Tag Archives: Kabir Khan

Movie Review: Phantom (2015)

Phantom2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Phantom is a revenge fantasy inspired by the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. As political wish-fulfillment, the movie is entertaining enough, but it isn’t truly satisfying.

Phantom opens with a short primer on the attacks that includes harrowing actual news footage. Then the film’s hero, “Jude” (Saif Ali Khan), makes his entrance in unheroic fashion. He engages in a road rage car chase through Chicago that ends in him punching a man who falls to his death in the Chicago River.

“Jude” is an alias of Daniyal Khan, a dishonorably discharged Indian Army officer on a secret mission to assassinate the four masterminds of the 26/11 attacks. His mission first takes him to London, where he meets his contact, Nawaz (Katrina Kaif).

Nawaz has a complicated job description. She works for the not-so-subtly-named US military contractor Dark Water, coordinating security for refugee camps run by Medicine International, who she may also work for.

Daniyal kills the man Nawaz is hired to identify — a high-ranking terrorist trainer — and she is furious for being dragged into his deadly scheme. Still, when she gets a coded phone call from Daniyal, she agrees to help him in his next mission: exterminate David Coleman Headley in jail in Chicago.

While Daniyal receives off-the-record assistance from India’s intelligence agency, their counterparts in Pakistan conclude that the deaths of such prominent terrorists are connected. The Pakistani agents try to identify the man responsible, but Daniyal is always one step ahead of them.

Phantom has an apt tagline: “A story you wish were true.” The notion of one man, freed from political constraints, taking out not one, but four of the most wanted terrorists in the world is immensely appealing. Getting to join him for the ride — with all its accompanying car chases, fist fights, and espionage — makes it even better.

Still, there’s a nagging feeling throughout the film: it couldn’t happen like this. It took ten years and a whole team of US special forces soldiers to kill Osama Bin Laden. One guy with no advanced military training taking out four terrorists in the span of a few months?

It all comes too easy for Daniyal. His most perilous moments consist of him bobbling something in his hand and being delayed by a stalled auto-rickshaw. There’s no one on the ground tracking him; the Pakistani agents gather their information on him remotely. As a result, the movie lacks tension.

Director Kabir Khan wisely resists forcing a love story into the narrative. Daniyal has bigger fish to fry, and Nawaz is rightfully wary of him. Focusing on the two leads as professionals, not lovers, also frees Khan and Kaif to give grounded performances.

One other performance needs special acknowledgement. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays the Indian intelligence officer who masterminds the mission, deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award for persevering in the face of nonsense. This time, he’s forced to give a corny speech, urging Indian naval officers to pluck up their courage and buck orders for the sake of this one man — this one man! — who was willing to risk his life for India.

Ayyub’s speech is part of a third act that is cheesier than the rest of the film. Fortunately, Director Khan ends Phantom on a contemplative note that befits the seriousness of the events that inspired it. We can wish for an easy path to justice, but we can never take it lightly.


Movie Review: Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015)

BajrangiBhaijaan3 Stars (out of 4)

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Salman Khan tones down his tough guy persona to play a naive but principled man in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. His performance is a much appreciated reminder that Salman is capable of delivering more than just punches and kicks.

The opening credits roll over gorgeous footage of the snowy mountains of Kashmir, establishing that this is more than the story of one man, and that it takes place in a world grand enough to make any individual seem small. Throughout the film, director Kabir Khan shoots characters from high vantage points in order to emphasize how small they look in the greater scheme of things.

The mountainous terrain in the opening credits is home to Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra), a six-year-old Pakistani girl who can’t — or won’t — speak. Her mother takes Shahida to pray at an Indian shrine renowned for curing muteness. On the ride home, precocious Shahida gets off the temporarily stopped train to help a lost lamb. The train restarts suddenly, leaving Shahida on the Indian side of the border with no identification or ability to communicate.

Shahida’s curiosity draws her to a festival where she watches Pawan (Salman Khan) lead the dancing. Although he doesn’t know how to help her, Pawan can’t bring himself to abandon the little girl. Since she can’t tell him her name, he calls her Munni and brings her to the family home of the woman he loves, Rasika (Kareena Kapoor Khan).

Pawan isn’t perfect. He’s neither book smart nor street smart, and he’s trusting to a fault. He’s also unsure if aiding Munni is his responsibility. Yet his honesty and sense of duty inspire others to help him, despite their own cynicism.

Pawan’s trusting nature becomes a source of jokes after he meets a freelance reporter named Chand Nawab (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). With Pawan’s plan to return Munni to her family stalled, Chand enlists Munni to pull off some tricks that will help them progress. Even at 6, Munni is more savvy and morally flexible than Pawan.

Director Khan trusts the audience to get why the jokes at Pawan’s expense are funny. He allows his moral of empathy across national and religious boundaries to develop without wacky sound effects or overly emotional musical cues.

Yet Khan abandons that approach in favor of a corny, populist climax. Various individuals assist Pawan and Munni in order to make the point that there are generous people of every creed, caste, and nationality. Instead of trusting the audience to understand that the helpful individuals are representative of a larger body of good people, the outcome of Pawan’s mission hinges on thousands of people gathering en masse. It’s cheesy and unnecessary.

Leading up to the climax, Khan also employs a variation of the overused “man on the street” Bollywood trope: the viral video. People all over India and Pakistan gather around mobile phones and laptop screens to watch a video Chand Nawab posts to his blog.

There are two problems with this trope (besides the fact that we have no reason to care what any of these random people think). First, this is not how videos become viral. Links are disseminated electronically, and individuals watch them alone, not gathered together as if listening to a World War II radio report in the 1940s.

Second, a human interest news piece about a good Samaritan helping a lost child is not the kind of video that goes viral. “Gangnam Style” goes viral. “What Does the Fox Say?” goes viral. Most people don’t fervently refresh awaiting a call to civic action.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan features one of the most nuanced characters Salman Khan has played in years. Pawan undergoes a compelling transformation when he realizes he can’t trust anyone else to care about Munni’s safety as much as he does. Salman and Nawazuddin make a much better pair of on-screen buddies than one would expect. Kareena’s Rasika is wise, but not so cynical that she can’t appreciate Pawan’s innocent worldview.

Little Harshaali does an admirable job, especially given the physical limitations of her character. Munni seems like a very real kid: too curious for her own good, but also smarter than adults might give her credit for. That Harshaali is cute as a button certainly helps, too.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan is among the best kind of Salman Khan films. He gets to beat up some bad guys, as we’ve come to expect, but his character grows and changes. One need not be a hardcore Salman fan to enjoy this movie.


Movie Review: New York (2009)

newyork3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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In 2007, FBI agent Roshan (Irrfan Khan) tasks Indian immigrant Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh) with spying on his college buddy, Sam (John Abraham), whom The Bureau suspects of being a terrorist.  The job forces Omar to deal with his feelings for Maya (Katrina Kaif), another friend from college whom he hasn’t seen since September 11, 2001: a day that changed the friends’ lives forever.

Relative newcomer Mukesh capably carries the weight of the film as Omar, even playing opposite superstars like Kaif and Abraham. The plot is detailed enough to make it a believable spy thriller, but never loses focus on the story of love and friendship at its core.

New York has the extra responsibility of addressing a sad truth. Hundreds of Muslim men were arrested by the FBI in the days after 9/11, abused and detained for months in the U.S. before being released without charges (the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on the related case of Ashcroft v. Iqbal). Writer Aditya Chopra and director Kabir Khan handle the subject compassionately, and yet with an objectivity I’m not sure most American filmmakers would be capable of, less than eight years after 9/11.

An American film would likely err on the side of either über-patriotism or empathy for those whose situations have driven them to violence. New York deftly avoids this by aligning itself against both extremes.

The film condemns the zeal and prejudices which led American law enforcement agents to target Muslims and men of Arab and South Asian descent. But the movie is no kinder to those ex-detainees whose desire for revenge against their captors might lead them to terrorism. Chopra & Khan’s ultimate message is that the cycle of revenge traps us all in the past.

The movie contains some graphic scenes of torture. Also, theater websites incorrectly list New York‘s runtime as 1 hr. 48 min.; it’s closer to 2 hrs 30 min.