Director: Raj Kumar Gupta

Cast: Arjun Kapoor, Rajesh Sharma, Gaurav Mishra

With India’s Most Wanted, director Raj Kumar Gupta does the impossible. He makes suspense look boring. And convoluted. And painfully monotonous, like a Neeraj Pandey thriller on a bad (good?) day. The plot, inspired by true events, revolves around a four-day manhunt for a mysterious terrorist (“Ghost”) by a covert Bihar police outfit in Nepal. But the film is designed in a way that makes us doubt the truth of these events. Which, ironically, is one way to erase – and mock – the legacy of Abdul Subhan Qureshi, the bomb-making terrorist allegedly responsible for serial blasts across India. As if to tell him: “You are a monster so fanatical that you deserve a bad movie about our mission to capture you.”

Maybe the problem is Arjun Kapoor. As Prabhat, the poker-faced (I get the Argo hangover, but at least Affleck directed himself) team leader with a spotless record, Kapoor, not for the first time, employs a stare so vacant and disinterested that everyone and everything in his vicinity is reduced to a head-splitting hamfest in order to compensate for his inertia. He spends most of the film shadowing people that are faster and louder than him – waiting at paan stalls, hiding behind pillars, trying to look as nondescript as a beefed-up movie star with a microphone glued into his ear – while his subordinates warn him in various tones of overstated caution that “Sir, kuch toh gadbad hai”. A backstory (the kind that suits John Abraham heroes: a traumatized ex-commando perhaps, or a numbed loner) might have lent context to Prabhat’s body language. In short, Kapoor’s lack of acting talent here forces the film to act the hell out of every moment.

The first symptom of a desperately paced Hindi movie is its sense of background music. There are times in India’s Most Wanted where the boss (Rajesh Sharma) and his blue-eyed boy are discussing the logistics of a plan, but the score – a string of mismatched melodies that almost parodies the “sur” of every scene – instead suggests a steamy roleplay sequence between a housewife and a plumber. An elevator version of a love ballad dots the urgent montages of Kapoor and his cronies interrogating their way across airy Nepal. A saucy trumpet riff concludes a SUV chase towards the border as if the guards were about to break into a spontaneous burst of topless Samba. If I were to close my eyes and eliminate the dialogue, the film’s soundscape – Amit Trivedi’s bafflingly mediocre tracks and Amitabh Bhattacharya’s kindergarten-level lyrics included – seems to have been composed by instrumentalists who might have instead been asked to musically interpret the gist of ‘India Shining’ campaign videos. There is no other explanation.

There are, of course, the other usual signs. Images of happy people in public places are cut short by a deafening explosion, only for the screen to go black, followed by real stills of the carnage and the lyrical voiceover of an existential terrorist who thinks he is Rumi reborn. In fact, it’s his deep eyes that give him away – in a shot that lasts so long that it begins before the interval and ends a good ten minutes into the second half. When his face is finally revealed, it is interspersed with flashbacks of the same wounded children and dead women from the blast spots to remind us that Kapoor’s pursuit of him was essential to our life. There’s also an entirely futile narrative track of the team shadowing their primary source – a strange Muslim man who seems to have grown up on Dilip Kumar movies – everywhere short of Everest to see if he is legitimate and trustworthy.

All of which is to say that India’s Most Wanted is a tragic waste of its source material. A real-life chase demanded the bare-knuckled Paul Greengrass, Kathryn Bigelow or Delhi Crime treatment. The feasibility of the story itself is the film. But the language it uses – that of Kabir Khan and Neeraj Pandey spy/action dramas – is more suited to the fetishization of a make-believe genre. Almost as if the director doesn’t trust us to understand that capturing terrorists is not a mundane 9-to-5 job. This, however, does sort of explain the coming-of-age soundtrack. Forget finding the bad guys; I hope they found themselves.

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