Director: Razneesh Ghai
Writers: Chintan Gandhi, Razneesh Ghai, Rajiv Menon, Rinish Ravindra, Ritesh Shah
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Arjun Rampal, Divya Dutta, Sharib Hashmi, Saswata Chatterjee
I remember being chuffed with the headline of my Revolver Rani review: Paan Singh Tarantino. There was a cool Walking-Dhulia-Talking-Tarantino ring to it. The Chambal-set 'Spaghetti Eastern' starred a post-Queen Kangana Ranaut doing the rugged cowgirl routine to uneven effect. The film didn't do too well. So eight years on, Ranaut is back with another female-led conquest of a male-dominated action template – except this time, it's Walking-Tarantino-Talking-Tarantino-Sleeping-Tarantino-Smoking-Tarantino. Half of Dhaakad is shot in Budapest, the other half in Bhopal. But the narrative style, treatment and characterization are combed from half a dozen Hollywood female-assassin thrillers, including but not limited to Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow. The listless and derivative action flick is a missed opportunity, because it is centered solely on its brooding super-agent – sans romantic tracks, male saviours and nationalistic fervour – in a film industry that writes women spies as either token eye-candy, supporting acts in a hero story or undercover honeytraps. The intent is correct, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
In Dhaakad – and I'm going to write this review without using the term "badass" – Kangana Ranaut plays Agent Agni (and vice versa), a ferocious one-woman army who slices through hundreds of bad men and sets her sights on the mysterious kingpin of a global human trafficking racket. His name is Rudra Veer, played by the forever-interesting Arjun Rampal with a Joker-meets-Godfather voice and the campy menace of his Ra.One avatar; his partner, Rohini, features a cigarette-chewing Divya Dutta hamming it up with equal ferocity. The film opens with bleak Budapest by night, which reminded me of Force 2, whose antagonist (played by Tahir Raj Bhasin) broke out with Mardaani, a cop-chasing-trafficker drama closest to Dhaakad in terms of premise. I'm not sure why I made that connection, but I just did.
This agent, named after the Hindu fire goddess, is haunted by memories of her childhood, where she saw her parents being murdered by a goon who for some reason sang a nursery rhyme that's stuck in her head. So she spends her nights between missions – one of which involved being ambushed by faceless Hungarian ninjas – drinking, stapling her own (literal and figurative) wounds, smoking, sleeping and pulling out of sex due to deep-rooted trauma. Agni is the archetypically broken action hero, who is then tasked by her stepfather-cum-boss (Saswata Chatterjee) to go to India and gather information on the super-villains. Agni fears India, but she goes anyway, and her first experience out of the airport requires her to neutralize two bag-snatchers with the dexterity of a hip-hop move. This proves that, east or west, she is not to be messed with. A fellow agent (Sharib Hashmi) assists her, but he's really a dead man walking because he has a cute little daughter who is destined to be Agni's final trial by fire (agnee-pareksha).
The second half opens with an endless shootout at a quasi-Afro coal yard, with aesthetically placed flames and child soldiers burning bright enough to set the stage for Agni's inevitable back-from-the-dead phase. At one point, a doctor informs her boss that Agni got lucky because "her heart points towards the right" – a rare medical condition that also doubles up as a spiky off-screen metaphor. The film itself is all too tropey and familiar, as is her final face-off with raspy Rudra, not to mention the final twist that comes as no surprise to anyone who wonders what sort of agency recruits grief-stricken children and mines their trauma to make them deadly assassins. Or worse, what sort of agency declares their employees dead without double-checking their pulse. Naam Shabana aside, representation in this sub-genre is so low that Hindi movies like these are often lauded for merely existing. Yet, by the end of Dhaakad, all the prosthetics and wigs, bombs and bullets amount to little more than an identity-less B-grade blur. Budapest will not be pleased.