Do you sometimes sit in a movie hall and sense that what is unfolding on screen began with an interesting concept that somehow choked at the execution stage? India’s Most Wanted is that kind of film.
Indian intelligence officials and globe-trotting espionage agents have in recent years become a Bollywood fixation, but from the Saif Ali Khan-Kareena Kapoor-starrer Agent Vinod in 2012, to Baby (2015) with Akshay Kumar in the lead, and last year’s Aiyaary headlined by Manoj Bajpayee and Sidharth Malhotra, these films have tended to kick off with a promising premise and then struggle to be anything much beyond that. India’s Most Wanted (IMW) goes down the same path.
Prabhat (Arjun Kapoor), IMW’s central character, is a stubborn fellow who has a mind of his own independent of his well-intentioned immediate superior Ravi Raj (Rajesh Sharma) and the intelligence agency for which he works. As the film opens, India is being rocked by bomb blasts engineered by shadowy figures believed to be in Pakistan and Dubai. A source gives Prabhat a lead about the mastermind behind these explosions, which indicates that the man is, in fact, in Nepal. Higher-ups in Delhi are not convinced, but Prabhat decides to head off to Nepal anyway with a motley crew of colleagues, all of them conducting the operation at their own expense. Bossman Ravi Raj gives them his blessings but not his on-the-record assent.
Honest, efficient government servants defying their senior’s orders in their frustration with sarkari red tape and obduracy, and ending up in a clash with Pakistan’s ISI in a third country while hot on the heels of a brutal terrorist, that too purportedly based on a true story – this is the stuff that dreams are made of, this is thriller heaven. With such ingredients at hand, IMW should have been an exciting suspense saga. Yet from the starting block the film struggles to get into the groove, despite assembling an interesting cast who look convincing as real people rather than actors to play Prabhat’s team of rogue agents.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in the screenplay. Firstly, it took me a while – too long a while – to wrap my head around the chain of individuals that had got information to Prabhat and why. Some amount of confusion, especially initially, is not unusual in films of this variety, but they usually offer compensation in the form of an accelerated pace or breathtaking action or, in the case of directors opting for a quiet tone, an under-stated sense of urgency that taps the audience’s own instinctive assumptions about the drama and danger intrinsic to such situations in real life although they are alien to ordinary folk like us. Not here.
IMW aims at being an intelligence agency procedural rather than a Mission Impossible / James Bond enterprise, which is fine in theory since writer-director-producer Raj Kumar Gupta demonstrated his natural affinity for the genre in the excellent Ajay Devgn-starrer Raid (2018) set in the world of income-tax officials. IMW, however, simply does not lift off.
Even after the initial cobwebs are cleared, the narrative remains fuzzy. The primary informant’s motivations are never convincing, Prabhat & Co find their prey with what seems like considerable ease, the actions of their Nepalese counterparts are inexplicable, and the ISI comes across as a sluggish lot.
That last point – the absence of a powerful antagonist – is the final nail in the coffin. Before it is hammered in, the film has already been betrayed by its own seeming lack of faith in the tenor it has set for itself. In life-and-death scenarios towards the end, for instance, precious seconds and minutes are spent just staring down opponents in conventional Hindi filmi style. And the voiceover by the lead terrorist at regular intervals is ineffective.
To be fair to IMW, neither the Indian agents nor the ISI are downright dumbos, unlike the desis and their enemy targets in Baby.
What IMW does have going for it are Arjun Kapoor’s earnestness, the credibility of the supporting cast especially the inimitable Rajesh Sharma, the non-judgmental tone adopted towards Sharma’s Ravi Raj although he is not willing to stick his neck out as Prabhat does, the warm equation between him and Prabhat, and the realness of the settings. Nepal looks gorgeous, but cinematographer Dudley cleverly uses the visuals not so much to impress us with their prettiness as to conjure up an ominous atmosphere.
Most important, although the terrorist being hunted down by Prabhat is a Muslim, his religious identity is not over-emphasised to crudely cash in on the Islamophobia prevailing worldwide in the way Bollywood films like Padmaavat and Kesari have done since 2017-18 – he is what he is, that is a fact, nothing more, nothing less. His ISI backers too are not stereotypically portrayed as demonic or fumbling cartoons – they may be sluggish, as mentioned earlier, but they are not foolish. And thankfully Prabhat’s Muslim colleague is treated as a regular person, not a contrivance planted in the screenplay to be condescendingly positioned as redemption for the Muslim community – the fact that he happens to be Muslim struck me rather late in the film because a big deal is not made of it. Despite its inevitable allusions to patriotism, inevitable considering the overall theme, India’s Most Wanted also does not resort to the kind of loud, chest-thumping nationalism that is all the rage in Bollywood and the public discourse these days.
At a time when many Bollywood stalwarts are revealing themselves to be either opportunists or bigots, Raj Kumar Gupta deserves high praise for this aspect of his writing and direction, especially since such opportunism has yielded solid box-office dividends in the past year. Sadly, his decency alone cannot hold up a film. Barring occasional suspenseful passages, India’s Most Wanted does not live up to the expectations it raises in its opening scenes. It lacks the punch, pizzazz and substance to make its Shah Rukh Khan reference truly effective.