Movie Director: Robbie Grewal
Cast: John Abraham, Jackie Shroff, Mouni Roy, Sikander Kher, Alka Amin
After Ek Tha Tiger, Romeo Akbar Walter (RAW) is the second mainstream Hindi film to have been inspired by the real-life story of alleged RAW agent Ravindra Kaushik. Kaushik is said to have spent his adult life undercover in Pakistan – complete with a Muslim identity, an LLB degree, a military career and a second family. The Indian government disowned him when he finally died, captured and ill, in a Pakistani prison. While Kaushik’s family demanded credit for the Salman Khan actioner (Kaushik’s moniker: Black Tiger), I’m not so sure they will be clamouring for one with this John Abraham-starrer, despite the swinging ‘70s hairstyles.
Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi focused on a similar true story of an Indian female agent who married into a Pakistani army family. But the “female spy movie” tends to pack a more cinematic punch because the element of subterfuge – a prime prerequisite of the suspense thriller – does not have to be manufactured; it is inherently designed into the skewed gender dynamic of a notoriously patriarchal culture. Nobody expects the girl of the household to lead a double life. Even when she is at the corner of a frame, the camera doesn’t really need to magnify her guilt/tension to elevate the intelligence of the film. This weaponization of the male gaze also allows her to readily exhibit bouts of conscience and vulnerability. Surviving in a man’s world is so exacting that absolute concepts like patriotism, war and victory fall by the wayside.
But the male spy remains more of a Bollywood/Hollywood hero – a fetishization of a shadowy profession rather than an exploration of one. There are still the fake beards and wigs, loud close-ups of enigmatic grins and unsubtle facial twitches, sudden displays of supernatural strength, memories of a widowed mother, ubiquitous whiskey sessions, a weakness for love (a romantic piano tune breaks out the second Abraham sees an excessively dolled-up Mouni Roy, no matter who is being bombed), the much-abused “joker in the pack” metaphor, ridiculous riddles and codewords (“the horse is ready for the race”) and, of course, a grand twist ending. The male spy forces its movie to indulge in a goofy celebration of masculinity. RAW in fact begins with Abraham as a bank-teller who reacts with courage when gunmen invade, only to realize that this attack was staged by the RAW director (a Judy-Dench-ish Jackie Shroff) to “test” his potential. Of course, he is persuaded to leave behind his emotionally manipulative mother to aid “Bharat Mata” on the brink of the 1971 war. His brain is what matters. After all, who would suspect a burly, muscular and absolutely innocuous-looking ex-supermodel-turned-action-star of winning the trust of a kind Pakistani diplomat and breaking into the system? The kohl-lined eyes are an exquisite cover. A cartoonish colonel (Sikander Kher) is the only one with trust issues. Not unlike Colonel Hans Landa, he must wonder why the new man’s Italian (read I-talyan) rings so strange.
You’d think John Abraham is an inspired choice to play a secretive RAW agent. As he has proved through numerous ambitious and unambitious roles over the years, it is gloriously impossible to read his face. His pensive poker-face has made a career out of passing off as happy, sad, lustful, brooding, desperate, hot, cold, dead, alive. If there were ever an opportunity to weaponize the wooden expression, this had to be it; at one point, even a lie detector falls prey to his spectacular lack of acting talent in a Karachi cell. As Romeo Ali, rechristened Akbar Malik in Pakistan, Abraham swoops under the radar of every Urdu-speaking “enemy” who misconstrues his emotive numbness as a sign of unwavering loyalty. He transcends the mandatory Allah songs and taps back messages to his chief – a suave man who is busy shaping his own master-plan under the rule of Indira Gandhi.
But RAW’s biggest problem is that it was perhaps conceived the morning Raazi released. It visibly man-ifies the Alia Bhatt-starrer, veering towards the promise of complexity and empathy only to pull the rug out from under our feet because it is April, the month of India’s general elections. Raazi momentarily elevated our perception of the Indian double-agent movie the way The Dark Knight dared to humanize, and question, the idea of a superhero. By painting the protagonist as a person of doubt, Raazi has spawned a spiritual pretender in RAW – except for the tiny disclaimer that a man can never be a victim in this great country. Its synonym, “martyr,” is the preferred term. Which is why when Akbar is shown to respect the diplomat who takes him under his wings, or invest in fleeting friendships across the border, the movie is essentially setting us up by playing on our expectations of a flawed hero. Some might call this clever, but it is also opportunistic and dishonest. Because RAW is never allowed to wholly examine the man’s obvious identity crisis and his conflict of faith – partly due to the actor’s limited abilities, but mostly due to the mood of our times. After all, what would the tricolour think if its heroes aren’t black-and-white?