With his latest outing, Neeraj Pandey seems to have checked all his favourite boxes.
Men in uniform fighting the bad guys (read: terrorists, arms dealers and the like) and staking their everything for the nation: Check.
The common man up against the system, surprisingly ingenious and suddenly all powerful enough to bring down the government: Check.
The Mumbai hangover: Check. Secret military and security agents lurking at every corner: Check. Loyalists in the government turning traitors: Check. Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Kumud Mishra as the usual staples in a Neeraj Pandey spy-thriller: Check, check, check.
Oh well. That’s a lot to tick off for one movie.
Which is probably why the movie feels longer than its actual runtime of 160 minutes.
As a cocktail of all its same-genre predecessors, Aiyaary begins on a familiar, yet promising note. Familiar because as a Neeraj Pandey espionage thriller, you instinctively know what to expect of the film. Nonetheless promising because this time the narration at the forefront revolves around a chase, a battle of ideologies, so to say – between mentor Colonel Abhay Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and his subordinate Major Jai Bakshi (Sidharth Malhotra) – both members of a covert military intelligence unit within the Army. The latter is all set to spills the beans on the unit, dragging down a slew of army officials and political dignitaries as well, whose corrupt dealings he happened to discover while on a surveillance duty at his hush-hush job.
At stake is the covert team’s continuance, its existence having been sanctioned by the government on a condition they never be found out, the army chief’s reputation who helped set this team up backed by funds not on record and a closet of skeletons that could very well undermine the public’s faith in the Indian army. Predictably, before mayhem strikes, the mentor’s got to stop the wayward acolyte.
A mentor chasing a mentee gone rogue, should ideally make for an interesting watch, primarily because the narrative pits two strong and determined men against each other – ruthlessly-trained, shrewd individuals who know each other too well to be led astray by the other’s psychological games. And yet, this neat premise gets derailed by unnecessary sub-plots, suspense that, at times seems forced and manufactured, and a climax that’s less than impressive.
For starters, Malhotra as disillusioned Jai looks less like the chap who’s turned rebel to take on a crooked establishment, and more like pretty-boy Abhimanyu Singh (straight from Student of the Year) making smart women go wobbly in their knees, while smirking at regular intervals to prove he doesn’t care. In fact, if you pay attention to the actor’s filmography, you recognize these familiar flashes of been-there-done-that through most of his movies, barring an occasional Hasee toh Phasee or a touchingly sensitive Kapoor and Sons. Which is why, despite desperate attempts to be taken seriously, Jai comes across as flippant, and mocking, rather than furtive and scared-for-his-dear-life as he logically should have been – for someone who has technically converted into a whistle-blower of sorts.
But Jai is no ordinary snitch, and his are no old-fashioned principles worth taking bullets for, so he does what he thinks best: he decides to trade the covert unit’s secrets to ex-army Lt. General and arms dealer Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) who in turn works for ex-Army guy Mukesh Kapoor (Adil Hussain), out to weaken the core of the very system he was a part of. A side fact – we never get to know why Kapoor has pledged his cause to the devil, we’re only told it is because Col. Abhay Singh fails to earn his respect.
But we also never come to understand why a criminal like him shits his pants when faced with an oddly-tedha-but righteous army chap, considering he’s long since turned his back on the Indian Army and doesn’t really care what they have to say or do, as long as he is safely perched in his high-rise apartment, can trade exorbitantly in weaponry and milk the Indian government for all it’s worth. In the absence of any real context, thus, Adil as Mukesh Kapoor looks pathetically lost and visibly squirmy – almost like he wants to get the hell out just as curtly as he’d appeared.
Coming back to Jai, while his disillusionment is understandable, his actions are not. We never really know what those secrets are that have the potential to drag the other 27-28 army officials and politicians into this nest of skulduggery, nor we do manage to comprehend why, just why, this man who so revered his honest and loyal superior, has now decided to tell on him and his other teammates! Considering his superior has almost been disowned by the government itself, and his superior, army chief Gen. Pratap Malik (Vikram Gokhale) is already facing the heat from mean boy Gurinder, who is out to get him for rejecting the sanction of an extortionate quotation of an arms deal he represents (for Kapoor’s Armour Inc. by the way). Wondering which side Jai’s on? Beats me as well.
In contrast, Bajpayee’s Abhay Singh is sharper and more resolutely written. The character often takes circuitous routes but a linear motive to reach his goals – serving as constant reminders of the end justifying the means – a familiar trope in most of Pandey’s movies. To be fair, as much as the plot execution seems faulty and patchy, Bajpayee yet again, delivers a sincere, gritty performance – sneaky, snooty, devoted, furious and callous in equal parts – his character largely remains laced with a dark sarcasm, even in the toughest of crises. Right from his introduction till the climax, Bajpayee’s Abhay never lets his guard down, and infuses the only semblance of thrill and suspense into this otherwise drab tale.
Particularly interesting are his many disguises in the movie – the imposter act being the reason behind the film being titled Aiyaary, meaning shape-shifting or trickery. In fact, one of my favourite scenes in the film is one where Abhay manages to nab a sneaky informer after weeks of waiting outside the informer’s uncle’s house, dressed as a beggar. He literally sleeps on the cold, hard ground, eats leftovers, has a filthy blanket for cover, and a straggly beard along with a set of fake teeth to lend credibility to his act. Even more impressive, though chilling, is the way he abruptly shoots the informer in the head after he’s had noodles, a last wish Abhay seems to have kindly, but callously, granted. The calmness, and the sense of purpose with which Bajpayee enacts this scene speaks of his decades-worth nuanced experience that has still not lost its sheen.
However, irrespective of how solid Bajpayee’s acting chops are, these long-winding flashbacks and an excess of sub-plots do not add up to the movie’s actual intent. Even the title seems to have been conjured as an afterthought, after surveying these extra bits and trying to somehow tie them up sensibly. An exercise that does not quite work.
To add to this melee of disjointed backstories, we are also treated to few rushed, superficial scenes based on the 2010 Adarsh Housing Society scam, of which, rogue Gurinder seems to have been the chief architect. This sketchy account of a real-life political scandal is bizarrely connected to a poor security guard Baburao Shastri (Naseeruddin Shah) with a sick dog Babloo somewhere in Colaba, who, together, manage to bring Gurinder and his circle of traitors to shame by exposing their involvement in the scam. How did they succeed in doing that? You’ll have to watch the film to find out. Why though? Just so Baburao can validate a rather bombastic dialogue already fed into the script, “Gareeb aadmi ko ungli nai karne ka.”
So for all those who are expecting a Wednesday-esque plot to unravel here, by virtue of Shah’s inclusion in the project, please kiss them goodbye.
Even veteran Anupam Kher as Tariq Ali, Abhay’s friend and his secret pyaada, is regrettably squandered in this venture, and his appearance in the movie is nothing more than the director’s stubborn insistence on keeping his favourite camp of actors huddled together, irrespective of how ill-fitting or absurd their presence may be. Kumud Mishra as Gurinder Singh effortlessly sinks into the various layers of his role, playing the cool baddie with elan right from the moment he steps into the army chief’s office – still, you can’t help but see how his brilliance gets overshadowed by the abruptness of the zigzag storytelling, and the characters and contexts that never stop making unwelcome entries and exits.
While the stellar male cast (barring Bajpayee) seems confused, unconvinced, underutilized at times, it’s the female characters that are actually treated the worst. Rakul Preet Singh (Sonia) as the hacking wizard and Jai’s girlfriend is reduced to looking like the girl next door whose main job is to fall in love with this handsome, ‘idealistic guy’ and keep giving him inputs on how to pull off a range of illegal activities. At one point, I began wondering where her IT smarts lay – and why she thought nothing of being a part of this monstrous operation and tagging along with a man she barely knew.
Juhi Babbar as Abhay’s wife is forgettable too and adds absolutely zilch to the movie. It is Pooja Chopra’s Maya Semwal I feel saddest for though – the script teases us with a promising glimpse of her character – that starts off strong and unfazed even in the face of authority, but abruptly fades away to being an extra relegated on-call mundane tasks.
What a shame after last year’s female-centric Naam Shabana – written and produced by Neeraj Pandey, no less – boasting of a narrative arguably tauter than Aiyaary, and a female lead (Tapsee Pannu) whose vulnerabilities hit just as hard as did her punches.
Aiyaary, assessed even on technical aspects, scores miserably on the editing front – and could’ve spared us the grief of going over the unending flashbacks and the long-drawn execution of even crucial scenes. With the exception of Lae Dooba, which stands out as a soulful, soothing rendition by Sunidhi Chauhan, the background score too disappoints, sounding more clanging than rhythmically pacey.
The movie does offer the audience one hair-raising scene where steely Abhay confronts a red-faced Jai, and just when you get busy conjuring the hundred and one possibilities that could now fork out of this one deadly encounter, Jai effectively punctures every shred of suspense built till this point, chickens out and blames it all on “70 years of corruption” received as virasat from the nation’s political leaders.
There. Big face-palm moment.
This is of course, an overt attempt to drill a message into your psyche, and though you kind of agree with it, it is all shattered the next minute by a cock-and-bull story of a sick dog and its vengeful aam aadmi caretaker who are out to bring down the government.
See? Round and round in circles we go, and that is exactly where Aiyaary’s weakness lies: it keeps changing track from this side to the other and takes excruciatingly long to drive home its actual message.
This cinematic saga can only be endured.