Director: Pranay Meshram
Writers: Pranay Meshram, Gunjan Saxena, Ayush Tiwari
Cast: Nushrratt Bharuccha, Nishant Dahiya, Tsahi Halevi, Amir Boutrous, Rajesh Jais
Duration: 127 mins
Available in: Theatres
Akelli stars Nushrratt Bharuccha as Jyoti Arora, a Punjabi woman who gets abducted by ISIS insurgents when they seize the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014. Jyoti is months into her new job as a supervisor at a garment factory during the siege. She has, by then, fallen for her sweet Pakistani manager Rafique (Nishant Dahiya), while her old mother and teenage niece back home are under the impression that she’s working in Muscat. Of course, that’s not all. Given that this is a very fictional movie about an Indian trapped in a war-torn land, Jyoti is not simply abducted and enslaved. She must also pursue an unlikely quest for freedom. The good news is that no hero or politician rescues her. The bad news is that Jyoti rescues herself single-handedly, which means that all the bullets and bearded baddies are far less competent than the film would like us to believe.
Formally, Akelli is a survival thriller that behaves like an actioner. It wants to look real and gritty, but it also wants to be exciting and exploitative. It has that dull, dusty visual filter reserved for stories based in the Middle East. It milks every moment of violence and brutality. A villain sucks on a lollipop so that we sense how sexually twisted he is. Jyoti’s make-up stays immaculate despite all the tears and hellish abuse.
A typical ‘Welcome to Iraq’ moment features a horrified Jyoti witnessing a little girl being blown to bits in the middle of the street. The scene in isolation is tense and well-constructed; there’s an explosive belt, a bomb disposal expert, a timer and a wailing mother. But in a larger context, it’s lazy storytelling – Jyoti is traumatised for a few days, but a romantic song emerges out of nowhere to show that her new home isn’t so bad after all. The narrative shortcuts are jarring, an attempt to compress Jyoti’s against-all-odds journey into a 127-minute drama.
The film opens with an impressive shot that snakes out from a basement through the window grill towards an aerial view of the ISIS hideout. I also like that a quivering Jyoti doesn’t look capable of doing what she does; her bravery is desperate and accidental, save a few defiant-captive moments where her initiative becomes an extension of human instinct. There’s some technical ambition here, except the writing (coupled with Bharucchha’s over-the-top performance) rarely allows the film to transcend its own genre baggage. Her time is dotted with bullets that contrive to miss her and men who make the worst decisions around her. Not to mention the subtext, where a colleague randomly advises her to return to her “tarakki karta hua khushal mulk” (developing, prosperous country) on the morning of the siege.
The biggest problem with Akelli is that it plays out like a video-game obstacle course. We get that Jyoti’s escape isn’t easy, but the film looks like several disparate movies stitched together with no connective tissue in between. The first one involves her miraculously surviving the lollipop-sucking Wahaab and his men. Instead of being executed, however, Jyoti is taken to the palace of Wahaab’s boss (Tsahi Halevi), a man who decides to make her one of his burqa-clad wives. The idea is that her beauty is deceptive; they expect her to be subservient and convertible.
Once Jyoti breaks out again (don’t ask how), the film becomes a road movie that takes a detour (an Iraqi soldier betrays her) until she reaches the safety of a Kurdish military camp. Akelli pretends to end here, but then a training-montage anthem triggers a new heist challenge – Jyoti must be smuggled out of Iraq with a little help from her government. She must do an Argo (2012) and The Last King of Scotland (2006) in an extended airport sequence that feels like the climax of an entirely different story. Again, these scenes hold up as set-pieces, but they also unfold as if Jyoti is in danger for the first time. There’s no emotional continuity in terms of her ordinariness and accumulated trauma, so much so that when Rafique returns as an ISIS recruit, the film treats him as if no time has passed. These little details matter, especially because the script views Jyoti’s trek as a plausible one.
While the action is watchable, Jyoti’s job-finding flashbacks as well as the political chaos in Delhi – where Jyoti’s mother joins relatives of Indian nurses stranded in Syria – are painfully derivative. Hollywood titles aside, Hindi films like Airlift (2016), Baby (2015), Khuda Haafiz (2020), The Kerala Story (2023) and even (the airplane climax of) Shiddat (2021) come to mind for all the wrong reasons. But there’s also a sense of relativity at play here. The bar is so low right now that Akelli feels middling by virtue of not being too tasteless. In a previous era, I’d have stated that it could have been better. But today, I believe it could have been worse.