitimate terrorist’ and an ‘illegitimate terrorist’. And certainly none between a Muslim terrorist and one from another faith or cause (unlike a ‘good Taliban’ and a ‘bad Taliban’; a new coinage of the past month). What’s wrong is wrong, notwithstanding circumstances that lead up to the call. The anger is mostly directionless and rabid.
Neil Nitin Mukesh plays the agent Usman that Irrfan’s Roshan speaks to. This boy was picked up by the FBI one fine morning from his bed, and framed-up for possession of guns in his taxi. He’d come to America few years before, a fresh-off-the-boat desi-kid at an American university: shirts and trousers of probably Louis Phillipe make, and a Nike-bag slung behind, which could’ve well said Jansport instead.
He’d made two close friends then: One, Sameer (John Abraham) who had few Indian friends, was “so American” (minus the American accent), and could play ball and chess with the same flair. The other, a friendly, tom-boyish girl of Indian origin (Katrina Kaif), who Usman would secretly develop feelings for.
The three had never been together since September 11, 2001: a day that pretty much changed the world, and their own lives in many ways.
These are career-defining roles for all three leading actors here (hardly the world’s best). And I mention this as much for their refreshingly sincere performances (especially Katrina’s), as their relatively poor, past resume (Aa Dekhen Zara, Dostana, Yuvvraj...). All characters have roughly been moulded around actors as well, or at least their manners slipped into the script. This helps.
Sameer, now married to Maya, it turns out, is a suspected head of a sleeper terror-cell in New York. They also have a child. Usman is forcibly planted into their home by the FBI to uncover a suspected terror-plot.
The film argues that while the persecution complex of Muslim or brown minorities under Bush’s America was somewhat exaggerated, the persecution itself was quite real. It’s a neutral stand, quite bereft of an expected rhetoric.
Referring this to Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road would be grossly unfair. If anything, this is a much better movie than that 1999, part-spooky conspiracy theory. The central theme itself is closer to Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye (2007), and you can sense how the superior execution here makes all the filmmaking difference.
Like this one, Kabir Khan’s directorial debut Kabul Express — an insider-outsider account of post-9/11 Afghanistan — was a rare Bollywood film that at once informed, irritated and entertained. It’s the amusingly intelligent mainstream movies such as these that engineer changes in a film industry from within.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is exactly where it was, if not worse. The real-life epilogue of this film seems more optimistic, and hence its timeliness. Contemporary world history is phased between pre and post-9/11. America’s own recent past is beginning to be perceived as pre and post-Obama. The movie’s subject appears history already. Hopefully. Inshallah.