February 16, 2018
Sidharth Malhotra, Manoj Bajpayee, Rakul Preet Singh, Pooja Chopra, Kumud Mishra, Adil Hussain, Naseeruddin Shah, Vikram Gokhale
There is a formula writer-director Neeraj Pandey adopted in his 2015 hit Baby that he carries forward into this one: show a bunch of smart-looking, well-dressed people going somewhere, anywhere, at all times at a clipped pace, keep the characters moving – literally, physically – throughout, use brisk edits to cut back and forth between them, rope in an intense background score to scale up the energy, and give them clever-sounding dialogues that hold out the promise of something interesting to come at some point during the rest of the film.
Aiyaary adds an uncommon title to the mix along with Manoj Bajpayee, Sidharth Malhotra and the repeated use of top-to-bottom tilt shots of cityscapes. The tweaks to the blueprint do not save this film from its hollowness or air of déjà vu though. This is Baby Redux minus the chest-thumping nationalism, still convinced that it is far cleverer and cooler than it actually is.
“Vacuous” is a mild choice of adjective for Pandey’s new film, the latest in a series of thrillers he has churned out since the sleeper hit A Wednesday! in 2008. Its troubling politics of anarchy notwithstanding, at least A Wednesday! had a story and meaning going for it. Baby had Taapsee Pannu playing that rare female character given impressive stunt scenes in a Hindi film. Aiyaary has nothing.
As with Baby, Aiyaary too revolves around a covert ops team of the government of India, this one formed within the Army. It is headed by a Colonel Abhay Singh, played by Bajpayee. Malhotra is Major Jai Bakshi, an agent gone rogue. Their unit was formed with government sanction, on the understanding that they would be disowned by the sarkar and the sena if they are ever found out.
No one discovers them, but Jai decides to expose them to the media for reasons that are completely unclear even after the end of the film.
(Spoiler alert. Yawn.)
Jai claims he is blowing their cover because during surveillance operations he realised that everyone is corrupt – yes, his grand revelation is as non-specific as that. However, since it is evident that he considers Colonel Abhay clean, there is no clarification about why he rings the good man’s death knell too or why, at the last minute, he chooses to issue repeated warnings to him to get out of there. Where is “there”? Beats me.
Abhay’s undercover cell had the government’s okay, but was put together by army chief General Pratap Malik with funds that were not authorised on the record. So the chief (Vikram Gokhale) is in trouble too, although it is never apparent why Jai decides to ruin him either since he too seems to be a nice guy.
Oddly enough, Jai is working for a corrupt arms lobbyist who was formerly with the army. Lt General Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) wants to punish Pratap Malik for objecting to the inflated quotation offered by a group he represents in a defence deal. Why is sweet, innocent, disillusioned Jai aiding bad, bad Gurinder in bringing the General down? Again, beats me.
Jai’s ‘explanation’ for his actions, when it does finally come, is so empty, so bereft of detail and logic, that it feels like an act of betrayal on the part of Pandey the scriptwriter. There is also an Adarsh scam-like reveal that is hyped up throughout the film and then recounted in a silly, over-dramatised fashion in the climax.
Jai is in hiding and undercover from the beginning of Aiyaary but all that glib talk from him amounts to a lot of hoo-haa considering that he epitomises stupidity in the way he allows a civilian to discover his true identity by leaving his army I-card lying around in his absence. Besides, Abhay manages to find him with just a click of his fingers, at which point our hero and his girlfriend/accomplice react like hapless babies.
(Spoiler alert ends. Yawn.)
Oh yes, before I forget, in the picture is a girlfriend cum software specialist whose professional talents come in handy for Jai’s hanky panky.
Her name is Sonia Gupta (Rakul Preet Singh), and like Jai’s colleague, Captain Maya Semwal (Pooja Chopra), she has little to do beyond be attractive and provide the director with an alibi in case he is accused of excluding women from his all-male story.
Singh is just fresh from the success of the Tamil film Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru in which she got to play a cutesy female trifle in an otherwise gripping thriller about a no-nonsense male cop. Here she gets to go a step further and give us proof of her character’s hacking abilities by typing furiously on Jai’s laptop with her impeccably manicured fingers.
Poor Chopra comes across as being capable of something more than just standing around, but in Aiyaary, that is all she gets to do.
Meanwhile, Adil Hussain, who was fabulous in last year’s fabulous Mukti Bhawan, is so unconvinced of his role as an arms dealer here, that he seems to be suppressing his laughter while playing the part. I swear I could sense a medley of giggles just below the surface in all his scenes.
Bajpayee somehow pulls off the incredible feat of appearing earnest in an ocean of fluff. Malhotra looks sincere and delicious from start to finish. His pretty face and sensitive eyes are worth the price of a ticket in the worst of situations, but here we get the bonus of his slim physique encased in battle fatigues. It is a sight that, I assure you, is guaranteed to have any healthy, artistically inclined human being go weak in the knees.
Barring the low-priced extras the casting director settled for in Europe, as Bollywood often does, money has obviously been spent on producing Aiyaary. Now if only time had been spent on thinking the script through.
With his 2013 film Special 26, starring Akshay Kumar and Bajpayee, Neeraj Pandey proved that he has what it takes to execute a solid thriller. Aiyaary – which means shapeshifter, trickster, and more – is an example of what happens when a filmmaker, like most of the industry he operates in, mentally differentiates between a thinking, niche audience and a commercial audience (read: the masses), and blatantly takes the latter for granted.
Aiyaary’s first hour is engaging because it gives us reason to assume that great twists and turns will unfold at any moment. That promise is unfulfilled in the remaining 100 minutes of the film. Pace and bluster cannot compensate for lack of substance. This wannabe James Bond flick is nothing but a blast of hot air.
Rating (out of five stars): *
CBFC Rating (India):
160 minutes 10 seconds
This review was also published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/aiyaary/