At least twice in D-Day, Rishi Kapoor’s character Goldman utters the phrase, “Everyone has a price,” as movie villains are wont to do. He fails to heed another truism that the Indian spies pursuing him know all too well: there’s a limit to every person’s utility. Reach yours, and you become expendable.
D-Day introduces the arms dealer Goldman at the start of his reign of terror in 1993. Twenty years and several hundred dead bodies later, India finally gets its chance to nab Goldman at his son’s wedding in Pakistan. India can’t afford to mount the kind of raid the Americans used to catch Bin Laden without risking all-out war, so Chief of Intelligence Ashwini (Nassar) — who’s days away from retirement, naturally — activates a sleeper agent he placed in Karachi years ago.
The agent, Valli (Irrfan Khan), has spent years establishing a life in Karachi, complete with his own barber shop, a wife, and a son. When called upon to do his duty for his country, he’s assisted by three other agents: explosives expert Zoya (Huma Qureshi), getaway driver Aslam (Aakash Daahiya), and cagey mercenary Rudra (Arjun Rampal).
The film shows the crew’s exciting capture of Goldman early on, before backtracking to their initial meeting. Events catch up to Goldman’s capture at the halfway point in the film and proceed from there. Predictably, things don’t go as smoothly as planned.
Even though D-Day contains certain clichéd spy-movie elements — the raid that doesn’t go as planned, the retiring chief — the movie is so well-constructed that it reminds us why those clichés exist. The chief is under a time limit; he has to see this through before he loses his power. If Goldman is captured without incident, there’s no second half to the movie.
D-Day so carefully executes the formula that the audience has come to expect that it’s able to turn some of those expectations on their heads. For example, the movie subverts the kind of romantic song-break familiar to Bollywood fans. Lovers stare longingly into each others eyes while romantic music plays, only one of the lovers is in the process of being brutally victimized by a third party. It’s so damned clever yet completely moving at the same time, that I found myself crying even while my jaw gaped in astonishment.
There’s not a bad performance in the bunch, but Irrfan and Rampal deserve special plaudits for their tense rivalry. Valli’s struggles with the fact that his loyalty to India could cost him his wife and son provoke the ire of misanthropic Rudra, who only begrudgingly accepts that he needs Valli’s knowledge of the local terrain.
D-Day also has a couple of strong female characters, and not in the current Hollywood sense of “strong” meaning a woman who is able to physically overpower men. Qureshi gets to do a bit of fighting, but her strength lies in keeping the crew on task while coping with fears that she’ll never see her husband again. Shruti Haasan has an important role as Pooja, a prostitute whom Rudra shacks up with to save money (rooms in Karachi brothels are apparently more affordable than hotels). Pooja knows Rudra will leave her like every other man she services does, but her eyes give away the faintest hint of hope.
While D-Day is an all-out entertaining spy thriller, it’s aware of the nuances of Pakistani-Indian relations. It makes it clear that victim-aggressor status is fluid and subjective, and it gives credit to the intelligence agencies of both countries for knowing that as well. When war is always a possibility, sometimes allowing your opponent to save face is the most prudent course of action.