Director: Robbie Grewal
Cast: John Abraham, Jackie Shroff, Mouni Roy, Raghubir Yadav
RAW stands for Romeo Akbar Walter – three names of the same man, played by John Abraham. John's most successful films put to good use his overpowering physicality – shoulders that stretch for miles and biceps that seem to burst out of sleeves. Expressions are not his forte. Which is why he works so well as an Indian spy digging for information in Karachi. His stoic face reveals little, which is what the character and situation demands. But this isn't a lazy performance. You can see the effort he's putting in and he succeeds in making it plausible.
I wish the script, written by director Robbie Grewal and inspired by real-life events, had done the same. The film is a salute to the unnamed martyrs who risk their lives to protect India in intelligence agencies like RAW or Research and Analysis Wing. It begins in 1971, in the months just before the Bangladesh Liberation War. Rehmatullah Ali, known as Romeo, is a bank cashier who also happens to be skilled at drama and disguises. Which is why, Shrikant Rai, the head of RAW, enlists him. He says, in a low voice: I want you to serve your country. Ek aisi performance ke liye taiyaar karna chahta hoon jo Hindustan ka kal badal de.
What? Is this how our spy program works? RAW is filled with bewildering scenarios like this – characters discuss highly sensitive information in public places, when important players get in the way, the plot simply dispenses with them. At one point, Romeo, now called Akbar, is kissing an Indian diplomat in a car on a Karachi street. This when he's supposed to be a Pakistani. Everyone gives each other meaningful looks and speaks in code with lines like: The horse is ready for the race. Since even our spy heroes must have an emotional angle, we also get a doting, widowed mother left behind and even a plaintive song – oh maa, yaad aa rahi hai.
Robbie, DOP Tapan Tushar Basu and production designers Swapnil Bhalerao and Madhur Madhavan effectively capture the setting and period. The film is slick but not glossy. The textures are realistic but the characters, not so much. The Pakistanis come off as an assembly of clichés in Pathani suits. Sikander Kher as Colonel Khudabaksh also offers an inconsistent accent. RAW has a nicely gloomy atmosphere and some striking shots – like a chase sequence in Karachi. But the pace is so sluggish that the narrative doesn't hold you. We get a countdown to a major operation but the tension hardly builds and there is little sense of urgency.
Jackie Shroff, as the suave, cigar-smoking, cool-as-ice intelligence agency head is fun to watch. Raghubir Yadav as always, adds depth to the few scenes he has but Mouni Roy makes for a pretty inept love interest. The songs are equally forgettable and by the end, the film reverts to a familiar patriotic formula, in which there is no room for grey shades.
RAW begins with an extreme close-up of Romeo battered and bleeding. The opening sequence landed a solid punch and my hopes were raised. This material had the potential to be a suspenseful espionage drama. But the film is too drab to soar. I'm going with two stars.