Cast: Sidharth Malhotra, Manoj Bajpayee, Rakul Preet Singh, Pooja Chopra, Naseeruddin Shah, Adil Hussain
Director: Neeraj Pandey
Rating: 1.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Writer-director Neeraj Pandey, hung up as always on suave secret agents staking their all in the service of the nation, takes a bit of a detour in Aiyaary. He seeks to expose the global arms lobby and its corrupt collaborators in India. Not a bad idea on paper. On the screen, however, all that it yields is an insipid, inchoate thriller, more an inert guessing game than an edge-of-the-seat movie experience.
The 160-minute marathon makes no leeway for the foxed audience: the characters are sketchily fleshed out, the lines they speak border on the stilted, and the situations that they find themselves in and create for others are do not enhance clarity. Let us face it: who would take a soldier who doubles up as a spy seriously when he steals hard disks from his unit's server room without deactivating the closed-circuit cameras or when he walks away from a restaurant table carelessly leaving his army identity card for the girl he loves to figure out who he really is? Aiyaary is a massive let-down on many other crucial counts.
The cast, led by the ever-dependable Manoj Bajpayee and bolstered by fine actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Adil Hussain, Kumud Mishra and Rajesh Tailang, provides occasional flashes of competence. The wishy-washy screenplay simply does not give them enough to work with. A below-par Sidharth Malhotra, playing a young, idealistic army officer who goes rogue in order to take on the establishment, does not help matters. His oh-so-cool demeanour is totally out of place in a world where danger is a constant. Having defied his bosses and challenged the system single-handedly, he should logically have been an all worked-up and shifty figure lurking in the shadows. He isn't. Malhotra comes across as a guy out on a walk in the park.
Aiyaary, comatose and convoluted, is like a patient who's been wheeled in on a stretcher and declared dead on arrival. It never manages to get up on its feet and break into a saunter, let alone a sprint. The background music goes all guns blazing in the hope that the film's snail-like pace will not lull the audience to sleep, but the persistent clanging that accompanies the lack of action is inevitably ineffectual. It doesn't spur the narrative out of its stupor and into a state of any sort of urgency.
Worse, in terms of chronology, the film is a bewildering mess. As it sends the characters scurrying across the world - Delhi, Cairo, London, Kashmir - the script throws nuggets of information at us at different points to suggest passage of time: four days earlier, two months later, 17 days (the duration of a stakeout in Cairo), three weeks (that's how long a security guard who knows too much is holed up in a Paharganj lodge). But Aiyaary fails to create a clear, tangible period-frame for the story.
In one crucial confrontation scene, Malhotra's character asserts that the youth of today have been bequeathed "70 years of corruption" by the nation's political leadership. Not long thereafter, the film quickly retreats from that 'explosive' suggestion that malfeasance in high places has been an uninterrupted continuum and conveniently pitchforks a scam that came to light seven years ago to the centre of the climax. What Aiyaary probably intends to assert is that corruption is a thing of the past. So, "70 years minus four years" would have been more like it.
What we can figure out with considerable effort is that three kinds of men people the Aiyaary universe. One, there's the classy and courageous twosome, Colonel Abhay Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), chief of a counter-intelligence unit, and his brightest protege, Major Jai Bakshi, a renegade who decides to expose the corrupt at all cost. The film is principally about the duality - and oneness - of their personas.
Then there is the upright army chief (Vikram Gokhale) who spurns the inducements that are dangled before him by mendacious elements within the system. He, too, wriggles out of the mess when matters threaten to go out of hand. And finally, we have two ex-army men who have left their best days behind, Lt. Gen Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) and Mukesh Kapoor (Adil Hussain). The latter is now a London-based weapons supplier and the former an arms agent determined to make a killing from a deal.
A half-hearted romantic sub-plot has the fugitive army officer 'hiring' a winsome hacker (Rakul Preet Singh) to help him in his mission. In their first encounter, the lady takes Maj. Bakshi's password-protected laptop and pulls off an online shopping transaction with his credit card under his very nose. "Wow, that's impressive," exclaims the now-smitten man. Whoever knew that the way to a man's heart could be through his hacked computer?
The broad markers of a Neeraj Pandey are all here, not the least of which are brave men who place duty before self and are driven by a purpose far larger than career advancement. They swear by their love for the nation and their commitment to ensuring its well-being. Hear the Colonel speak: "Desh bech denge toh bachega kya (What will be left if we barter away the nation)?" No wonder in the line of his fire are traitors and profiteers out to send the country to the dogs.
Talking of dogs, there is one in Aiyaary that is alluded to several times, beginning with the opening sequence in an army bunker where a Captain (Pooja Chopra) is grilled by a Brigadier (Rakesh Tailang) about the disappearance of Col. Singh and Maj. Bakshi. The film takes its own time to reveal the identity of the mongrel because it is the dog that holds the key to the climax.
The film does not rush itself into throwing any light on the significance of the title. In its Kashmir segment, which unfolds in the second half, an erstwhile army informer in the Valley tells Col. Abhay Singh that the separatists call him 'aiyaar', meaning a shape-shifting sorcerer who can assume any form and weave magic. It is another matter that the film does nothing of that sort, playing out in a dreary, monotonous arc.
Aiyaary wants to be a daring thriller that calls out smarmy politicians and arms dealers. But it only fires blanks. It begins with a disclaimer that its storyline is strictly fictional and that it has the utmost respect for the political class and the military establishment. The film lives up to its word. At the end of all the sound and fury, the purported targets are left unscathed. Only one poor cornered ex-soldier puts a bullet through his throat.
The audience, of course, deserves much better than what Aiyaary is willing to offer.