Director: Sankalp Reddy
Writers: Sahar Quaze, Sankalp Reddy, Vasudev Reddy, Arjun Varma, Aditya Shastri, Junaid Wasi, Abhimanyu Srivastava
Cast: Vidyut Jammwal, Anupam Kher, Vishal Jethwa
If Pakistan is the enemy in an Indian spy thriller these days, you can be sure of a few base themes. One, every Pakistani behaves like a live-action Looney Tunes character. In the opening scene of IB71, one of them is singing; another is snoring; the third is scowling. Two, their Urdu is a parody of Urdu: “Janaab” and “Tashreef” at the beginning of every sentence usually does the trick. Three, they always need to be taught a lesson; Hindi historical dramas, in particular, love teaching lessons. Whether the student countries need to learn or not is another matter. Four, each of them is a different sort of idiot. In this film, an ‘Azad Kashmir’ radical, played by Vishal Jethwa (Mardaani 2, 2019), hijacks an airplane dressed as a defunct 1920s Manhattan gangster in a hat and pinstripe suit. And five…actually, it doesn’t matter. You get the gist. Islamophobia and jingoism are the starting points. They’re too tacky to be offensive. They’re also – in fortunate cases like this one – not the movie’s biggest flaw.
IB71 is presented as “an untold story based on true events”. The film claims to be about a top-secret mission that’s been classified for more than 50 years. Vidyut Jammwal stars as Dev Jammwal, a muscular and intelligent Intelligence Bureau (IB) agent who comes up with a plan to stop Pakistan from attacking India before the 1971 war. It’s not an easy plan to describe, but here goes. Stay with me. Don’t get lost. Hold my hand if you like. So the IB discovers that Pakistan is in cahoots with China to blindside India from the East. They (or, as the voiceover insists, “We”) have 10 days to stop the West Pakistan jets from flying to the East Pakistan military base with the required weapons. Dev, the genius that he is, does some next-level reverse thinking. He proposes that India shuts down its airspace to prevent those West Pakistan planes from reaching the east, which in turn will foil the impending attack. Once he realizes that only an act of war can merit the closing of an airspace, Dev works even further backward. He in turn proposes to fake a hijacking of an Indian commercial plane – by letting real Azad Kashmir militants take control of a fake flight with 30 IB agents posing as scared civilians.
We’re not done. Hang on. Because the hijacking has to be of a specific type to ‘qualify’ as an act of war. For this, the plane must land in Pakistan and the passengers have to be safely transported back to India. Then, and only then, can India legally close its airspace (I bet you forgot this was the goal by now). The plotting and staging make up the first half of the film. The agents’ efforts to outwit Lahore officials and reach the Indian border form the second half of the film. The plan is so painfully elaborate that, when Dev initially narrates it to the IB chief (Anupam Kher), even the script gives up and lets music drown out Dev’s narration. Once his lips stop moving, we hear Kher respond with a curt “The execution will be difficult”. Dev promptly cites the examples of Lord Ram, Maharana Pratap and Guru Gobind Singh to prove that impossible is nothing. He’s right, though, because he is introduced in a scene where he simply walks into a Pakistani military camp disguised as a General, scolds an officer for singing Bollywood classics (“How will you hate India then?” he projects), fools a superior and walks out without going Rambo on a soul.
If it isn’t evident yet, IB71 is very much inspired by Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo (2012). The template is the same: Declassified mission, ridiculous plan, heroic extraction agent, pensive boss hovering over the phone at the bureau, last-ditch escape, egg on Islamic nation’s faces. But there’s one crucial difference. The film-making of Argo made the true story sound smart and audacious and funny. The film-making of IB71 makes the true story look silly and confusing and far-fetched. Let’s leave aside the cringey Pakistani caricatures for a beat. The Vishal Jethwa character, for instance, seems to be stuck in a parallel Dhamaal (2011) sequel. He’s so hammy that you almost expect Vijay Raaz to turn up as the cucumber-cool Air Traffic Controller. Then there’s the flight itself – the passengers swerve from side to side in the plane as if they were on an AC Sleeper bus to Goa.
The Kashmir sequences in the first half are visually striking, but I couldn’t get over how the radicals didn’t realize they were being followed by an imposing figure like Vidyut Jammwal – in the snow, no less. Nobody is as subtle or discreet as they think they are. When undercover cops communicate with each other through darting eyes and hand gestures at the Dal lake, they look like football managers attempting to signal a play to an aloof midfielder. When two radicals meet during a matinee show of Arzoo (1965) to discuss their master plan, the dubbing makes it sound like they want the entire cinema hall – including the not-so-undercover IB agents – to hear them. Apparently, they’re whispering. When a half-clever moment reveals that a male IB officer is answering ‘family’ phone calls from Lahore in fake voices, he ruins it by mimicking wives and mothers too. (“Quit when you’re ahead!” I screamed, in my most masculine voice). The only two female agents in the film make grave mistakes: One allows a Bengali civilian onto the pretend-flight, the other is stabbed at a hotel.
When the Indians are on the verge of being exposed, a late-night power cut comes to the rescue. At the end of the mission, we see Dev striding triumphantly in slow-motion in the pouring rain towards the border. The film concludes with an epilogue about Pakistan losing the war and failing to break India into parts (“Instead we broke them into two parts: Pakistan and Bangladesh, thus saving millions of lives”). When it cuts back to the hero, Dev is still striding in the rain. He looks pleased. Seasons change, India becomes a superpower, Novak Djokovic retires, AI ends sport, the cure to cancer arrives, climate change resurrect dinosaurs, a meteor strikes, Adam ghosts Eve, the internet is invented before the wheel, fiction ceases to exist, borders perish, movies return, I’m reborn and Christopher Nolan starts to direct the planet. But Dev is still striding in the rain in IB71.