August 15, 2020
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This jingoistic revenge fantasy underlines that the enemy does lie across the border.

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Starring: Saif Ali Khan, Katrina Kaif, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub
Directed by Kabir Khan

Kabir Khan could well be one of the most consistent directors in Bollywood. He unfailingly bases his films on contentious global, nay subcontinental, issues, however simplistic his interpretations. Kabul Express was a road movie taking us on a ride through Taliban-hit Afghanistan without a sharp political punch. New York looked at the warped side of American politics and mispercep­ti­ons about Islam after 9/11 but ended up not taking a clear stand. Ek Tha Tiger offered a fan­t­astic Indo-Pak peace ini­tiative of sorts through a far-fetched love story of two spies. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Kabir managed to press all the right buttons despite being on an out-and-out mainstream masala mode. With Phantom, Kabir treads the same zone. The secret, unofficial mission to wipe out people responsible for 26/11 even plants viewers in civil war-torn Syria, with the hero and heroine inevitably caught in the cross-fire.

But things change in other ways. After the show of brotherhood in BB, this jingoistic revenge fantasy underlines that the enemy does lie across the border. It’s the familiar RAW vs ISI narrative. If Pakistan was portrayed with a sense of generosity and empathy in BB, here the neighbouring demons loom large. The deal is to get aggressive, rather than to just stop playing cricket with them. It’s back to being the patronising big brot­her with a token dialogue about how we are not against common Pakist­anis who, poor things, suffer as much. What’s implicit, of course, is how India will rescue them from the mess that is their country with a show of Ramboesque vigilante justice.

Yes, there is some nice action, a few sharp chases and some edge-of-the-seat, bite your nails moments. But Phantom would have worked had it been a silly spy story. The fact that it touches politics, but not quite, takes the real and turns it unreal, talks terrorism yet doesn’t go beyond scratching the surface makes it irritating rather than entertaining. Yes, there is an interesting running theme. Of a good Muslim having to prove his loyalty, of sacrificing himself at the altar of Bharat mata. But there’s no effort to elaborate on it. It remains hazy. No attempt is made to delve into a woun­ded psyche unlike, say, in a Chak De or even a Sarfarosh. What makes it worse is the one-­note performan­ces. Saif is automated. Nothing more. Katrina’s perennial look is one of glossy, parted lips and glycerine-wet eyes with nary a mobile facial muscle. In the couple of emotional scenes she is saddled with, she dutifu­lly makes them unintentionally funny. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, a riveting actor, deserves far better than a role where he has to be a self-righteous patriot. All in all, Phantom felt way too much like an inferior Baby. Even if Kabir’s heart was in the right place, his metaphors get highly mixed up.

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