Well, this was a pointless movie! As in, the whole plot happens, and then you realize at the end “wait, that had no effect on anything”. Not in a clever ironic way, but like the scriptwriter didn’t think it through. And that’s on top of the themes and characters just not being what they promised to be. (no spoilers review here)
Whole Plot in One Paragraph:
The movie uses a lot of fancy editing to make this feel kinetic, but I am just going to tell it straight. An elite secret black ops army team realizes one of their members, Sidharth Malhotra, has gone missing. His girlfriend Rakul Preet Singh is missing too. We the audience see Sidharth doing surveillance and listening in on a conversation where the chief of the army is threatened by Kurud Mishra, ex-general, that if he doesn’t buy overpriced weapons Kurud will reveal the existence of the illegal black ops group. Sidharth then calls Rakul, confirms he will see her in London, calls Naseeruddin Shah who he has hidden away in a hotel and tells him not to talk to anyone, and then starts listening to the recordings he has stolen from the server room of the secret black ops team. Kurud meanwhile goes to a female reporter and offers her the black ops story so that they can work together to get the army chief he wants in place and the current honest one fired. The army chief meets with Manoj Bajpai, head of the elite squad, to warn him that on Monday the story will break and they will all be out of jobs. Manoj realizes Sidharth must be the one who is leaking to the press and follows him to London. He goes to Anupam Kher, a local fixer, for help finding Sidharth. And finally he goes to the all powerful arms dealer who is controlling everything Adil Hussein and asks him to have his men kill Sidharth. Sidharth escapes them, but Manoj tracks him and Rakul (a hacker) down. Sidharth offers a deal, he and Rakul can go free and he will give Manoj a story. He gives him Naseeruddin Shah, who tells a very long story that boils down to the army turning a 6 story building for widows and orphans of soldiers into a 31 story luxury high rise. Manoj takes this story to the same female reporter and trades it for the story about their unit. Kurud Mishra kills himself when the story breaks. Manoj and his team are released and go back to work. Sidharth considers working for Adil Hussein (maybe?) but instead decides to remain a free agent.
Was that confusing to read? It was even more confusing to watch!!!!!! Because if you untangle the list of things that happen, you will realize that none of it actually mattered, or made sense. I’ll start with the simplest one. Right at the end, we finally hear Naseeruddin’s story, after it being teased for ages. His story is that he was a watchman, he helped a sick dog, he started feeding street dogs, and then his dogs were beaten by the army and sent away which made him angry, so he started protesting this illegal building and was about to be interviewed by the TV news about it when Sidharth stopped him and said he was in danger and took him to this hotel. And then, 4 days later, he is interviewed and his story goes on TV and that’s the end of the movie. So, this entire 4 day period that the movie is showing, brings us back to where we started. Naseeruddin was going to go on TV and tell his story. And then he did. Nothing that happened in the intervening 4 days changed any of that. The entire narrative was meaningless.
(Dog’s are cute though. And part of his story is helping the first dog who was dying and then the vet gave him a shot and he was cured. Which I knew all about because that is the exact thing that happened with the dog I am currently fostering! So that was exciting for me. Heartworm: it’s a thing)
You could say “well, what matters is that the character’s changed inside”, but that also didn’t happen. The characters make no sense. Not in a fun silly “they aren’t supposed to make sense” way, but that the character development is there, only it is completely illogical.
I’ll take the romance as an example, because it is a simple contained story. Sidharth needs to learn hacking for a mission, so Manoj tells him to find a hacker “a woman, who lives alone with no family” and learn it. Rakul meets Sidharth when he is pretending to be a businessman looking for an experienced computer hacker type to help set up security for his new bank. They start to date, she falls in love with him, and then he catches her taking a photo of him and is upset. She is embarrassed. And then when they are at dinner, he leaves his wallet on the table with his army ID card falling out and she learns his real identity. She is upset. The next day, she comes home to find him waiting in her apartment. He tells her with tears in his eyes that he never meant for her to care for him, and also he is questioning everything he thought he believed in and if the Army he is fighting for is worth fighting for. And then we jump to the “present” and learn that the rest of his squad thinks of her as his girlfriend and assumes they will go on the run together because they are in love. When??? Where??? How???
(Beginning becoming friends part in this song kind of works, but then how does this jump to “I am going to give up my life and go on the run with you” in like a two week period?)
This could so easily make sense, if it was just slightly different. I’ll start with a basic illogic. Sidharth is supposed to be sincerely surprised and upset when he realizes Rakul has fallen in love with him. But, presumably the reason Manoj ordered him to find a female hacker instead of a male one was so that she WOULD fall in love with him as part of the mission. All you have to do is take a moment to look at those two scenes in the script and either add an acknowledgement to the later one that Sidharth was trying to make her care for him as part of the mission and feels bad, or in the earlier one remove the “should be a woman” line and just leave it at “should be lonely and vulnerable and want a friend”. Heck, it could even be more interesting if Rakul had a gender neutral name and Sidharth was expecting a male hacker who he could befriend, and was surprised it was a woman. And then he had to complete the mission anyway and was surprised when they fell in love instead of just being friends as he was expecting.
The other problem, and this is a consistent problem, is that the timeline doesn’t work. Like I said, in the “present” Rakul and Sidharth are accepted as boyfriend-girlfriend. But we also learn that his moment of disillusionment happened just a month and a half earlier. And it would have been sometime after that that he had the meeting with Rakul and admitted he was a soldier and that he didn’t mean for her to fall in love. So, in the past month, she went from being a “mark” who he was only seeing professionally, to being a “girlfriend” who everyone knew about and accepted? And THAT wasn’t a red flag for the team, that he had fallen in love with one of his marks?
Just for comparison, I’m going to bring up one of the many many better done spy stories that this film is clearly imitating, the BBC show MI5/Spooks. In the first season (and I think the best season) of that show, our hero is the second in command of an elite team who infiltrate and spy and prevent attacks and so on. And he has a girlfriend who he met during a mission. Only his mission wasn’t to turn her or seduce her or anything, they just met while he was pretending to be someone else, and then started to date like normal people do except that he was using a false name and false job until the relationship got really serious and it was time to tell her the truth. And all of this is discussed between our hero and other characters he works with so the audience is clear on the timeline and that he is only lying to her about the one thing and so on and so forth. It’s a clever idea, a spy who falls in love with a normal person while on a mission, but you have to execute it correctly, or else the emotional journey just falls apart and makes no sense.
(It’s on Hulu! Watch it!)
Oh, and we also have to ignore the rampant misogyny in how Rakul is presented. First, if she is a female hacker I guess she will be more vulnerable and suggestible. Because she is a woman. Second, all the awesome things she knows how to do as a woman, Sidharth can learn them from her in no time at all because he is a man so he is clearly smarter. They aren’t going to actually hire her to hack, just to teach Sidharth everything she knows in like a month. Third, her only character trait is “shopping”. She impresses Sidharth when they first meet by hacking into his computer in order to use his bank card to buy clothes. In London, everyone agrees she will be easy to track down because of course she will go shopping on Oxford Street, and later Sidharth jokes about how they couldn’t find her because he convinced her to give up shopping. WHO SHOPS THAT MUCH????? It’s misogyny to the point of being a weakness, you can’t have all your brainless female stereotypes combined with a character that you establish as a “brilliant hacker”. You also can’t establish a character as a “brilliant hacker” and then have her never do anything with her skills. The only contribution she makes to Sidharth’s mission is to open a bank account and call some people on his behalf. I kept waiting for her to brilliantly break into something or save him from a security system or ANYTHING. But no. They wrote “hacker” into the script, but then their minds still couldn’t compute a woman as anything but a shopping machine who screams when in danger.
The biggest problem of course is with our central characters, Manoj and Sidharth. I know what the film was meant to be telling us through them, because it is something I have seen many times before and it is indeed an interesting question. Manoj believes in following orders and changing the system from within. Sidharth believes that the system is broken and by remaining within it, he is helping to perpetuate it. Sidharth has gone rouge because he no longer had faith in what he was fighting for. Manoj has to track him down. Even though they are on opposite sides at this moment, ultimately they have more in common than different, both patriotic, both smart, both brave, etc. etc. The question is, who is right? Sidharth for working outside and trying to bring down the system, or Manoj for working inside it and having faith in the good parts?
That’s what this story is meant to be. But it completely falls apart in the execution. I’ll give you a simple example. We hear several times that Sidharth lost all faith in the system a month and a half ago. After that, he started authorizing wire taps and surveillance without telling Manoj and building this plan. Setting aside the fact that his plan is never fully explained, in terms of his character the important part is WE NEVER SEE THE MOMENT HE LOST FAITH!!!!! It’s the KEY moment for his character and the film, and we never see it. What happened? Why? How did he feel? Did he struggle before deciding to fight against the system instead of within it? Did he initially consider going to Manoj (his superior officer) and then something happened to make him lose faith even in that? It’s just a shocking omission and it destroys any ability in the audience to relate to or understand one of our two main characters.
Sidharth is supposed to be a puzzle to us, as he is to Manoj. We know he has left his life behind and is on the run, we know he is feeding information to the “bad guys” and making them pay for it, but we aren’t sure if he has a bigger better plan in place or what his end goal is. That’s all fine. Let the audience puzzle it out and try to understand. But at some point, reveal the plan to us!!!! Let us know, once and for all, what happened. Even worse, don’t throw the tearful confession to Rakul in less than halfway through the film, so we kind of know he is “good”, and then go back to the point of making us puzzle it out.
Here’s how this film should have played out. We should see Sidharth on the run, making deals, getting Rakul to help him. We should be unsure if he cares about anything, even Rakul, or if he is just using them all. We should understand that he learned corruption ran rampant in the army but we shouldn’t know if that made him turn cynical and amoral or if it made him an avenger. And then at the end everything should come crashing down perfectly all at once, the stories leaking, the information being passed to the right sources, and so on and so forth, at which points he leaves a message for Manoj explaining everything complete with a flashback for the audience of the moment of betrayal, going to Manoj for help and realizing Manoj was too loyal to deal with this level of betrayal and Sidharth should go out on his own, setting up his wire taps and surveillance, getting Rakul’s help to get the information together, pretending to be a traitor in order to throw people off the scent, and then finally performing his act of justice on the corrupt ones before riding off into the sunset with Rakul (thereby also telling the audience definitively that he really did love her).
It’s not a hard structure to manage, it’s kind of the standard structure for this kind of film. Think of the new Don, or Gabbar is Back, or any number of other films. Keep the audience guessing just like our point of view character (in this case Manoj), and then reveal the character motivations in a massive flashback right before the end. Heck, this is what Sidharth JUST did in Ittefaq! And it was brilliant, to have this handsome perfect clean looking young man and keep the audience guessing what he really felt and thought until the very end.
(Ittefaq!!!! SO GOOD!)
In this case, Sidharth did everything he was meant to do, but the script around him let him down. His character isn’t supposed to be easy to read or emotional or any of those things, and Sidharth wasn’t. But the script was supposed to help him, to let the audience see the “real” person at some point. It even had these little flashback moments, characters were constantly saying “let me tell you a story”. But none of the stories helped to illuminate anything, they were just detours to distract us from the lack of plot.
Manoj Bajpai is a better actor but he also struggled with the script. His character changed scene by scene from being angry and upset at Sidharth’s betrayal, to being worried about his team being burned and discredited by the media, to being cocky and cool and confident. Oh, and then way at the end he meets the female reporter to hand off the (not very interesting) Naseeruddin Shah tape and it is implied that they used to date. Which comes completely out of nowhere and Manoj has to somehow find a way to play that scene so that it isn’t ridiculous for the same random female reporter who Kurud Mishra was going to use to also have a connection with Manoj.
And then there’s the central story, the big scandal that will take down the government blah blah blah. And it’s about a housing complex that is being overbuilt and oversold? I don’t know about you, but I am cynical enough at this point that I just assumed any public housing complex in India is going to be overbuilt and oversold!!!! Plus, Naseeruddin is revealing the “truth”, but isn’t a 31 story building kind of hard to hide? Do you really need a special informant to break that story? It’s just lazy. It feels like they couldn’t figure out anything really exciting so they just took the first idea they had and went with it.
This whole film feels like they took the first idea and went with it. I could go on and on, I haven’t even touched Adil Hussein’s “terrible industrialist oh wait he’s not that bad or maybe he is I’m not sure and now he is never seen again” character. Or how Pooja Chopra in just a few scenes is immediately more interesting than Rakul Preet our supposed “heroine”. Or how Sidharth Malhotra in disguise always just looks like Sidharth Malhotra. But what’s the point? I’ve already wasted 3 hours of my time on this movie, why waste any more.