Guess who's done an item number in director Nikhil Advani's new film, D-Day? Rajpal Yadav. And you thought only women get objectified in Bollywood. Now if only Tushar Kanti Ray's camera had also lingered lovingly over Arjun Rampal, preferably in various stages of disrobing, heterosexual women across the country would have had a reason to flock to see D-Day. No such luck, though we can happily report that Rampal is aging beautifully. Admittedly he spends most of D-Day gritting his jaw and looking like he can't figure out what's going on, but then so does the audience.
From its trailer, D-Day appears to be the desi lovechild born out of a threesome made up of Zero Dark Thirty, Munich and James Bond. There is however a different film whose title it could have borrowed: Clueless. The film begins as a thriller, wanders into heartbreak, gets stuck on revenge, takes a sharp wrong turn with an outlandish twist and ends in no man's land. This is a shame because D-Day begins promisingly and it's realising a long-cherished Indian dream: to catch Dawood Ibrahim.
As Rajpal Yadav gyrates energetically to "Dama dam mast kalandar" at a wedding in Pakistan, D-Day opens with two men subtly setting a plan in motion. We don't know what's going on or why they're doing what they are, but Advani has the audience's attention. Swiftly it becomes clear that the target of the stratagem is a don who is believed to be responsible for all the recent terror attacks in India, including 26/11.
Iqbal (Rishi Kapoor) is a terror-monger modelled on Dawood Ibrahim. When we meet him, he's sitting pretty in Pakistan and getting ready for his son's wedding to a cricketer's daughter. When a bomb blast tears through Hyderabad, the patriotic head of India's Research & Analysis Wing decides he's going to take a leaf out of the American military playbook and send a covert team to apprehend Iqbal. The project is titled Operation Goldman. The team is made up of two R&AW plants in Pakistan — Wali (Irrfan), who has been pretending to be a barber in Karachi and massaging an ISI agent's head for 9 years in hope of uncovering intelligence, and Aslam (Aakash Dahiya), an ex-murderer. These two are joined by Zoya (Huma Qureishi), an explosives expert, and Rudra (Rampal), a rogue Indian soldier who can match camels' strides and kill people in the messiest possible manner.
In order to stay inconspicuously undercover, Rudra shacks up with a prostitute who has literally been scarred (Shruti Haasan, with a fake scar). While waiting for the big day, he smoulders, smooches and commits a couple of murders in broad daylight in order to establish he is an impressive soldier and a romantic. He brutally beats up an ISI agent in a bus (while Wali is following the bus in an open-air auto, pointing a gun at the grappling duo). Then, in order to win fulfill his lover's wish, Rudra follows the man who had disfigured the prostitute's face and (with a witness present) kills him in a way that leaves Rudra drenched in blood.
Did I mention all this is happening in Pakistan and Rudra is undercover?
He's not the only one breaking the law in the name of patriotism. Zoya also has to prep for the operation by committing one sexual act — sadly, her partner is nowhere near as lovely as Rudra's — and one murder. Wali and Aslam are the only ones who don't indulge in random acts of violence at this stage (although they more than make up for it in the latter half of the film).
By and large, the acting in the film is competent. Kapoor, weighed down by a patently fake moustache, hams occasionally but manages to mix bombast and menace to create his take on Dawood Ibrahim. The script doesn't allow Irrfan's character the luxury of being logical, so the actor attempts to give his role some emotional heft. The role of his Pakistani wife, Nafisa, is played by the lovely Shriswara. Qureshi is convincing, but barely utilised. It's better than the scenes of mindless violence that are Hassan's character's lot. However, even if D-Day is ultimately a boys' bash and Zoya is sidelined, at least Qureshi's role relies less on the usual clichés that make conventional Bollywood heroines boring. Advani attempts to be balanced in terms of politics and religious sentiments too. Unfortunately, while he gets A for effort, he also gets a F for credibility.
Still, if you don't look for realism in its ludicrous version of how politics, governments and covert teams work, the first half of D-Day is actually quite fun. Everything seems to be coming together: performance, strategy, stunts, music, cinematography. The script tries to mesh facts with its fiction by referring to actual terror plots and it's effective in parts. As pulpy drama goes, D-Day is true to genre until interval and without nauseating jingoism.
Then comes the second half, also known as the altar at which logic, causality and common sense are sacrificed. People yell, tyres screech, bullets are fired and a twist is thrown into the mix. (After all, the Indian agents have to do something to entertain themselves while completing Operation Goldman. So, among other things, they stand in the middle of a deserted highway and yell at each other like squabbling, hormonal teenagers in an American road movie.)
The Indian government washes its hands off the patriots in R&AW, disowns the undercover agents, leaving them to die or be captured. Almost no one in Pakistan recognises the Indians even though their mug shots have been published and circulated widely by the Pakistani military and police. Buying stuff like guns and RDX is no big deal either. It is quite staggering how much violence D-Day believes can be explained away with, "It's happening in Pakistan."
The real surprises, however, come right at the end. First, the conclusion presents a very alarming vision of "new India" (Rudra's words, not mine), in which self-respect is a warm gun. Second, thanks to D-Day, there's finally something against which the ISI and R&AW can, for once, present a united front: Bollywood's inane depiction of intelligence agencies and their operations. Finally, with the last shot of the film, you realise that if this was how the story had to end, the film could have ended after the first 10 minutes. That means you have to sit through about 143 minutes of D-Day for no good reason. Sometimes, good things don't come to those who wait.