Khuda Haafiz 2 – Agni Pariksha functions most effectively as a gore test — meaning the film serves as a barometer of how much brutality you can watch without flinching. There are horrific rapes. Men stab each other with any sharp object they can find. A toe is smashed in close-up, a metal hook is used to rip apart a throat and believe it or not, in one scene, a prisoner, perhaps a Mike Tyson fan, bites another prisoner's ear off. Which is when I shut my eyes.
Much of this stomach-churning violence is stuffed into the second half. The film actually begins on a quieter note. Khuda Haafiz 2 is a literal sequel with the events taking place one year after the events of the first film. Sameer (Vidyut Jammwal) and Nargis (Shivaleeka Oberoi) are trying to recover from her kidnapping and rape. Nargis is scared and scarred. Then a five-year-old girl, Nandini, comes into their lives. Nargis is on depression medication, but within a week, Nandini finds a way to Nargis's heart and miraculously starts to heal her wounds. Which isn't very medically sound, but writer-director Faruk Kabir stages it with sincerity. We see Sameer and Nargis's sessions with a counsellor who reads Faust and doles out advice that seems straight out of a self-help book. But it's refreshing to have a Vidyut Jammwal action vehicle spend quality time focusing on the trauma of a survivor.
Kabir is one of the few filmmakers who insists that Jammwal act as much as he fights. In the first film, the action started when the first hour was almost over. Here too, the first half positions Sameer as a "mamooli aadmi". He's a middle-class man in Lucknow who drives a Santro and makes breakfast for his wife on their anniversary. But once Nandini disappears, all hell breaks loose. In the second hour, Sameer transforms into an avenging angel who will stop at nothing, including literally, breaking balls. The action moves to Egypt and the climactic battle happens with the pyramids in the background. The visuals are impressive.
But Kabir isn't content to create a lightweight action thriller around the formidable fighting skills of his leading man. Khuda Haafiz 2 also attempts to provide social commentary on the state of the nation. Much of it is spouted by Rajesh Tailang, who plays Ravi Kumar, a thinly-disguised version of journalist Ravish Kumar. Can this country be called great anymore, Ravi asks his viewers. He also justifies the violence Sameer inflicts as the acts of the common man frustrated by "system ki kamzori". The film aspires to be hard-hitting and reveal the rot, but the writing isn't erudite enough to have an impact. The script cuts too many corners – case in point: the flimsy reason provided for the plot to move to Egypt. Or for Nargis to leave home.
The most interesting aspect of Khuda Haafiz 2 is the casting. The masterstroke is Sheeba Chadha as the fearsome godmother Sheela Thakur, who other characters refer to as Thankurij. Chadha is a terrific actor who is usually cast in more amiable roles – one of my favourites is the mild-mannered mother in Badhaai Do. Thakurji is a sharp contrast and Chadha thrives in her malevolence. In one scene, she tells her son, "Jab tak tumhara amma jinda hai chaude mein raho bachua." But like the rest of the film, Thankurji isn't written with enough depth. Her character is largely defined by her stare, her slow drawl, her preferred beverage – kachha doodh — and her intimate relationship with her handmaiden. The last becomes one more marker of her utter lack of compassion and morality. This conflation of sexual preferences with deviancy is sloppy and problematic.
Kabir fills the screen with fine actors – apart from Chadha and Tailang, there's Dibyendu Bhattacharya playing a murderous butcher (a cliché perhaps originating from Sultan in Gangs of Wasseypur, which has now run its course). Bhattacharya mostly looks grim and says "ho jayega" to everything that Thankurji asks for. Danish Husain also makes a brief appearance as Sameer's mentor in jail. The film is largely propelled by Jammwal who is in almost every scene. His acting is competent but as usual, his real skill lies in action, some of which he has also designed. Once again, we see him split a man's jaw apart by ramming it against a wall – this was also the money shot in the first Khuda Haafiz. Once again, I shut my eyes.
I think Khuda Haafiz 2 wants to be so purposefully disturbing that it shakes viewers out of their lethargy and complacency. Which might have happened if the narrative had more heft. Violence needs to be rooted in insight. Otherwise, what's the point of enduring it? Also, a request to filmmakers – can we please stop brutalising women so men can be heroes