3 Stars (out of 4)
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A case of industrial espionage exposes an ecological crisis, awakening a federal investigator’s sense of justice in Irada. Debutant writer-director Aparnaa Singh’s movie survives early missteps to culminate in a satisfying, performance-driven second half.
The investigator, Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi), doesn’t appear until the movie is more than thirty minutes old, which is one of the problems with Irada‘s first half. Only after Arjun arrives does the story really take shape, as it is his emotional journey that drives the narrative.
Instead, Irada opens with Parabjeet Walia, a character played by Naseeruddin Shah, the film’s other marquee star. Retiree Parabjeet trains his daughter, Riya (Rumana Molla), for the Air Force entrance exam, coaching her through swimming sprints in the local canal. A medical emergency reveals that Riya has cancer, likely from exposure to toxic canal water polluted by the local chemical factory.
While seeing a father watch his previously healthy child succumb to cancer is obviously affecting, Singh cuts corners with character development. We endure training montages when we should be getting to know more about the father and daughter and their relationship. Only much later do we learn that Parabjeet himself was a career military man, explaining Riya’s distress at her inability to follow in his footsteps. It’s as though Singh is so familiar with her characters’ backstories that she forgot to share them with the audience.
In fact, when we see Parabjeet again a year after Riya’s death, he has become a writer and part-time investigative journalist. He’s published a book, likely of poetry given his fondness for speaking in couplets, though the contents aren’t specified. He’s also become an authority on the shady corporate dealings of Paddy Sharma (Sharad Kelkar), wealthy owner of the chemical factory.
With the blessing of corrupt politician Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta, who crushes every scene she’s in), Paddy is able to conceal his company’s polluting ways. The company disposes of waste through a process known as “reverse boring,” in which pollutants are injected into the ground where they can contaminate the local water supply. I’d never heard of reverse boring before Irada, and it’s not until the very end of the film that someone mentions that the process is illegal, which explains Paddy’s willingness to protect his secrets at any cost.
Paddy’s henchman, Jeetu (Rajesh Sharma), kidnaps an activist named Anirudh (Nikhil Pandey), triggering a series of events that exemplify the director’s tendency to forget that the audience doesn’t know her characters as well as she does. A journalist named Maya (Sagarika Ghatge) throws mud at Paddy during a speech. Someone watching the speech remarks that she and Anirudh are an item. This is followed by Maya wistfully remembering the romance she shared with Anirudh, in song form. We don’t know Maya or Anirudh well enough to care about them after seeing each of them in one brief scene, so a boring love song feels like time-wasting.
Arjun the federal inspector finally joins the story after Paddy’s plant explodes, the result of tampering from within. Ramandeep the politician wants Arjun to resolve the matter quickly, promising him a promotion if he does and reassignment to the dangerous hinterlands if he doesn’t.
Arjun’s character is initially all over the place. He condescendingly dismisses Maya’s offer to help, but he grills Jeetu based on minimal evidence. Arjun’s wall is covered in maps and photos linked together by pieces of string, in front of which he paces while blindfolded. Curse the BBC’s Sherlock for influencing every screenwriter since to make their detectives “quirky.”
In one unintentionally funny scene, Arjun deciphers a coded message about the explosion. He determines that the word “players” in the cryptic couplet refers to the number of competitors per team. He muses (incorrectly): “Volleyball has five players. Basketball has six players.” Cracking the code apparently depended on the solver not knowing the rules for sports, as Arjun arrives at the right answer.
When Arjun finally meets Parabjeet just before the midpoint, the movie gets really good, and it stays that way through the end. Parabjeet’s personal trauma opens Arjun’s eyes to the extent of the environmental tragedy, forcing the ambivalent bureaucrat to decide if it’s time for him to finally take a stand. Warsi and Shah are great in their scenes together, recreating their chemistry from the Ishqiya films.
With the story rolling, Singh gets great performances from the rest of her talented cast, including Sharma as the twitchy henchman and Ghatge, who handles the movie’s most thrilling scenes. It’s worth reiterating just how fun Dutta is as the entitled politician who’s too secure in her own power. Top-notch acting makes Irada worth a watch.