August 28, 2015
Saif Ali Khan, Katrina Kaif, Zeeshan Ayyub, Sohaila Kapur
It is not profound. It is far from being a work of genius. And the screenplay is not of the kick-ass variety you would expect from a fictionalised Indian fantasy about a plot to kill the masterminds of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai (based on S. Hussain Zaidi’s book Mumbai Avengers).
Still, Phantom is fun when it’s being a matter-of-fact thriller instead of a mushy patriotic drama. As it happens, it is not mushy for the most part, the action is slick and twists come flying thick and fast, leaving us with little time while the film is on to reason out whether they are credible.
Saif Ali Khan holds it all together, playing Daniyal Khan, a disgraced ex-Armyman who is recruited by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) for a mission – not authorised by the government – to eliminate the 26/11 kingpins. RAW’s chief is persuaded to take up the project by an over-zealous new joinee (Zeeshan Ayyub). Daniyal is a phantom of sorts since he virtually disappeared after his exit from the forces, making him ideal for the project: he is keen to regain his honour, but if he dies while on duty no one would know and even less people would care.
And so he agrees to avenge 26/11, travelling from the UK to the US, Syria and Pakistan in the bargain. Help comes in the form of ex-RAW hand and current international security consultant, Nawaz Mistry (Katrina Kaif), sundry RAW plants and an unexpected Pakistani ally.
Saif in Phantom has put behind him Agent Vinod (2012) in which he looked like an amateur playing Cops ‘n’ Robbers with toy guns. He is believable as a secret agent in this one. His demeanour here harks back to his performance in 2004 in a far superior film, Ek Hasina Thi.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag, the highlight being Sohaila Kapur as an old Pakistani nurse. The jingoistic elements in Phantom revolve around the RAW officer played by Zeeshan Ayyub who is served poorly by the writing. His character gets almost all the film’s predictable, chest-thumpingly patriotic dialogues and scenes – a pity because this talented actor deserves better.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Priyanka Chopra or Anushka Sharma might have done with the better-written role of Nawaz Mistry, but since it is Katrina that we’ve got, it must be said that her limitations as an actress are somewhat neutralised in Phantom by director Kabir Khan’s ability to tap into a certain comfort level she has developed with the camera over the years. He does it here while also not allowing the camera to obsess over her pretty face as it does in most of her films.
As for her character, it’s interesting to see a Hindi film giving us an uncaricatured Parsi. It’s interesting too to see an Indian Muslim hero in a story in which no one delivers a sermon on secularism in the context of his faith, as is the norm with Hindi films featuring significant Muslim characters. Clearly a point is being made with Daniyal being a Khan, but the messaging is unspoken, which is nice. Of course it would be nicer still for us to get more films where a character’s Muslim-/Sikh-/Christian-/Parsi-ness is not an element in the plot. Muslims, Parsis and all minorities are people, you know. They exist, and a screenplay should not feel compelled to justify their presence in a story. That’s why Nawaz in Phantom is a small milestone.
It’s odd that Haafiz Saeed’s name is disguised as Haariz Saeed in the film, since David Coleman Headley is called David Coleman Headley. That’s not the only question mark. Since the RAW chief was authorising the operation despite a vehement no from the Home Minister, it’s unclear how he could guarantee to Daniyal that he would be reinstated in the Army and his honour restored, if the job was completed successfully. Was he lying? It didn’t seem so. Is the implication then that the Union Cabinet would fall in line once the mission was aced? Well then, Pakistani commentators have routinely suggested that RAW is as much of a mischief-maker as the ISI across the border which our people say has a stranglehold over the Pakistan government, so it’s laughable that an Indian film implying as much has been banned there.
For those concerned about Phantom cashing in on public bloodlust, the film carefully positions its mission as one designed to save India and Pakistan from going to war. The script is at pains to point out that while Indians suffer because of Pakistani terrorists, thousands of Pakistanis too die as a result of home-grown terror. Underlining the point is one of Daniyal’s co-conspirators: a Pakistani who experienced a great personal loss at the hands of the terrorists Daniyal is targeting.
Where jingoism does rear its head in the film, it is brief and too bland, even silly to be worrisome in the way the ending of Nikhil Advani’s D-Day was. In fact, these portions pull Phantom down with cliched, flag-waving dialogues and a painfully long-drawn-out, emotionally manipulative climax. Sans this, it could have been a neat, audacious action thriller despite its lack of depth.
Audacity can lead to realities stranger than fiction. If before 9/11, Hollywood had made a film about men flying planes into New York’s World Trade Centre, would we have believed it? Pre-26/11, if an Indian director had made a film about foreigners casually entering Mumbai by sea through unguarded beaches, gunning down ordinary citizens at sundry locations in the city and laying siege to a 5-star hotel for days, would we not have laughed it off? Viewed in that context, Phantom is not really as improbable as it seems when we analyse it at an intellectual level.
Sure it lacks depth and is, therefore, not particularly memorable, a far cry from Kabir’s recent Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Phantom is what we Indians call “timepass”. Considering the subject matter, it should have been more, but as it is, it’s what we Indians additionally call a “one-time watch”.
Rating (out of five): **1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phantom_(2015_film)