War movie review: Hrithik-Tiger starrer runs a loyalty test for Muslims under cover of an exciting action drama
War is in some ways an exciting action thriller.
castHrithik Roshan, Tiger Shroff, Vaani Kapoor, Ashutosh Rana, Anupriya Goenka, Soni Razdan, Arif Zakaria
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
It is a good time to be a woman Bollywood viewer. No, revise that to woman, man and anyone else who likes hot-looking dudes. Because we live in an era when we know without question that if a film stars Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, then irrespective of how the screenplay pans out, it will deliver pay-off in the form of dance jugalbandis between these two, thrilling physical stunts and at least one of them shedding his shirt to flash a perfectly worked out torso.
And so it is with War helmed by Siddharth Anand whose directorial credits include Salaam Namaste, Ta Ra Rum Pum, Bachna Ae Haseeno, Anjaana Anjaani and Bang Bang.
Dance duet in War featuring the male leads: check. To the song Jai Jai Shivshankar.
Thrilling stunts: check. From start to finish.
Shirt removal: check. At 11.38 a.m. on my watch, during a 9 a.m. show. Yes, I measured the wait. Plus, if women are your preferred sex, then FYI the first shot of Vaani Kapoor in the film has her in a two-piece swimsuit. And throughout the young lady's scenes, the tailoring department is sparing in its use of fabric for her.
Don't judge me. When you invest time and money in a film, and it turns out to be deeply problematic, a viewer is compelled to eke out a return on investment. And if you are going, "Hawww, how can you call yourself a feminist and talk like that?", may I request you to click on this hyperlink?
War is in some ways an exciting action thriller starring Tiger Shroff as Khalid Rahmani, an Army officer assigned to nab his former mentor, Kabir (Hrithik Roshan), who has now inexplicably gone rogue. On the road to their final confrontation, there are high-speed chases, bloody fisticuffs, impossible acrobatics, impressive gadgets, pretty men and women, stunning locales in Italy, Portugal, Australia, India and elsewhere, and some well-conceived twists. One twist can be seen coming from a distance, but the rest are admittedly unpredictable. One character's questionable actions seem to have been completely forgotten in the end, but for the most part the screenplay remains consistent. Despite War's evidently large budget, at least three sequences look plastic and pretending to have been shot on location, but even this is forgivable because the overall visual content is breathtaking. My pick of cinematographer Benjamin Jasper's frames is a night-time view of a Delhi Metro train whizzing past this city's famed giant Hanuman statue - the Metro is now a Bollywood staple but no one has shot it quite like this yet.
The overall excitement in the screenplay compensates for these flaws and the inordinately loud background score, especially if you are in an indulgent mood having accepted that in most departments War is conventional Bollywood. This is the sort of film in which Vaani Kapoor's introduction comes in a stereotypical song and dance passage highlighting her looks while Kabir gazes at her, because what else is a heroine for but to be looked at, loved and provide a motivation for the hero's actions rather than being herself in the thick of things? This is the sort of film in which a rambunctious, colourful song and dance routine on elaborate sets follows right after an emotionally intense scene because a certain kind of Bollywood cinema wants to be in a position to tell the viewer that isme action hai, drama hai, comedy hai, emoshun hai, naach-gaana hai aur romance bhi, and narrative rationale be damned. War is the sort of film in which, right in the middle of a bone-crunching battle amidst ruins in Tikrit, Kabir and Khalid pause for a spot of dialoguebaazi, which is of course silly but also amusing in the way commercial Indian films of any language tend to be when they pointedly ask viewers not to take them seriously.
All in all then, War could have been a suspenseful, eyecatching, entertaining ride. But for its politics. Behind the guns, gloss and glamour, what this film is is a painfully condescending ode to Muslim loyalty to our vatan, an ode that is particularly cynical and offensive considering that the past five years have been marked by unprecedented Islamophobia in India.
There was a time when Hindi cinema was replete with positive stereotypes of Muslims, and liberal commentators (Muslim and non-Muslim) should be held to account for not pointing out that excessively syrupy portrayals of a particular community - the golden-hearted fakir, the golden-hearted tawaif, the golden-hearted all-sacrificing friend or stranger - was also a form of othering that needed to be called out. They failed to recognise that glowing stereotypes are very likely to have been over-compensation for closeted prejudice. The turn of the century brought in a steady trickle of films in which Muslims were thankfully portrayed as regular people, good, bad and ugly. But in the past five years, as open expressions of hatred have become increasingly socially acceptable, Bollywood has cashed in on prevailing Islamophobia with an equally steady trickle of tacky, historically dishonest films such as Padmaavat, Kesari and Kalank, or even the more polished but just as insidious Batla House. War does not fall into the same category as these four aforementioned films. Weirdly enough, the team of War seems to mean well. But the writing (story by producer Aditya Chopra and Anand himself, screenplay by Shridhar Raghavan and Anand) operates on the "unn logon ke beech bhi kuchh achhe log hotey hai" (there are some good people among them too) attitude that one gets from fence-sitting majoritarian bigots in the real world.
Messrs Chopra, Anand and Raghavan, if you think you were doing India's already beleaguered Muslim community a good turn with War, please step back for a moment, take a deep breath, give yourself some distance from it and maybe, just maybe, you may realise how patronising your film is.
Khalid Rahmani is the character being put through an agni pariksha in the film. Some may argue that the denouement serves the purpose of holding a mirror up to a cynical audience, reminding viewers of their own prejudice. It does not work that way though because the film itself reeks of a loyalty test.
Hrithik Roshan is the film's greatest asset. He is gorgeous, the salt and pepper look suits his gracefully aging face beautifully, and despite occasional over-wrought emotional histrionics he does a decent acting job. But the nasal, throaty dialogue delivery that has been his signature so far is so overdone here that it is sometimes hard to decipher the lines he speaks.
Tiger Shroff is an excellent dancer, has a fabulous body and an overall likeable screen presence, but acting is not his talent. In a film where he spends most of his time bashing up people, that might have been tolerable if it were not for his laboured attempt at pronouncing Urdu words. What was the diction coach doing?
Vaani Kapoor has a limited role but her Naina gets one of the film's most promising lines. Words to this effect: "Not every Indian is a soldier, not every Indian is out to save the country. Some of us are just fighting to give our little child a simple, good life. These are the battles being fought by ordinary Indians." Kapoor is effective to the extent that she can be in a small role, but Naina's proposition remains unexplored.
All the film's pluses and minuses fade into the background though in the face of its (unwittingly?) troubling politics. Khalid is a metaphor for India's Muslim community, and when one person at one point offers what he sees as proof of the young man's patriotism followed by "Isse bada saboot kya ho sakta hai uski vatanparasti ka?" (What greater proof can there be of his devotion to the nation?), the condescension just shoots through the roof.
"The war is still on," says a character in the closing moments. Take his word for it: there will be a sequel. Next time, Team War, stick with the mindlessness and skip the misplaced, poorly thought out profundities, please?
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