Tuesday, January 28, 2020

War: Review

War. What is it good for? For starters, it answers a question too important to remain hypothetical any longer: Who comes out on top in a Hrithik-Tiger dance-off? It also poses a question of its own: what if there was a film in which Hrithik and Tiger were in love with each other but couldn’t admit it and sublimated this longing into a nation-love bordering on the pathological?

This is all subtext. Sort of. When Indian super-soldier Kabir (Hrithik Roshan) goes rogue, his protégé Khalid (Tiger Shroff) offers to bring him in. His commanding officer isn’t convinced, saying, “You love him, Khalid." “I love my country more," Khalid replies, but his eyes tell a different story. In the flashback that follows, those same eyes stare for what seems like a whole minute at Kabir alighting in slow motion from a helicopter. Later, a colleague jokes about running off with Kabir and getting married. Khalid mutters: “Get in line."

War, which pingpongs from Malta to Marrakesh to the Arctic Circle, barely bothering to justify the location changes, is the best big dumb Hindi action film in a long time. Screenwriters Shridhar Raghavan and Siddharth Anand (also the director) fashion a silly-smart narrative that’s nothing but expansive setpieces joined by inventive, preposterous twists. It’s never subtle – a solid page of information is imparted on a boat that might as well be called the SS Exposition – but there’s considerable charm in the film’s commitment to glossy uptempo mayhem.

There’s also Abbas Tyrewala on dialogue duty – a canny hire. He does the standard action movie patter (“You are in hell now") but also comes up with poetic flourishes that draw on mainstream Hindi cinema traditions. When Khalid’s mother meets him at camp, she tells him she asked god for himmat (courage) for him and izzat (respect) for herself. He tells to ask for barkat (good fortune) next time, lightening the mood with a joke. “Aadmi pahaad se takra sakta hai, parvarish se nahi (a man can go up against a mountain, but not his own upbringing)," Kabir warns – a line which could have been written anytime in the last six decades.

Like almost every film made this year, War makes a lot of noise about country and security and sacrifice. Yet, on one occasion, it subverts its own macho patriotism. Attempting to get Naina (Vaani Kapoor), a “civilian asset", to participate in a mission, Kabir appeals to her sense of duty as an army daughter. “Not everyone’s taken a pledge to save the country," she replies. “Some just want a better life for their daughter. This is the war in most ordinary lives." She eventually agrees, but a quiet – and rare – point has been made.

Anand knows the audience isn’t there for subtle undercutting of patriotic fervor. So he gives them a jeep driven out of a plane in mid-air; a pas de deux with brightly coloured cars in the swirling snow; Roshan and Shroff driving bikes towards each other at top speed and, just as they’re about to pass each other, clasping arms. Several of the setpiece ideas are taken from the Mission: Impossible films, and while War doesn’t come close to that level of choreography, it’s more than competent, which is about all you can ask of an Indian action film (it wipes the floor with Saaho, made on a much higher budget).

When Kabir refers to Khalid’s chehra, it reminded me of Roshan uttering the same word 19 years ago in his first film, Kaho Na Pyar Hai. War is a reminder that, as far as big-budget action goes, there are still few better. He seems to relax in these movies in a way he isn’t able to when he’s being a Serious Actor. Shroff, who never looks relaxed, appears very much in awe of him. “Khalid used to be my student," Kabir says. “Perhaps he now thinks he’s surpassed the teacher." No one is likely to leave with that impression.

This review appeared in Mint.

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