Director: Siddharth Anand
Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Tiger Shroff, Vaani Kapoor
Siddharth Anand's War is a deeply-felt labour of love. It's the testosteronic equivalent of what Shah Jahan built for Mumtaz Mahal. For generations to come, fans of upper-body sculpting will gaze at Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff in wonder and weep softly at what they wish they had. If I happened to find myself next to Hrithik on a flight, I'd have to politely insist that he stow his biceps in the overhead compartment. Tiger rips his shirt off in the climax, and his torso seems to be making a peace sign. The film is, first and foremost, a monument to male beauty. MF Husain was so floored by Madhuri Dixit in Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! that he watched the film 67 times. The CEO of Talwalkars will have a similar response to War.
In many ways, the film is exactly what you expect from the trailer. Vishal-Shekhar's songs are insanely catchy, and one of them manages the impressive feat of discovering a new rhyming word for "Shivashankar": "bhayankar". Benjamin Jasper's camera keeps looking out for the most exotic locations, and I am just talking about Hrithik's bronzed body, often showcased in close-ups. In one scene, the actor is practically a painting. His green/brown eyes fill the screen. His hair is flecked with white. The red smears of blood on his face are arranged just so. You could frame this frame and hang it in a museum. Or, at least, in Maratha Mandir. There are other exotic locations, too. One day, we are in Malta. Then, in Iraq. Then, the Arctic Circle. No, really. War is serious about wanting to go where Hindi cinema has not gone before.
It's a Hollywood-style spy thriller: From Raipur with Love. Kabir (Hrithik), one of our top secret agents, seems to have gone rogue. (He's turned, which may be one way to read the title, which is the reverse of RAW.) "Kill him," barks the defence minister, who clearly needs to watch more Indian movies and understand that really big stars just do not take up really evil parts. But that's not all. An international terrorist is planning an attack that will make Kargil resemble boys playing with toys. In other words, a lot like this movie. It's exciting. It's great fun. There are out-of-service elevators that lead to mysterious offices. There's a neurotoxin attack. There's a desi M (Ashutosh Rana). There's Vaani Kapoor in a bikini, and in a role that covers even briefer ground. There's even a cell phone inside a fish. What they say is true: Cod is truly in the details.
But, dig beyond the surface pleasures, and you'll see Yash Raj Films have finally hit gold. In the Dhoom franchise or in the Salman Khan-starring Tiger films, they've been trying to marry our masala sensibilities to Bond/Bourne action spectacles, with middling (if that) results. War is where it all finally comes together. Take Khalid's (Tiger) introduction scene. It's a breathtakingly choreographed, single-take action set piece — and with no background music, except the grunting and smashing and crashing of crystal. But after this display of superhuman skill, Khalid is revealed as all-too-human. As he walks out of the frame (ending in a wipe that segues to the Indian flag), he is tired. He flexes his sore muscles. The man is rendered vulnerable not just physically, but psychologically, too. His father was a traitor. So this is really his story, the story of a Muslim patriot attempting to atone for the sins of his father.
And, fulfill the wishes of his mother (Soni Razdan). No masala movie is complete without the mother figure, and the best dramatic scene in War plays out in a flashback, during Khalid's training. After a visit to a dargah, his mother brings offerings for him and his team. (She doesn't come inside the premises. He steps out to meet her.) Two extraordinary things happen here. First, Khalid asks, "Mere liye kya maanga?" She replies, "Himmat". "Aur aapke liye?" She replies, "Izzat!" This is a magnificent update (by Abbas Tyrewala) of masala-format dialogue. In keeping with today's times, we are losing the long-windedness, but what isn't lost is what's most important: the punch. The restoration of his mother's izzat — the removal of the slur (an older-era film would have called it daag) of "a traitor's wife" — is the crux of this superb screenplay by Shridhar Raghavan and Siddharth Anand. (The director co-wrote the story with Aditya Chopra.)
Now, the other extraordinary thing. During this meeting — mild spoiler alert, but I don't think it really matters — Khalid's mother catches sight of Kabir, who is the team's chief. He's the man who killed her husband. They lock eyes for a frozen instant, and then he nods briefly and walks away. (With age, Hrithik has become superbly economical. He conveys in a micro-gesture what, in an earlier time, would have taken at least one quivering cheek and a few hundred taut neck nerves.) And, we are left with her face. There are no words, so we are left to wonder what she's feeling. Shame? Is she worried that this man is her son's trainer and mentor? Is there a bit of hate, too? After all, Kabir did kill her husband. Soni Razdan is supremely moving. She leaves an impression with just a couple of scenes.
I don't want to make War sound like drama. It has an adrenaline-pumping score by Sanchit and Ankit Balhara, and huge, eye-popping, sharply edited (Aarif Sheikh) stunts. (The money is really up there on screen). I laughed out loud during a shootout set to flamenco music where Hrithik and Tiger seem to be executing a slo-mo ballet, as a bullet zips through the air leaving behind a wake of dust motes. (If someone's writing a thesis paper about the bromantic homoeroticism here, may I suggest a title? Swoon Lake.) But without all the drama, War would have just been a popcorn entertainer (and there's certainly nothing wrong with that). For lovers of masala cinema, the action is the icing. The drama is the cake, the reason for its existence. It's the drama of Khalid being sent to stop Kabir; he's already lost a father, and now he's out to kill a father-figure. It's the drama of a student asked to test his skills against those of his mentor. It's the drama of a fantabulous interval block, with "father" and "son" so near… yet so far.
I wondered about the decision to introduce a child character right after the interval point, which gives away quite a bit. And there are portions that seem in a hurry, like when Khalid's actions result in Kabir losing a target. I felt Kabir would have reacted more. The only serious problem with War is its length, especially in the climactic stretch that goes on and on — but with two stars, Siddharth Anand could not have probably resisted bringing them together for an extended display. It's the Dola re dola of action scenes. I liked Naina (Vaani Kapoor). The character has dignity. She knows she is falling for Kabir, but she also knows better. She can sense something is off when he approaches her with a grim face, and she asks: "Mera dil tootne wala hai?" Again, a masala sentiment, but a modern incarnation. The drawing she gives Kabir is a tiny masterstroke of how thoughtful writing can help the smallest of characters invest a movie with meaning and motivation.
There are little "games" in the screenplay, which is always a sign that the writers had a lot of fun. An early scene with Kabir occurs in HOTEL LOTUS, but with some of the lights on the blink, we only see the word HELL. And what does Kabir tell Khalid after being accepted in the team? "Welcome to… hell." The incidents revolving around a single mother (a dancer) reminded me of a similar character in Gautham Menon's Yennai Arindhaal (which Shridhar Raghavan co-wrote). And through this plot point, both these films are in conversation with Face/Off, though War tips its hat a lot more to John Woo's action classic. And it has a lot more twists. You think the film is over when we discover Kabir's reasons, but no. The biggest twist is yet to come.
Tiger Shroff doesn't have enough of a career yet to make sweeping judgements about his "improved" acting skills, but beyond the obvious box-office value the young star brings to the table, this is very clever casting. He really looks like a miniature Hrithik Roshan, and their father/son relationship rings true. War also taps into the sweetness and vulnerability in the actor, which we've only seen in A Flying Jatt. He makes you feel for Khalid, and the emotional ending is very affecting. But again, it's also the writing. The "traitor" angle is used not just to define Khalid and render him suspect, but it runs through the film. When Khalid chases down a traitor in their team, we know exactly why it's so important for him to catch the guy. And the film is itself about traitors to the nation. Even if you want to watch War as a "leave your brains at home" movie, the writing team doesn't leave its brains at home. They take it seriously, and that's why War is a defining action movie of our time. It's Hollywood enough to rock the multiplexes, but it doesn't forget its roots.
Also read: Rahul Desai's review of War