Friday, August 28, 2015


Release date:
August 28, 2015
Kabir Khan

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):

Running time:
147 minutes 

Sunday, August 23, 2015



Language propagandists or a lazy media? Who floated the myth that the Hindi film industry a.k.a. Bollywood is India’s only — or largest — film industry?
By Anna MM Vetticad

Aapki yeh karambhoomi Bambai hai. Aapka Kurukshetra ka maidan Mumbai hai (Bombay is the land where you will work, Mumbai is your battlefield),” he declared to listening students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. The speaker was actor Mukesh Khanna. The comment came during a recent panel discussion on NDTV India about Gajendra Chauhan’s selection as FTII chairperson.
Why did Khanna assume that the students’ karambhoomi would be Mumbai? Did he not think these youngsters would, could or should work in any of the other dozen-plus Indian language cinemas emerging from centres located across the country?

Khanna — current chief of the Children’s Film Society India — sidestepped my annoyance as a fellow panelist. Not surprising. As he struggled during the show to name Dadasaheb Phalke Award-winning Malayalam director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, calling him “Gopal Adoor” instead, it became clear that he knows and/or cares little about Indian cinema beyond the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry aka Bollywood.
He is not a solitary example.
Indian cinema is not just Bollywood. Try telling that though to the vast sections of the public — especially, though not only, those from northern India — and the supposedly ‘national’ media headquartered in Delhi and Mumbai who casually use the terms “Indian cinema” and “Hindi cinema” / “Bollywood” interchangeably. Sometimes they at least acknowledge the existence of what is patronisingly termed “regional cinema”; sometimes not even that. Sadly, the rest of the world is picking up this vocabulary.
So what has led to the common misconception that Bollywood is India’s only — or largest — film industry? The answer lies in a near-invincible cocktail of political propaganda, parochialism, historical happenstance, media laziness and marketing.
India’s three largest film industries — Hindi, Tamil and Telugu — have rivalled each other since the days of the earliest talking films. According to Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, the first talkie in each of these languages — Alam Ara (Hindi-Urdu), Kalidas (Tamil) and Bhakta Prahlada (Telugu) — were all made in 1931.
In other areas too, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu run neck and neck. Annual reports of the Central Board of Film Certification show that 206 Hindi features were certified in 2011, followed closely by Telugu with 192 and Tamil at 185. The previous year’s figures: Hindi – 215, Tamil – 202, Telugu – 181. The costliest Indian film till date is reportedly Bahubali from the Telugu film industry a.k.a. Tollywood. As per media speculation, Tamil film legend Rajinikanth is India’s highest paid actor.
Hindi’s distinct advantage over the other two is in terms of reach since the language is spoken in more states than Telugu and Tamil. Now combine Bollywood’s laudable marketing efforts here and abroad with the underhand success of Hindi language propagandists who have learnt well from this theory attributed to Hitler’s minister Joseph Goebbels: A lie repeated a million times becomes the truth. Their efforts have entrenched another myth in Indian public consciousness: the myth that Hindi is the national language, when in fact India has no constitutionally designated national language.
It’s a vicious circle. English
 newspapers and TV channels headquartered in India’s political capital New Delhi and com
mercial capital Mumbai are
 physically closer to Bollywood than to the Tamil and Telugu industries based in Chennai and Hyderabad respectively. As is the norm with all lazy journalism, what is closer is given more importance.
Besides, most of these media houses have north Indian owners and/or editors who tend to see north Indian culture as the Indian norm while traditions of other regions are deemed exceptions. Most, therefore, hire critics to review Bollywood and Hollywood films, invest resources in extensive Bollywood reportage, and treat Telugu and Tamil as asides to be occasionally acknowledged for exotica (example: visuals of fans bathing Rajinikanth’s cut-outs in milk) or when that rare, heavily promoted, tentpole project comes around (example: Bahubali). Smaller industries are treated as intellectual footnotes (example: Satyajit Ray).
Nothing exemplifies this bias better than the coverage of the National Film Awards by English TV channels. In what is now an annual ritual, every tiny award to a Hindi film or star is headlined, while major awards such as Best Film are downplayed if they don’t go to Bollywood. The more the ‘national’ press ignores industries other than Bollywood, the more they help increase Bollywood’s market while also furthering the impression that it is — we come back to that — India’s only film industry or the largest one.
And so we have the bizarre phenomenon of an entity that calls itself the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) appropriating the term “Indian film” to hold a travelling annual awards function for Hindi films. Equally bizarre was then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s faux pas in 2012 while addressing the audience at the Cinefan film festival in her city: Indian cinema had completed a century that year, but Dikshit chose to term it “100 years of Bollywood”. Last year, Amitabh Bachchan delivered a 25-minute speech purportedly about “Indian cinema” at the International Film Festival of India in Goa. Out of the scores and scores of films and personalities he cited though, only four were not from Bollywood.
As the Central government prepares to celebrate Hindi Week in September, it is worth asking: if your karambhoomi is not Mumbai’s Hindi cinema, does it not count?
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on August 22, 2015)
Original link:

Photograph courtesy: 

Note: This photograph was not sourced from The Hindu Businessline 

Previous instalment of Film Fatale: “The Rape of Avanthika”