Aiyaary: Neeraj Pandey commendably steers clear of aggressive, rabble-rousing nationalism in his ode to Indian Army
Unlike his longtime collaborator Akshay Kumar, Neeraj Pandey avoids going down the lane of pop patriotism, an allegation that their Baby is marred with.
Neeraj Pandey's last directorial, the 2015 Akshay Kumar starrer Baby, got rave reviews and box office success. But it was marred with the hyper-nationalism that has become a leitmotif in not only Kumar's films these days but also mainstream Bollywood as a whole.
Take into account the rabble-rousing speech of Amitabh Bachchan in R Balki's Padman this year or Shree Narayan Singh's Toilet: Ek Prem Katha starring Kumar, the poster boy of pop patriotism, last year. Even Aamir Khan could not resist the temptation of resorting to this populist tactic when he misappropriated facts to incorporate a 'patriotic' climax into his 2016 blockbuster, Nitesh Tiwari's sports drama Dangal.
Pandey, however, consciously steers clear of this ultra-nationalist dialogue-baazi in his recently released espionage thriller Aiyaary. If there is any given film about the Indian Army, it is almost given that it will resort to hyper-nationalism, unless it is Christopher Nolan's Academy Award nominated period war film Dunkirk.
Contrast Aiyaary with a film of the same genre, industry and universe. AR Murugadoss's 2014 film Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty starring Akshay Kumar (again!) screams preaching even by its title. It follows Kumar's character of an agent in the secret service wing of the Indian Army, who sacrifices his family and leisure time to undertake a covert mission. Through seemingly manufactured aggression, Kumar gives periodical reminders of how a soldier's life is singularly dedicated to his nation.
In a respite from such populist verbosity, Pandey's latest humanises a soldier, rather than deifying him, and puts across a dilemma that Bollywood has only skimmed the surface of. Rather than swearing by pop patriotism, Aiyaary looks at the Indian Army through a micro lens. The Manoj Bajpayee and Sidharth Malhotra starrer revolves around the constant dilemma that a soldier encounters.
Malhotra's character of Jai Bakshi is a dedicated soldier of the current generation who gives up on the political system that controls the army. He craftily devises a plan to expose the deep-rooted corruption involving both filthy politicians and members of his own clan. He discovers the futility of the army in the eyes of the corrupt executive and vows to bring a change through his espionage skills.
On the other side of the spectrum is Bajpayee's character of Abhay Singh, a morally upright soldier whose single-minded agenda is to serve his nation through following his superior's orders. He is aware of the dirt that surrounds him but is unwilling to be a party to the same. It is only natural that he enters into conflict with his protege Jai, juxtaposing leadership against loyalty.
This contrast also reflects the off-screen lives of Bajpayee and Malhotra who have lived a similar life in their professional capacities as actors. Bajpayee has been the dark horse throughout the past two decades, essaying one challenging role after the other, he has seldom whined about not getting his due. He did not allege vested interests when he was not nominated for his sublime performance in Hansal Mehta's Aligarh two years ago. Even in the case of Aiyaary, though he has a meatier part than Malhotra, it is being positioned as Sidharth's film.
Malhotra and Bajpayee's character graphs combine to form that of Rajkummar Rao in Amit V Masurkar's black comedy Newton. From an altruistic do-gooder who wants to conquer over the corrupt, Newton transforms into a self-reliant, self-sufficient optimist who remains immune to the filth around.
This to-be-or-not-to-be debate is everlasting but for it to sustain, the world needs a balance. For every film reeking of pop patriotism, there needs to be another one with subtle undertones. Every rabble-rousing speech needs to be countered by a constructive dialogue that speaks of, and not screams, the essence of nationalism.
In the case of Aiyaary, notwithstanding the clunky execution, Pandey feeds more on his creative restraint than formulaic standards of how to get an 'army film' right. That could also be why the filmmaker and a certain longtime collaborator could not Crack a deal with this one.
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