Director: Neeraj Pandey
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Sidharth Malhotra, Pooja Chopra, Kumud Mishra, Adil Hussain, Naseeruddin Shah, Anupam Kher
If one were to combine all the shots of self-important characters from A Wednesday, Special 26, Baby, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story and Aiyaary walking urgently in varying frame rates, the resulting act of non-violent civil disobedience called the ‘Pandey March’ – a minimum distance of 400 kilometers scored to a deafening background score – might have forced the British to retreat from colonial India far sooner. One can be sure that the auditions of Manoj Bajpayee and Sidharth Malhotra for their roles in Aiyaary, too, took place on a treadmill dialled to brisk-jogging speed – a notch higher than the ones used by Anupam Kher, Akshay Kumar, Taapsee Pannu and Sushant Singh Rajput.
When in doubt – and this globe-trotting script drowns in doubt very often – walk. When not in doubt, walk harder. By the time the camera finishes capturing such business-like strides, the music and stone-faced expressions are designed to convince us that these small steps for man (unless your Naam is Shabana) are giant steps for Bollywood. Some may even believe it. But this brand of filmmaking tends to get insufferable when it becomes obvious that this is just a stylistic ruse to pass off flimsy, wafer-thin writing as a suspenseful, high-stakes cat-and-mouse thriller.
The story isn’t unlike an instalment of a recent Mission Impossible or James Bond franchise: a special agent goes rogue. Unlike its international counterparts, though, this agent – Major Jai Bakshi (Malhotra) – cannot be afforded the label of a “traitor” in the purest sense. His motivation isn’t money, revenge or world domination. In India, it has to be topical. Given that he represents the Indian Armed Forces, throw in the Adarsh Housing Society Scam. And a couple of comically greedy villains (Kumud Mishra, Adil Hussain). Thus, it’s the Indian 2.0 version of rebellion: disillusionment with the system. You can bet Jai has watched A Wednesday umpteen times, except his disenchantment is the kind of emotion that somehow convinces him that leading his enraged mentor on a hopelessly convoluted and over-smart goose chase across continents is far more effective than SIMPLY BECOMING A WHISTLEBLOWER. He is young, he has the dirt on everyone, and yet – yet – the Sidharth Malhotra in Jai makes him prance around airports and London streets in designer outfits and Spy-101 disguises. I’m not sure which is which.
In the context of Pandey’s own universe, Aiyaary is a spiritual sequel to Baby. Again, there exists a covert special task force (called DSD) that operates beyond jurisdictions and laws, meant to thrive as a glorified vigilante squad employed to protect a nation beyond redemption. Nobody trusts the Hindi movie cops anymore – they’re too busy being late, existential, broken and discovering their dark sides. Colonel Abhay Singh (Bajpayee) is the leader of this seven-person outfit. He spends most of his time walking away and to people, swinging between tight anguish and light constipation, taking flights, shooting bullets into heads, being poker-faced, and being angry with Jai for betraying him.
The problem with Aiyaary, as compared to Pandey’s other films, is that even if – this is a big “if” – one were to accept the dog-chasing-its-tail logic, it builds up to a complete whimper of a climax. Irrespective of Baby’s jingoistic overtones, at least there was a sense of purpose and clarity about the Middle-Eastern mission. Here, events seem to be in a constant loop of repetitiveness. Not even the characters in question are sure about their own spaces and grand plans – almost as if the loud score isn’t letting them hear their own thoughts. In the second half, Jai remembers Abhay fondly, and Abhay remembers Jai fondly. The director is justifying his budget fondly, too.
Worse, the same treatment is applied to the film’s mandatory love story – the heroine goes all Shraddha Kapoor (soaking in the rain) on Jai, but in the duration it takes for her to display her glee at droplets of water, a normal person would have overdone the happiness, fallen ill, gotten hospitalized with pneumonia, died, gotten cremated and gotten reborn as a star daughter. At points, even something as remote as tender hand movements and slight smiles are slowed down to serve as a bewildering transition to the next scene.
Take out all the slow-motion saunters, needless flashbacks, timeline jumps and token female representation (either they are taking orders, being fooled, being patronized or being sensationalist news producers) – and Aiyaary isn’t a second longer than 23 minutes.
The director deserves some credit for at least imagining a world in which India has its very own super-cool IMF or MI6 versions. However, I suspect that if Sriram Raghavan’s Agent Vinod (2012) had succeeded, it might have given birth to a different kind of Neeraj Pandey. Its mega failure has perhaps made Pandey so wary of the inherently sophisticated grammar of this genre that he has resorted to oversimplifying, over-humanizing and overstating the living daylights out of his exotic landscape. It’s frustrating to sit through his films, because it’s clear that he is capable of being a crafty and politically explosive mainstream storyteller. Yet, he has chosen a path with sensibilities that have virtually made him the Vikram Bhatt of desi action-spy entertainers.
In that sense, Pandey is the cinematic equivalent of a blow-up photography studio. Because it takes a special kind of talent to take a one-line plot and turn it into a bloated, overpopulated 160-minute espionage saga that refuses to make sense till its dying breath. Take out all the slow-motion saunters, needless flashbacks, timeline jumps and token female representation (either they are taking orders, being fooled, being patronized or being sensationalist news producers) – and Aiyaary isn’t a second longer than 23 minutes.
Incidentally, that’s about as long as it takes for the filmmaker to make a point. For instance, if he wants to depict that a room is warm, he will zoom out to the sun, show the ice at the poles melting, follow the stream of freezing debris till it flows into the ocean, follow the ocean till it narrows into a river that narrows into a stream that flows past the said room. And even throw in a Global Warming sub-plot for good measure. With a pensive-looking Anupam Kher. And the national flag.