3.5 Stars (out of 4)
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Kurbaan, India’s most suspenseful and compelling drama of 2009, stars real-life lovebirds Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan as Avantika and Ehsaan, a pair of professors who fall in love in India. After Avantika gets a teaching job in America, where she has citizenship, the couple marry and buy a house in a New York suburb on a cul-de-sac with other Indian families.
Their new life isn’t as ideal as it first seems. Hindu Avantika (husband Ehsaan is a Muslim) doesn’t fit in with the conservative Muslims in the neighborhood. None of the women have jobs, and some are even forbidden from using the phone.
When one of the women tells Avantika that she’s afraid of her abusive husband, only to go missing the next day, Avantika searches for answers. In the missing woman’s basement, Avantika discovers a horrible secret: her neighbors are terrorists. Worse, Ehsaan is involved.
After her discovery, Avantika’s life becomes a daily fight for survival. She’s forced to question whether she can trust Ehsaan and whether he ever really loved her.
During its most intense moments, such as when Avantika realizes she is surrounded by terrorists (and may be married to one), Kurbaan is heart-poundingly suspenseful. Om Puri is menacing as Bhaijaan, the elder statesman among the terrorists. Because Kirron Kher usually plays doting mothers on screen, she’s especially chilling in her role as Bhaijaan’s wife, Aapa, whose duty it is to keep the women in line.
Kurbaan is also brutal. Deaths are graphic, and there’s a surprising amount of gore for an Indian film. But the violence only serves to make the terrorists, well, terrifying.
It’s important that Kurbaan illustrates that the bad guys are really bad, because the movie explores the issue of why one becomes a terrorist. Instead of religious fanaticism or the vague desire to destroy freedom, Kurbaan‘s characters chose their deadly path in response to personal loss. From this perspective, terrorism looks a lot like vigilantism, only on a massive scale.
But the core of Kurbaan is the relationship between Avantika and Ehsaan. Kapoor is spectacular as a woman whose life has been shattered by lies, but who still feels a need for the man who once made her so happy. And Khan is just as good, playing Ehsaan as a man torn between his love for his wife and his commitment to a cause.
If there’s a weak point in Kurbaan, it’s the subplot involving a reporter named Riyaaz (Vivek Oberoi). Seeking revenge upon the terrorists, he does that which only happens in the movies: he decides not to call the authorities so that he can bring the group down himself, from the inside.
It’s a common plot device, but it’s completely unrealistic. Plus, it works against Kurbaan‘s beliefs about terrorism. Riyaaz opts for vigilante justice, so what makes him more heroic than the men he’s trying to stop? Further, he’s indirectly responsible for more bloodshed than if he’d done what any actual person would have done in his position: called the cops.