Meghna Gulzar is a filmmaker with a family history in the arts, who has directed a number of films, including one I reviewed recently upon the untimely death of Irrfan Khan, Talvar (2015). She has a distinctive style and an interest in historical stories that puts her a little outside the usual glam and glitz of the Bollywood musical romantic comedy setpieces. This film from a couple of years ago also stars the lovely Alia Bhatt, one of my favourite contemporary actors, who was in the recent Gully Boy (2019), the delightful Dear Zindagi (2016) and the very silly Shaandaar (2015).
The actions of nations at war with one another, with all the outward military braggadocio, nationalist fervour and, behind the scenes, deadly games of subterfuge and espionage, have always been great fodder for big-screen drama. And it’s usually too easy for filmmakers to lapse into one-note patriotism and against-the-odds heroics, which is why this film feels so interesting to me. Its star Alia Bhatt plays an Indian spy in the lead up to the brief Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, who inveigles her way into a leading Pakistani military family in the aims of sending vital intelligence back to her own country, but yet her character isn’t defined by what she does during that time, and she goes through great emotional trauma in getting her job done. This means that there are a lot of punchy scenes with Bhatt breaking down under the strain, but thankfully she’s an excellent actress and equal to that. Yet her character has a job to do and is competent at it even when personal ties make it difficult, and the film lies in that awkward place between personal responsibility and the dangerous (if not at times lethal) requirements of her profession.
It is successful not just because of the enormous charm and acting ability of its lead (not to mention the supporting cast: her Indian spy handler has more than a little of Colin Firth to him), but with a great deal of commercial sheen to it. 1970s period details are left comfortably in the background to the central spy vs relationship drama, and the film avoids shifting tones relentlessly (as other big Indian films sometimes have a tendency to do). Being a spy here is gripping stuff, and clearly not as glamorous as some other films make out.
Director Meghna Gulzar मेघना गुलज़ार; Writers Bhavani Iyer भवानी अय्यर and Gulzar (based on the novel Calling Selmat by Harinder Sikka हरिंदर सिक्का); Cinematographer Jay I. Patel জয় আই. প্যাটেল; Starring Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट, Vicky Kaushal विक्की कौशल; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 22 May 2018.
Today we sadly learned of the passing of the great Irrfan Khan, so I’m taking a break from this week’s theme on my blog to watch one of his performances; while this review below is unlikely to be of his best film, it’s still a decent crime investigation thriller in which he capably plays a slightly ambiguous character. Others have seen some of his higher profile films — of those, most in English, I’ve only seen Slumdog Millionaire (as well as smaller parts in Jurassic World and The Darjeeling Limited) — but I have enjoyed him in romcoms like Piku and the recent Qarib Qarib Singlle, and his career stretches back to a small role in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988). He’s an actor that seemed able to play both complex less than heroic characters (as in this film), as easily as likeable easygoing charmers. In any case, he’s usually the moral centre of the films he’s in, all too often playing authority figures we can trust (even if that reputation is played with at times, as with this film).
One of the difficulties Talvar has to get over, in presenting its true-crime torn-from-the-headlines case of a young girl found murdered in her family home near their similarly-slain servant, is that it was never really solved. And so we get, in the now-cliched Rashomon-like way, flashback recreations of multiple different viewpoints on what happened, with all kinds of ridiculous suggestions being put forth (some of them reported gleefully in public) by first the police investigators and then the “CDI” (Central Dept of Investigation) of whom Irrfan Khan’s Ashwin is leading the case. Even more than the criminal investigation, the film is keen to show how messy and disorganised India’s justice system can be, with incompetent cops and bosses who seem (it is implied) more interested in ensuring their old classmates are exculpated of any wrongdoing than in getting a satisfactory conclusion to the case. There’s a hint of Touch of Evil too in the way that Ashwin’s methods can be little better than torture at times — if he’s the hero of the film, he’s an antihero at best — but he’s still more impassioned than most of the guys milling around him, who are mostly looking out for their own careers or their friends. I think it works well, and it’s all very well put together, even if the film itself has a bit of a TV true-crime thriller feel at times; it nevertheless maintains a consistent tone, anchored by Khan’s empathetic performance.
Director Meghna Gulzar मेघना गुलज़ार; Writer Vishal Bhardwaj विशाल भारद्वाज; Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar पंकज कुमार; Starring Irrfan Khan इरफ़ान ख़ान, Konkona Sen Sharma কঙ্কনা সেন শর্মা, Neeraj Kabi नीरज काबी; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 29 April 2020.