I have been avoiding this movie because I have a complicated relationship with Kamal (like him as an actor, don’t like him as a writer), and I was afraid I would hate it and then you would all be mad at me. But turns out, I liked it!
The main reason I was avoiding this movie is because I have serious issues with Hey Ram and I didn’t necessarily want to revisit Kamal’s perspective on religious violence. But the thing is, Hey Ram came out in 2000 and Vishwaroopam came out in 2013. That gives Kamal 13 years to come to a different understanding of religious issues, and just generally a greater maturity in how he sees the world. I am certainly a lot wiser and have a deeper understanding than I did 13 years ago, why should Kamal be any less than me?
And the world moved forward as well. In 2000, when Kamal made Hey Ram, the Gujarat riots hadn’t happened yet, America hadn’t gone to war with the Muslim world, it was a different time with different issues. I still don’t like Hey Ram, and someday I may write about it, but I shouldn’t have expected that this film would be the same kind of a movie as that one simply because it shared a star/producer/writer and a topic.
This movie is a very very good thriller. It deals with villains who happen to be partially motivated by religion, but that isn’t why they are villains. They are bad guys because they are bad guys, and the good guys are good guys because they are good guys, and that is how a narrative works. There is even a conscious nod to this idea late in the film, Kamal declaring he is both good and bad, as is everybody, but probably more good than bad. We are rooting for him because he is our hero and that’s really all we need to know.
Heck, even nationalism is rejected! Americans, British, Indians, Afghanis, Pakistanis, they are all good or bad just depending on what side they are on, not their national origins. It’s a strangely cynical film, without being bitter. This is the world it is in and that is okay.
It’s also a very well made film. The action scenes are clear and exciting, the characters are individuals, even in just a few scenes we get a sense of who they are. And the dialogue is great, it’s not just the mindless set-up for action scenes that you get in these films sometimes, it’s actually witty and interesting and I am willing to watch just for that.
Oh, and the cast is also great! Top to bottom. Even the psychologist with only one scene is played by Zarina Wahab. And for the American wife, they made an effort to find an Indian-American actress Pooja Kumar with a solid resume behind her, instead of just bringing in either a random new face or an Indian actress to struggle with an American accent. White Guy was a real White Guy Actor, with BBC roles on his resume. And Shekhar Kapur was there too, who is not really an actor, but is one of the greatest living Indian directors, so I will allow it.
For everybody, they hunted down someone with actual skills and talents, and also someone who best matched their particular character. A real Indian-American woman to play an Indian-American, Rahul Bose to play a north Indian, a real British actor to play a British person, and so on and so on. Just like the effort to use real sets and clothing and everything for the non-India scenes, they also used real people for the characters.
(Former Miss India USA in fact!)
As a film, setting aside any “message” part of it, this is the perfect balance. We have to care, but not too much, still be able to enjoy ourselves. So the central plot is ludicrous and knows it is ludicrous. But everything surrounding it feels very real. I can throw myself into this film and enjoy it without being afraid, and also without being distracted by the smaller things that are wrong.
The only small thing that is wrong for me is, as always, Kamal Haasan. Not his performance! He was predictably perfect in every incarnation, a great wide-ranging performance that no other actor could master. No, just the usual “he is the sexiest smartest coolest man alive, all the women want him and all the men want to be him, everyone else makes mistakes but he never does” attitude towards his character/him. But even that was a lot less than usual. Not there in the opening scenes in the present day, and in the past the narrative had a healthy focus on building up Rahul Bose as the villain along with Kamal as the hero, instead of just Kamal-Kamal-Kamal-Kamal the entire time. I didn’t have any moment when I felt Kamal giving into emotions and making us feel them in the audience, instead of rising above them and being better then us lessor humans, but in this film that’s not a bad thing. He’s the action hero, and the action hero is almost always above our petty emotions.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
First thing to know about this narrative, now that I am in the SPOILER section, is that it is a very very well done series of flashbacks and present day. It’s not just that the flashbacks inform our understanding of the characters in the present day, it is that they give us just the right amount of information to understand them for the next series of before flashing back and giving us more information in order to understand the scenes after that. And they manage to build together perfectly, coming to a climax at the same time. Ha, climax! The last scene of the film is Kamal and Pooja Kumar having sex intercut with a massive flashback action escape scene. A little pun.
The first thing we see is Pooja talking to her psychiatrist Zarina Wahab about her marriage. I am not 100% I followed the scene, but I think it is explained that Pooja had an arranged marriage to a nice man who lets her live her own life and continue her fulfilling career but does not excite her at all. She is considering an affair with her wealthy boss, but hasn’t gone through with it yet because she has that much faith in the bonds of matrimony. Even thought (it is strongly implied) she and her husband have never had sex.
And then we meet Kamal. Who could be played as gay, or could be not, he just is what he is, a unique character. He is a graceful and charming dance teacher with a host of friendly happy young female students. He invites his favorite student to stay for dinner, he is making chicken, and at the same time gets a phone call from his favorite uncle, delighted to learn he is in America and insisting he come for dinner as well. Charming, funny, smart, and very comfortable in his own skin. And also with some rather effeminate mannerisms. Honestly, I know a lot of women (most of them bi) who would be super super into this version of Kamal. But I can also understand and respect that Pooja Kumar just feels no attraction for him, likes him as a person but is dissatisfied with him as a husband.
So instead Pooja hangs out with her horrible boss. Slight failure of character here, to make our heroine have suuuuuuuuch bad taste in men. I can come up with an elaborate explanation, that she is so unhappy in her marriage she will leap at anything else that comes along, or that she is subconsciously punishing herself by having an affair with a terrible person, or just generally looking for the thrill of a bad guy to balance her “good guy” husband waiting at home. Anyway, her boss is terrible. He is pushy and insistent and takes her back to his office and casually talks about all the cash payments he accepts from rogue states while she just listens all big-eyed and doesn’t think about what that might mean.
All of this while distrusting her husband, setting a private eye on him and discovering he is secretly Muslim!!!! Which could be handled in a really offensive way, but is not. It’s not that he is Muslim, it’s the whole oddness of him lying to her about his religion, it freaks her out. Also, she is too dumb to consider any super sinister reason for the lies, just jumps straight to “what does this mean for our marriage???? You’ve been lying all along!”
At which point, TWIST!!!! Kamal’s kindly uncle Shekhar Kapur, his favorite dance student Andrea Jeremiah, and his old friend from England Miles Andersson are all a secret undercover spy gang. Their house is barged into by Evil People, Pooja’s boyfriend is killed (good riddance), and Kamal and Pooja are kidnapped. He continues to act unaware and cowardly until Pooja is threatened, at which point he easily disables their kidnappers and his whole personality changes into a confident man of action. He takes her back to their house where they meet up with the rest of the group and Pooja scrabbles to understand.
As Pooja is struggling to figure out who they are and what is happening, we are also flashing back to Kamal’s past, when he was part of a secret cell in Afghanistan. But this does not really help the audience figure him out in the present. He is going by a different name, referring back to a noble “Jihadi” father, and so on. So, is he in the present day still working for them? And he also seemingly sincerely befriends Rahul Bose, a somewhat intelligent and open minded leader, one who is kind to his young son and has no issues with a female doctor, but has learned to pretend issues in order to keep people out of their village by thinking he is an extreme fundamentalist. But he hates America and wants to attack it, and teaches his sons to hold guns instead of become doctors.
In the present, the gang drives through the peaceful suburbs, sneaks in antique shops, has exciting and slightly twisted adventures, thrilling but with a little bit of a wit to them. In the past, it is drone warfare and guns and drama and death. Thank goodness we balance them together, so that the overall effect is of people who contain multiple aspects. Kamal is both the urban sophisticate we see in the present, and the cave dweller in the past. Implying that everyone else in both the past and the present has these two halves, there are no easy answers. This is the kind of thing I found missing in Hey Ram, and am so glad to see here.
Maybe my favorite scene of the film is when they have been arrested after breaking into Pooja’s office and finding evidence of an attempt to build a dirty bomb. The fat stupid white people (like I said, an accurate view of America) are questioning them. Without being too terribly evil, just uninformed. And the female detective asks Pooja “is Allah your God?” To which she says, “No, Allah is my husband’s God,” and then after a pause to show she realizes how silly it sounds, explains “My God has 4 hands”. The interviewer asks something about “then how do you crucify him?” and she pauses again, and says “We don’t crucify him, we throw him in the ocean”. It’s a great little twisted moment of comedy. The film is aware of how silly all these religions are, and Pooja the character is aware enough to see it too. And to accept that any explanation she tries to give this woman of Hinduism isn’t going to help, not because the woman is evil and Christian, but because all religions sound strange when you are first introduced to them.
Religion is a strange thing, and a personal thing, and this film doesn’t shy away from it. Eventually we learn that Kamal was only with the renegades in caves because he was undercover for RAW, helping to find where they were hiding captured American soldiers. A very careful choice of a mission. Kamal was sincerely hurt and unhappy seeing the result of the air strikes he helped coordinate, because he wasn’t there for air strikes, he was there for a rescue mission and the air strikes were an unavoidable side effect. But the more interesting moment, to me, is later when Kamal and his secret ally junior agent are consulting and Kamal says something about how “may Allah forgive them” and the junior agent says “I’m Hindu” and Kamal has this little flicker of a moment as you can see everything go through his head, that he is doing this mission to destroy these men around him, but he shares with them a basic philosophy and understanding of the world and identity that his “partner” does not. It’s not that his patriotism is weakened, or that he has been radicalized, just that strange feeling of having one thing more in common with this group than with his partner, of coming up out of this world where everyone is Muslim to be reminded that in his homeland he is the “other”.
This film also doesn’t shy away from the total cheesy joy of the ridiculous action film. Not only is Pooja falling in love with her husband and completely forgetting her boyfriend in the course of a few hours, Miles Andersson is secretly stabbing someone at an antique shop with a 400 year old knife while a customer browses 10 feet away, Kamal is changing from a long haired loose clothing wearing dance teacher to a short hair tight jeans leather jacket bad guy in 5 minutes (like, why did he even have those clothes in the house?), and culminating in the PRESIDENT OF INDIA personally calling homeland security in New York to have Kamal freed. And then have a friendly conversation with Kamal, because I guess he knows him?
And then there’s our villain. The ideal villain for this kind of film. Rahul Bose believes in violence, and hates America. But he is also a loving father, is not personally offended by the idea of a female doctor (although he pretends to be for his cover), and cares about his wife. He never harms a woman or child, only fellow active fighters. I like that, not because it makes him sympathetic, just because it keeps him at the friendly fun level of villain, not at the disturbingly dark and real level that Sajjad Delafrooz reaches in Tiger Zinda Hai. If our villain is this less poisonous level of bad, I can enjoy the fights and the drama and all of that, instead of being distracted by worrying about the real world and the real people who do these things.
Plus, it’s Rahul Bose! General rule of thumb, the villain has to be at least as good an actor as the hero for a film to work. Otherwise you just get bored during the villainy parts and the whole film falls apart. And Rahul Bose is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo entertaining. I know that, having sat through all of Midnight’s Children in which he and Anupam Kher for 5 minutes at the beginning were the only bright spots.
So we’ve got Kamal and Pooja and the gang running wild through New York in the present, Kamal and Rahul Bose buddying up in a surprisingly non-toxic and hateful extremist Afghanistan hide out in the past, and a nice spattering of action scenes with high quality production values thrown in along the way. I can absolutely see why this was such a big hit. And, assuming the sequel continues to thread the fine line between thrilling and real, I am excited for it too!