Khudaa Haafiz
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Director: Faruk Kabir
Writer: Faruk Kabir
Cast: Vidyut Jammwal, Shivaleeka Oberoi, Annu Kapoor, Shiv Pandit, Aahana Kumra
Cinematographer: Jitan Harmeet Singh
Editor: Sandeep Francis
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

I don’t trust movies in which a man falls in love with a talkative woman. The sexism is so coy that it blushes. It’s as if she isn’t expected to speak, but when she does, the sight of her lips moving is such a pleasant surprise that her voice is muted (irony slaps itself) and a romantic song starts to score the scene. That’s how Sameer and Nargis get married in Khuda Haafiz; he melts when she starts saying progressive things like “women should work, housewives are strange”. He stares at her lips. It’s creepy. A song that rhymes jaan with imaan starts to play. It’s Lucknow.

To be fair, Khuda Haafiz is one of the better films starring Vidyut Jammwal. That’s not to say it’s a good film. Given that most of it is based in a fictional Middle Eastern nation called No-man without the makers realizing the ironic feminism of the name, it was always going to be an uphill battle. Or maybe Noman (which also translates to ‘not human’) is an apt superhero moniker for the common-man protagonist who would have otherwise been a “one-man” mission in a proper action movie. This is, however, an action movie in an anger management session. Jammwal tries something different – he plays a regular character who is aching to Hulk-Smash, but circumstances demand restraint from him. You sense he’s dying to defy physics, but his chemistry is crucial. His muscles never make an appearance. His rage does. His knuckles crunch only an hour into the film. And when he finally does go berserk, he’s more of a wounded Mohit Suri hero (title track composed by Mithoon) than Rambo gone rogue.

As Sameer, a desperate husband who sets out to rescue his kidnapped wife from a flesh trade racket in an alien country, Jammwal puts in somewhat of a performance. Emotions like grief and affection and numbness (sort of) make welcome cameos. In fact, Sameer’s arc here might have appeared in a more conventional movie as a brief flashback – the dark history that gives every action hero an excuse to be expressionless. Jammwal can’t afford to look like a skilled killer, and he does his best to look awkward when faced with violence: slaps more than punches, punctures more than stabs. It’s a sincere effort, when the premise almost expects him to be slick.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Sameer and Nargis lose their jobs and pay a shady agent (Vipin Sharma) to find them work in Noman, an Islamic land where Indian actors play vague Oman+Saudi hybrids who speak in accented Hindi. She travels first and disappears, leaving Sameer nothing but a bunch of clues – the phone number she last called from. He then finds help in the form of a friendly taxi driver (Annu Kapoor), an Indian embassy official and two Nomani (yes, that’s a word now) security agents named Faiz (Shiv Pandit) and Tamena (Aahana Kumra). The cast is quite impressive, but it’s difficult to get past the cultural typecasting of an entire region by the actors.

I don’t trust movies that quickly establish the central love story through one tiny montage song and then expect the viewer to empathize with the “immortal love” that drives the male to take crazy risks for the next two hours

The film totally loses its calm by the end – of course Sameer decides to take the law into his own hands and go all Mad Max: Fury Road in the desert – but it still has its moments. Like the gorefest at a Nomani brothel, where Sameer and Nargis are briefly reunited before she stylishly sinks back into the clutches of the traffickers like a figure from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel artwork. I’m a sucker for tender soundtracks scoring violent sequences, and Khuda Haafiz has a couple of them. But then again, similar music played when Nargis first spoke, and during funerals, and during flashbacks of happy and sad times.

I also don’t trust movies that quickly establish the central love story through one tiny montage song and then expect the viewer to empathize with the “immortal love” that drives the male to take crazy risks for the next two hours. That’s the movie equivalent of an arranged marriage: a 30-minute meeting decides the emotional investment of multiple futures. We need – deserve – more than jaan and imaan

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