When it comes to cricket and movies, there’s one word that catalyzes all of us into products that are patriotic or jingoistic, depending on one’s preference. That word, of course, is “Pakistan”. So when director Kabir Khan gets Husain Zaidi’s work of fiction, “Mumbai Avengers”, to the big screen, you know you’re bound to have a reaction. How you react also depends on what you expect out of “Phantom”. If you expect a hard-hitting, gritty political, investigative drama that’ll gut you, this is no “Black Friday”.
What Kabir Khan (also writing the screenplay with Parveez Shaikh, and writing the script with Kausar Munir) does with the story results in a very, very fast-paced first half that, when it breaks for the intermission, makes you go, “Already?” The premise of “Phantom” is part the great “Munich” (only in aspiration, not in reach), part “Mission Impossible”, part a wishful thinking of anyone who’s ever indulged in discussion of how to deal with Pakistan post the 26/11 attacks, and part “Zero Dark Thirty” (minus any of the breathtaking planning or execution, plus the intent). With this mix, we have a team of RAW agents in India who receive intel of an imminent attack on India from the other side. One of the agents has a brilliant brainwave to dissuade our neighbor from any future misadventures on our territory – neutralize all the masterminds behind the 26/11 attacks and tell them like it is. Next, the hunt for a suitable candidate who’ll carry out this operation single-handedly, minus any official party. The team lands up with Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan) who’s on a self-inflicted life of a recluse.
The attempts to recruit Daniyal are good fun, and there’s a telling dialogue here. When the agents ask Daniyal, “When they can do it, why can’t we?” The reply is superb: “They’re barbarous, I’m not.” Be that as It may, Daniyal comes on board, and there begins the aforesaid first half of the movie. Kabir Khan keeps you engrossed, as Daniyal flits from country to country carrying out his mission. The pace is furtive, accelerated, and you’re on edge of the seat for most of the time. On the mission, Daniyal meets Nawaz (Katrina Kaif) who becomes a key cohort in achieving his mission, although the realization and ramifications of what they’re doing strikes her a little later.
Kabir Khan also projects what could be one of the best shots I’ve seen for the intermission cue. The night city skyline, a plane in the sky, and Daniyal and Nawaz weighing their options, as their mission is aborted, what with the Pakistanis getting a name handle on Daniyal. The second half goes into Pakistan with the mission in the ultimate orbit, where the key mastermind of the 26/11 attacks and the terrorist organization (LeT) head have to be eliminated. There’s some superb tension here as the ISI agents start catching up with Daniyal’s mission and, unaware of this, he has to keep two steps ahead of them. The gun fight sequences are done with grit and sound glory, very effective and engaging. There’s also true moments of clutching your seat, as in the superb chase scene in London’s subway; or, when the audience gasped in a unison of horror in a truly shattering scene involving a getaway vehicle’s number plate.
What weighs down “Phantom” is when Kabir Khan goes down the emotional road, especially when he employs Katrina Kaif to do that. She is also the most detached note in this movie. Be it bruising battles, sinking to the bottom of the ocean or tending to injured people, her makeup, eyelashes, and face blush are intact. As are her expressions, save for a lump in the throat moment in the end when she’s sipping tea in front of the Taj hotel. However, there are some powerful performances too, especially Sohaila Kapur, who as the Pakistani lady loses her son to LeT, decides to help the mission at a precipitous point in the story. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as the RAW agent whose idea drives this mission is likeable and sincere. Sabyasachi Chakraborty as the Indian intelligence chief has the right gravitas and heft to carry it off convincingly.
I was wondering how Saif Ali Khan would differentiate this performance from the one in “Agent Vinod”. But he does it with an understated efficiency that’s clinical and effective, scoring high on the performance charts. He doesn’t indulge in loud histrionics, thankfully stays clear of hand pumps, and makes his incredible character credible.
Pritam’s songs are not too many and thankfully do not slow down the pace. Even the foot-tapping “Afghan jalebi” – more because, I suspect, one keeps hearing the song day in and out than the composer’s musical prowess – has the story hurtling forward towards Saif’s exposure by the ISI. Julius Packiam’s background is pretty effective, at least as effective as they can be these days.
As the movie ends, you realize just how many lives and families were destroyed by the 26/11 attacks. And for now, the only closure we can resign ourselves to is the filmic “Phantom,” while the ghosts of the masterminds continue to mock us from beyond the borders.
Watch the trailer of Phantom here: