As I said in my first two posts (here and here), this is a film that surprised me with it’s quality. Which is part of the reason it is taking me 3 plus parts to finish it! Unlike Wazir, which I knocked out in two (here and here if you are curious).
If you don’t want to be spoiled, but want a sense of what the film was like, you can read the review here. If you have already seen it and want to know in detail what I thought, or if you are eager to be spoiled, Read On!
I left off when Akshay’s wife and daughter had come to visit him at the refugee camp, but his explanation to his wife as to why he feels the need to spend all his time with these people is interrupted by a group of soldiers who storm through, threatening people and taking all the food.
And Akshay’s response is what I find so interesting about this character. Interesting in a “huh, that is really well done!” kind of way. In a different, and lesser, film, he would have turned into an action hero and beaten all the soldiers off. Or given an inspiring speech to bring everyone together afterwards. Or rushed out and begged for food on the streets. All of which would have been very cinematic, but also very out of character for the personality we were first introduced to in the regular life section at the beginning of the film.
What is in character, is what he actually does-go talk to the guy in charge and try to work out a better deal. We go right from the soldiers driving off, to Akshay meeting with the scary General guy and asking what happened to their understanding? The General’s response is to abdicate responsibility, to say that these young men are going to do what they want and there is only so much control he has. Akshay visibly restrains himself from reacting in anger, and instead phrases it as a problem for them both to deal with, that he has these people now who have no food, what can they do about that? And it’s the better negotiating tactic, because instead of getting his back up, the general responds by providing a little information, that officially Baghdad is still at peace with India, and the Indian citizens are welcome to leave whenever they want. Akshay pushes a little harder, asking how exactly they are supposed to leave, and the General offers that he doesn’t know, perhaps he should talk to Baghdad directly about that?
So, we are going to Baghdad! But first, stopping by the refugee camp to check on the food situation. His assistant gives credit to Ibrahim for hiding part of the food, but they still only have enough to last a few more days, the situation is getting desperate. Perhaps because Ibrahim just proved his value, he is called on to travel along to provide support on the trip to Baghdad.
Which leads to a very nice role reversal on the way out of town. Akshay is driving, and Ibrahim asks him to stop by a hospital on the way. Akshay pulls in and parks without question and waits while Ibrahim runs inside. There are soldiers hanging around, wounded men being brought in, it is not a safe place to wait. But Akshay is now in the role his driver was in the beginning, willing to trust his passenger and do what is asked, even if it risks his life.
It’s very important that he is doing this for Ibrahim. Ibrahim is Muslim, implied to be just a manual laborer for one of Akshay’s friends (he was first introduced in charge of loading stock at the grocery store). But in this disaster, he has proven himself to be capable and intelligent and trust worthy. Akshay is fighting against his natural inclination to be in charge and doing him the honor of obeying a personal request, because he has knows he can trust him. It’s not quite the same as his growing ability to identify within the desi community, but it is related. Because of that ability to see people of Indian heritage as his community, he is also able to see that Ibrahim is a stand out member of that community who should be given extra leeway. Also, he is very very attractive (I don’t know if that has any affect on Akshay, but it sure has an affect on me!).
Ibrahim is inside the hospital for just a few minutes, but it is long enough for the soldiers outside to start moving towards the car in a theatening manner. Finally, Ibrahim comes out and gets in and they drive off. But as they leave, they hear shots behind them. And then a truck pulls up next to them with soldiers holding guns aimed in their direction. Akshay briefly pulls ahead of the truck, then it comes level with them again. For almost a minute of screen time, they drive in parallel. And then the truck pulls off. And Akshay and Ibrahim relax.
Again, our main characters are experiencing the danger by driving through it, not on the ground as the many people we continue to see being killed and dragged away are experiencing it. But the enemy is also just driving through sometimes. We have seen trucks like this a lot, with teenage boys on them shooting off guns and yelling out windows, not attacking but observing. And now they have finally noticed their counterpart, the other group of people who are just driving through the danger instead of engaging in it. It’s a stressful, and very well-shot, scene. But it is also a good way of showing how the best protection in a war zone is to just be invisible. As soon as you are noticed, you are in danger. And that the best response is passivity. Similar to the confrontation with the General when you can see Akshay physical reining in his natural instinct to attack and engage, since his ability to read a situation is telling him not to, in this scene his face conveys that the added stress comes from resisting a desire to react in some way, that he knows the best hope is to just keep driving and looking ahead, but he wants to respond.
Character-wise, the whole hospital stop followed by gun confrontation serves to bring Ibrahim and Akshay closer than they would be otherwise. Which allows Akshay to ask him why he wanted to stop at the hospital, a question which just a few minutes earlier would have been too personal and intrusive. Ibrahim responds that he was looking for his wife. And then lays out his situation in a few words. He was married just eight days ago, shortly before the invasion. But the formalities had not been completed (the subtitles were fuzzy here, but my impression is the legal, religious, and practical considerations were all still in process. So they weren’t living together, and they were also only half married in some ways). She is a nurse at that hospital. He has been looking for her where he can, and he just checked at the hospital, they have not seen her since the invasion either. And from the name he gives, I think she is also supposed to be Kuwaiti.
I love this on so many levels! First, just such a different way of drawing a character than the standard Indian style. Rather than being introduced with his full history, background, and so on (like we where with Akshay), and rather than being given an introduction that makes it clear he will be a main character, he was just sort of quietly introduced on the side and slowly became more prominent to us, at the same time he was becoming more prominent to Akshay. Picture how different it would be, for instance, if the first time we saw him at the grocery store, we followed him to the back, where he looked at a photo of his wife and suddenly had a massive flashback song showing their whole relationship and telling us everything about his personality, background, and abilities. It also opens up the idea that all of these refugees we are just watching the background are hiding secrets and pain that we, the audience, may never learn.
And second, I love that this is how we are introduced to the idea of marriages into Kuwaiti society. It’s not a wealthy upperclass person who is forming an alliance with a business partner, it’s a middle-class worker falling in love across ethnic barriers. And we are introduced to his marriage as a fait accompli. There is no backstory of a forbidden romance or passionate elopement. It is just a thing that happens when you live in a place, that you may fall in love with someone else who lives there, and everyone (including Akshay who has no particular reaction to the fact of the marriage beyond sympathy for his current situation) just accepts that as something that happens. Compare it with, for instance, the way Katrina’s romance with a white British lawyer is handled in Namaste London, as something that it never even occurred to her parents might happen, as the end of the world, as something that is a result of her wealthy upbringing since only the wealthy interact with those outside of the immigrant community.
(And it was also an Akshay movie! Enjoy this song, in which he actively protects and promotes his ethnic identity inside of white culture, by singing Punjabi rap in a London nightclub)
The biggest reaction Akshay has to this revalation is to remember his own wife and how lucky he is to still have her, and…..love song! It’s really pretty, both in how it is shot and how it sounds. We see the car driving through vast desserts, occasionally look at the two men inside, and flashback to visions of his wife, as this pretty song plays in the background.
And, Baghdad! Akshay first goes to the Indian embassy, where he is greeted politely by the Indian ambassador, who is watching a Cricket match. While Akshay keeps trying to ask for help, and what is going to happen to all of them stuck in Kuwait, the Ambassador keeps talking about the Cricket match. Okay, this is funny, apparently it was one of Sachin’s first matches and the Ambassador isn’t sure if this new guy is going to be any good for the team. But Akshay keeps pushing, he doesn’t want to talk about Cricket, they need help! Finally, the Ambassador explains, he is talking about Cricket, because there is no help they can give. India doesn’t want to risk offending the Iraqis, and India doesn’t move like this anyway. It’s all politics and bureaucracy. They are on their own. But, the Ambassador can offer his sympathies, and some Iraqi sweet biscuits. Akshay comes back out and Ibrahim asks him what he got, and Akshay offers him a sweet biscuit. Which is funny, but also cool that Ibrahim is confidently asking upfront what happened, because they are equals now.
And then there is a neat scene where we see Ibrahim and Akshay stop for dinner in the Indian neighborhood in Baghdad. Like the scene earlier when Akshay goes to pick up his driver’s wife, this neighborhood isn’t quite Indian, but it is pretty darn close. Little open store fronts, Hindi music playing on speakers, eating samosas and drinking chai. Again, an acknowledgement that the middle east and India have a long and established immigration history, although most Indian films may try to play that down in preference to the relationship with the West.
Next stop is his contact in the Iraqi government. Akshay clearly puts on his businessman attitude in this meeting, it’s interesting. We’ve gotten so used to seeing him interact with his own community, even with the ambassador just now he was looser and more open, but in this meeting he is back to a stiff back and a smooth walk and a sort of confident attitude. Actually, a glimpse of this meeting was used in the trailer as an example of his perfect pre-attack life, because it looks just like a successful and happy businessman rather than a desperate refugee.
(20 seconds in)
And the meeting goes well! The Iraqi official is happy to help, they are still friends with India, in fact India is sending a relief boat called the “Tipu Sultan” shortly, they will unload the food and supplies from that boat, and then his refugees are welcome to ride it back home. Thank goodness! Akshay thanks him, but keeps his excitement inside.
And then we are back at the refugee camp, to wild applause, and bhangra! This, to me, is the scene that comes closest to showing a sense of ethnic community in the group. It has been carefully open before now, the only thing they have in common is an equal sense of being outsiders trapped in between two opposing forces. But now they are all dancing and celebrating together, in a very specific way. Akshay even does a Bhangra move (reminding us that his character is Punjabi for the first time). To offset this massive explosion of cultural specificity, we have a little cross-cultural romance, a Sikh teenage boy starts dancing with the teenage daughter of complainer George, until she is pulled away by her parents. But the implication is, they’ve already liked each other and this might turn into something more, no matter what her parents do.
The celebration goes right into packing, everyone is getting on buses, all excited, when we cut to Kohli’s living room in India. He is calling Akshay from his personal phone (a sign there of how invested he is getting himself) to let him know that the UN has imposed a ban on imports to Iraq, so the Tipu Sultan will be turned away. We actually get to see that, two smaller boats broadcasting orders to turn back to a large freighter. Don’t know if that is stock footage or something they were able to do just for this film, but it does a good job of expanding our sense that the situation is something much bigger and more complex than just the small amount we are seeing with our Kuwaiti refugee camp.
Akshay gets the phone call just as they are loading on to the buses, and for the first time since he thought his wife and daughter were taken, we see him completely collapse. Literally collapse, he takes the phone call standing, and then sinks to his knees with his elbows on the table looking to God for help.
And, Interval! Like the first 20 minutes not really mattering rule, the Indian film structure stands. The Interval comes halfway through the film, and serves to put a period on the first half of the action, before we move on to the second.
Which I am doing right now! Post interval, Akshay has already broken the news, and people are being off-loaded from the trucks. Icky George is complaining. There was a brief scene earlier in the middle of the celebration when George was asking questions, if he got this promise in writing, how many could fit in the ship, if women and children would go first. Now, he is taking this opportunity to point out how right he was, how it all fell apart. Akshay’s chief assistant tries to distract him, but he won’t let it go. Meanwhile, Akshay is leaning against a pillar with his wife and daughter who also came for the evacuation. He has no response to these accusations, looking just too defeated to deal with it. All along, these complaints from George have actually been the hardest attacks for him to handle. Or rather, he hasn’t handled them at all. Akshay is good dealing with primaries, with compromises with those in power. He does not know how to handle the day to day dealings of keeping people happy. Which, again, is very in tune with his character as first established, having no sense of or interest in his daughter’s bedtime so long as it worked with his schedule.
However, just like with his daughter’s bedtime, his wife is there to handle it! This is a pretty basic character movement for her, going from being loving but irritated at the beginning, to actively fighting his increasing devotion to good works just to allow his character to look better in contrast, to finally coming around which again just makes his character look more noble since even his selfish wife recognizes it. It’s also a pretty basic “you say she isn’t a strong female character because she whines the entire time and never does anything? We will put in a big shout-y scene for her!” move. But, the reason people use this, is because it works! And it is super satisfying when she just lays into George (although it also minimizes her a little, since she is only used to defeat this minor threat, not for something like negotiating for food supplies).
Anyway, she lays into him! Tells him that her husband and his family could have left ages ago, but he is staying for these people! That he has no responsibility to them, but there is a “defect in his personality” that it completely changes when there is adversity. That George should be grateful and shut up! Which he does, because she is scary!
But even this support isn’t enough to bring Akshay back up again. Next we see him sitting on the floor of his living room, with his family, the first time he has been shown outside the refugee camp in this segment of the film. Here is what I meant about it being a real second half. The first half was all about getting the refugees together. This half is back to him as a family man as its focus. Anyway, the phone rings, Nimrat answers, and says it is for him and he has to pick up. Ibrahim heard rumors of a boat going out at the docks when he was scavenging for food (again, I really appreciate this vague sense of the constant day to day logistical nightmare, without bogging us down into the details of it all). They want Akshay’s help to talk to the captain. Akshay points out that anyone else can do this, they all have as much authority as him. But, Nimrat points out, he is the best at negotiating, they need him for that. And I, in the audience, go “Aha! That’s what I’ve been noticing! That is really smart and cool that they didn’t feel the need to underline it until now!” I’ve been cheating a little by talking about this through out the summary, but when I was watching it I had a hard time pin-pointing what Akshay’s special skill was supposed to be, since it wasn’t awesome fighting abilities like it usually is. And then Nimrat had that line, and it all fell into place. In a war zone, dealing with fairly powerless people, all they have is their relationships, their oral promises and deals. And that is what Akshay is best at, and that is why he is so important.
(Reminder of how Akshay usually protects the powerless)
So, docks! Again, realizing how claustrophobic it was starting to feel being always trapped in the refugee camp. Which is on purpose, I think. The filmmakers did a really good job of carefully parsing out these bits of scenes outside of the camp, so we still have a sense of the rest of the world going on outside, but also feel how trapped the characters are.
And Akshay does show off his negotiating skills and why he is so good. A little obvious to have it right after Nimrat’s comment, but necessary since it does such work in explaining his character and his position in this new society. The captain of the ship is desi, again we learn that these connections that Akshay scorned are actually what will save him. Akshay is able to negotiate for 500 people at $200 a head to get out. His friend doesn’t think they can do it, but Akshay convinces him to pretend to walk away after they make the offer, which gets the captain to agree. Akshay plays this scene just right, again. He is actually super calm and confident, not like he is pretending to be calm, but like he actually is. Just like his wife said, he is in his element when negotiating and he feels more in control in that arena, than when he is trying to organize food and housing for thousands of people, or answer to their complaints.
I think at this point we take another little break and go back to Kohli in India. Really, the Kohli track is its own film for much of this. I think this is on purpose. They could have tied it in a little more tightly, shown Akshay calling with regular updates and so on. But instead, we have Akshay dealing with a increasingly urgent situation while those in India move on their own track to their own decisions. Which makes it even more of a miracle when (spoiler!) everything comes together at the end.
Kohli is getting more and more committed. He doesn’t have any explicit dialogue about his motivations (unlike Akshay with his “Hum hindustani” “hum log” and Nimrat’s big speech), but it is left to the audience to infer that his father’s reminder that they were once refugees along with Akshay’s constant phone calls are making him care. We saw Kohli earlier try to talk to the Minister for his department, who waved him off. Now, Tipu Sultan has failed, there was a back up plan about possibly being able to get to Jordan, if the details can be worked out. But it would need ministerial approval. So we see Kohli waiting and waiting and waiting in the anteroom of the minister’s office. Kohli is beginning to have a bit of that urgency that Akshay has, but the secretary is still displaying the Indian bureaucratic attitude of no rush. Even answering the phone, she moves her hand slowly over to pick it up. And the Minister definitely does not want to deal with it, he is calling his secretary to find out of Kohli is gone so he can leave for the day without being ambushed. Only, of course, Kohli took the chance while she was on the phone to sneak past the secretary and get in. And then there is a really interesting conversation.
The Minister says, straight out, that the government is tottering, and he may be out of a job at any point. This kind of problem, he cannot deal with. But the bureaucrats will be in office long after he is gone, it is up to them to handle something like this. Kohli takes a moment, and then smiles and says that is all he was waiting to hear, he will take it from here.
Interesting! So on the one hand, until now we have only seen the bad side of permanent bureaucratic posts. No one moves fast or works hard, everyone just relaxes and does the bare minimum. But this scene reminds us of the flip side of that, that they have the freedom to do their jobs how they see fit, even when that may not be the best political move. It’s sort of like tenure in academia. Yes, you end up with a bunch of people who may not care about teaching undergrad classes any more or making nice with the administration. But on the other hand, it is the best way to protect pure research, if they no longer have to worry about their results affecting their jobs.
And I will leave you with that super deep thought! Come back tomorrow (or later today) for the next, and possibly final, part.