Cast: Vidyut Jammwal, Shivaleeka Oberoi, Aahana Kumra, Annu Kapoor, Shiv Pandit
Director: Faruk Kabir
Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out Of 5)
Vidyut Jammwal sheds his Commando skin and assumes the guise of an ordinary man faced with an extraordinary crisis. But, pitted against human traffickers in a fictional Arab nation, he still has to do plenty of huffing and puffing in Khuda Haafiz. In the process of drawing blood and breaking bones, he, in marked departure from past practice, has to reckon with self-doubt, confusion and blowbacks.
The action star slows down perceptibly to match the drift of the thriller written and directed by Faruk Kabir. But the film itself is far too beset with plot contrivances to be able to lend the protagonist's mission the requisite intrigue and intensity.
Interestingly, the harried protagonist implores and inquires rather than demands and asserts until at least an hour into the 134-minute film. His wife has gone missing in an alien land where dangers lurks at every turn. There is no way he can mount a rescue operation without active help on the ground from absolute strangers.
Conveniently, everyone he encounters in the Sultanate of Noman breaks into Hindi or a smattering of English. So, he is rarely at a loss for words and his entreaties do not go unheeded. However, worried stiff and fast running out of patience, he says to an Indian embassy official: "Mujhe meri Nargis chahiye bas, phir main waapas chala jaoonga." But that, as he can fathom for himself, is easier said than done.
Besides presenting a 'new' Vidyut Jammwal, Khuda Haafiz, streaming on Disney + Hotstar, gives a few Bollywood shibboleths a wide berth even as it proffers an absolutely standard storyline. It pits an out-of-work Lucknow software engineer against a vile gang that has kidnapped his wife and pushed her into the flesh trade.
Sameer Chaudhary (Jammwal) is a lad steeped in old-world tehzeeb. He marries the girl his parents choose for him - Nargis Rajput (Shivaleeka Oberoi), daughter of a Hindu-Muslim couple who have done a flawless job of raising their daughter in their own image: independent and confident and yet no dyed in the wool rebel tilting against societal and parental impositions.
No sooner do Nargis and Sameer wed than they lose their jobs as a consequence of the 2008 global recession. They are forced to look for employment abroad. The allusion to a financial crisis of over a decade ago - the period allows the blame to be pinned on a safe target - is noteworthy considering that India has been in the middle of a slowdown for almost four years now. Wouldn't the misfortune that befalls the newly married couple in Khuda Haafiz have made just as much sense had the story been set closer to the present times?
The traffickers here are all Arab men who speak with ludicrously fluctuating accents, but the film does not peddle Islamophobic sentiments of the kind that Bollywood so easily falls prey to these days. On landing in the Sultanate of Noman, Sameer finds a committed ally in a Pathan cabbie Usmaan (Annu Kapoor).
Nor is that all. He receives help from a Pakistani convenience store owner, gets a useful lead from a Bangladeshi employee of a telecom company and eventually teams up with two local police officers, Faiz Abu Malik (Shiv Pandit) and Tamena Hamid (Aahana Kumra).
A handful of big twists - a grisly death, a welcome resurrection and a grievous betrayal - are reserved for the last quarter of the film but notwithstanding the red herrings strewn across Sameer's path, you can, from miles away, see the shape of the denouement that is coming.
Had this been a Commando or a Baaghi, Sameer Chaudhary would have flown into a murderous rage on receiving an SOS from his sobbing wife. Here, he panics. A hapless hunk isn't the norm in a Bollywood thriller, definitely not when Jammwal is at the heart of it, but the film does manage to a certain extent to make the man's plight convincing enough to hang a few of his desperate subsequent acts on. But only a few.
Khuda Haafiz, like the hero, flails about with intent, but is always a strictly middling affair in which the only point of interest is a lead actor straining at the leash to flex his muscles and not being allowed to go all out to prove how fighting fit he exactly is.
In fact, the action sequences and stunts in the film, shot in Tashkent and other parts of Uzbekistan, are more freestyle and frenetic than fast and fantastical. There is nothing in the plot to suggest that the hero was born with mixed martial arts-level combat skills, but when it comes to going after the bad guys his rough and ready ways work just fine.
But that isn't good news for Khuda Haafiz, the rough and ready methods we mean. They turn the film into an arbitrary, contrived actioner too fixated on the hero to worry about developing the villains into rounded characters who can exude genuine menace and give him a run for his money. He does do a lot of running all right and finds himself being chased in situations that threaten life and limb. Predictably, he never fails to come out in one piece, give or take a bruise or two.
The actors playing the Arab characters - Shiv Pandit in particular - are erratic with their dialogue delivery. Despite the occasional diction-related slip-ups, Aahana Kumra gives a good account of herself. Shivaleeka Oberoi is done in by an underwritten role. Annu Kapoor, who gets a lion's share of the footage apportioned to the supporting cast, makes it count.
Vidyut Jammwal isn't his usual electrifying self. The film has no scope for the dazzling self-performed stunts that he has built his career around. You can sense that he is making an effort to hold on to the sedate body language that the role calls for but, to his credit, he does not let that struggle overly undermine the performance.
The spirit of this film, for whatever it is worth, is best exemplified by the hero wishing a friend Khuda Haafiz with his hands folded to denote a namaste. That alone would have set Khuda Haafiz apart if only it had been a better film.