This movie released, a few select critics applauded it as one of the best films they had ever seen, and then it disappeared a few days later. I saw it, and I know a few other people here on the blog watched it, and we all think of it as a really remarkably good movie. One of those films you find yourself thinking about at surprising moments. It’s one of Irrfan’s few films where he is good, but the rest of the film lives up to his performance. It’s also extremely sad. Not tragic exactly, just sad. Be warned.
This movie has 3 heroes, Huma Qureshi and Arjun Rampal and Irrfan Khan are equal. And then there is one love interest, Shruti Haasan, and one villain, Rishi Kapoor. Every other Irrfan Khan movie I have seen, I have resented the time spent with other characters. But in this film, I care for all 3 of our heroes equally. The script, the director, and the performances worked to balance them and make them real. The same way Irrfan was always real onscreen, grounded and subtle and clear in his character, that is true of everyone in this film.
That grounded clear sense of character has a purpose here. This is a film about the price of violence and deception. To see the human price, we have to see our heroes as humans. Over the course of the film they each cross a line and lose a part of themselves. In a traditional spy thriller, the part they lose wouldn’t even be present. They would be magical strong untouchable folks, already superhuman. In this film, they are regular people who feel the same things anyone would feel, what you or I might feel, as they do terrible things.
That’s sort of the thesis for this film. What would a spy thriller look like if everyone, the brilliant spy, the action hero, and the femme fatale, were just like us? How does it really feel to seduce a man and have sex in order to get information? Or to know that death follows where ever you go? Or to lie to everyone in your life, even those closest to you, for years?
The “D-Day” of the title is a cheeky reference to Dawood Ibrahim (who this film is clearly about), and also to the deadline for their stressful time sensitive mission. But more than that it feels like the coming storm, the “d-day” for all these people who are trying to maintain a scrap of soul and self in the midst of lying. That ends for them, one by one, over the course of this mission. Their victory is hollow, the whole concept of this sort of mission comes into question, do we achieve anything from it that can possibly justify what was lost?
It’s also a very well-made film! Nikhil Advani directed, his first movie was Kal Ho Na Ho and since then he has shown again and again his knack for complex editing, original visual ways of balancing multiple narrative strands. There are some moments in this film of pure visual imagination (the “Alvida” song in particular stands out). It’s worth watching for that alone, the way he weaves together the whole spy mission, introduces each player, and so on. And then of course all that visual poetry is used to show, without glamorizing anything, the pain of the leads. There is no big fantasy song to show love, instead it is a camera intimately swooping through a red draped room as a woman paints her toenails. To show misery, we have a woman sitting alone in the middle of a hotel room in black listening to a phone ring.
In fact, this is such a good movie that I am telling you NOT to watch it. It’s just sad, and painful, and you will never be able to forget it. Don’t do it to yourself! But if you have already seen it, like me, and the thing is burned into your brain, we should talk about it here.
Also, every place in the world is collecting a list of “best Irrfan Khan movies” right now, and this one should be recognized somewhere, might as well be here. Not nearly as famous, but just as good as anything else he has been a part of.
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I’ll start with the real world thing that this movie is obviously totally NOT about (but is). Dawood Ibrahim was a gangster in Bombay in the 80s, head of a group called “D-Company”. He was wild, killed and threatened and kidnapped anyone who had money, very different from previous Bombay gangsters. And he used some of his money to fund various violent groups all over the globe. In 1994, he helped coordinate a series of bombings in Bombay in retribution for the anti-Muslim Pogrom that the Shiv Sena had organized a few months earlier. And then he fled the country. The Indian secret service and other international groups have been tracking him since then but can’t get enough proof of where he is hiding out to get extradition. This movie is too savvy to use real names, their villain is “Iqbal Seth”, but the title “D-Day” told everyone what they needed to know. In 2012, Zero Dark Thirty came out, and some enterprising person somewhere got the idea of making an Indian version about catching Dawood Ibrahim (except not, just some guy who seemed exactly like him but had a different name). Only with Dawood, the security forces really do know everything about him. It’s not a matter of tracking him down or anything, it’s about finding a window where he is accessible. So this is not a story of years of research and then an elite commando team, this becomes the story of one lucky break from one spy on the ground, and then a tiny three person team taking him out.
It’s also a story that leaves the unspoken question of “why does this matter?” We do know everything about him, his phone is tapped, his contacts are tracked, and so on and so forth. In that case, what is the price worth paying for bringing him back to India? Is it the price of the souls of the team sent to capture him? The lives of everyone they love?
The basic plot of this film could be used for a real shallow popular happy kind of movie. The secret service gets word that Rishi Kapoor (Not-Dawood) is going to be attending a wedding at a particular time and place. Irrfan Khan, deeply embedded Indian spy living as an average man in Pakistan, with a wife and kids who have no idea he is an Indian spy and his whole previous life is made up, is activated as the local contact. Sent in to help him are Huma Qureshi, sophisticated trained high level spy official, and Arjun Rampal, specialist in wet work. Arjun hides out by paying a prostitute Shruti Haasan to let him stay with her and slowly falls in love with her. Huma has a fiance she loves back home, but has to seduce someone to learn the details they need for their mission. After much struggle, they manage to find Rishi and kidnap him from the garage of the wedding. They have orders to take him back to India, alive, to stand trial. He tries to pay them off, to convince them to give up, as they hide out at a house near the border, but they refuse. Finally they cross the line into India, and Arjun goes rogue, drags him out of the car, and shoots him.
What makes this not a shallow popular happy movie is that each of our three “heroes” has a moment where they lose something not worth the price of capturing Rishi. In the end, Arjun kills Rishi in cold-blood because what they did has to mean SOMETHING, just taking him home for a trial isn’t enough to pay back what they lost. And yet after Rishi is shot, they are still broken, there is no vengeance, no healing, just suffering for the tragedies that come from vengeance.
Unintended tragedies, that’s the brilliance of it. Arjun Rampal needs a place to hide out, so he rents a room from Shruti Haasan, a prostitute fallen on hard times after her face was scarred. They are together because of the mission but she isn’t part of the mission really. And it’s not part of the mission for Arjun to start to care for her. And it’s not part of the mission for him to offer to take vengeance on the man who scarred her. And finally, it’s not part of the mission when that man tracks her down again and brutally kills her. Arjun came into her life and death followed, if there had been no mission there would have been no death. Make it broader, Arjun’s training changed him into someone who shows love through violence, who offered to punish the man who hurt her, and therefore lead to her death. Shruti’s death means nothing for the mission to capture Rishi, it had no affect on the outcome, that is the cruelty of it. This kind of life, this kind of world where violence is always the answer, breeds violence everywhere.
Huma’s tragedy is lighter and also more specific. She is intelligent, she plans the mission, she coordinates things. But she is also a woman in a man’s world which means all her intelligence is worth less than a sacrifice of her body. Again, it has little to do with the mission. They could have found another way to get the information if they had a little longer, or worked a little harder. But why work hard when you have a woman to use? So Huma gave her body to a man who disgusted her, and will never feel right again. The silent moment of seeing her in the room not answering the call from her fiance afterwards speaks volumes about the price she paid. And for what? Some minor information that leads to more information that leads to capturing someone? Is it worth it?
Finally, Irrfan. The greatest tragedy, the sorest condemnation of the system in which they live and work. He was sent to Pakistan to be a minor source of information. He was encouraged to marry, to start a life, not to stand out. And now that it is all ending, the best advice his superiors can give him is either to leave his wife and child behind forever, or to rip them from their country and move them to his own. Did no one ever think of the human cost here? Of the wife and child? Of what they were ordering him to do and the tragedy that would surely follow? Of course the movie makes it even sadder than that. His wife and child are arrested, he is told their lives can be saved if he hands Rishi back. Irrfan has one of his great moments onscreen in this scene when we, the audience, sincerely think he might give in, are almost rooting for him to do it. And instead he says that he knows they are already dead. It’s over. Nothing he can do now will change anything. He isn’t going to try to fool himself.
How can this be right? How can it be right for all these innocents to be touched by death just to capture one man? A different film can structure the question so that Rishi is to blame for it all, he brought this violence into his world and therefore all the innocent victims are on his head as well. This film doesn’t do that, this film looks at the bigger question of how can a system, a way of thinking, exist that accepts all of this? How can violence be the answer if it just leads to more violence? At what point do we say that it is simply not worth it?