Saturday, July 20, 2013

Thoughts on D-Day

Early in Nikhil Advani’s D-Day, people in high positions in national security and intelligence discuss the difficult matter of infiltrating another country, and someone points out that Pakistan isn’t a municipality garden where you go in, pluck a flower (meaning Iqbal, the Dawood Ibrahim-like character played by Rishi Kapoor) and sashay out. By the second half of this film though, I had my doubts. Here are four “undercover” Indian spies, at least two of whom have been involved in very public acts of violence in Karachi before carrying out their high-stakes mission – Operation Goldman, which involves bombing a hotel where a wedding ceremony for Iqbal’s son is being held. The hotel attack itself goes wrong for reasons they couldn’t have anticipated, but they elude top-level, city-wide security and "wanted" posters to return to the guesthouse they have rented rooms in (and this after participating in more gratuitous nighttime violence on the streets). Later they set off again in two explosive-laden cars to try and blow another big house to kingdom come. At this point I was thinking that if espionage/terrorism/revenge-terrorism were so casually planned and executed in real-world India and Pakistan, the two countries might get bored with each other and decide to become friends.

Which is not to say that D-Day is a poor film. It is entertaining and even gripping from one scene to the next, if you don’t think too much about credibility (or, in the second half, comprehensibility). It begins with a tense, solidly crafted 15-minute action sequence – at this point we don’t know exactly what is going on and what is at stake – and then gives us a prolonged flashback to the weeks leading up to Operation Goldman. We meet the Indian agents, beginning with Wali Khan who has been installed in Pakistan for a decade and is leading a double life with a wife and son whom he deeply loves but who know nothing
of his background. From the start, we see that the divide between love and duty is strongest with this man (a voiceover thickly underlines the point) and that if someone is going to complicate the mission it is likely to be him – and so, what better actor than Irrfan Khan to play the role? Wali is well-integrated into Pakistani life and has perhaps even developed a certain affection for and understanding of the country: this is not really explored in the script, but Khan has enough interiority as an actor to make it seem likely and relevant.

The inner conflicts of the other members of the group are not as fleshed out as they might have been though. There is the token woman in the group, Zoya (Huma Qureshi in a disappointingly small part – though it’s considerably larger than that of Rajkumar Yadav, who plays her husband back in India and appears only as a sulky voice in two phone conversations and as the wallpaper on her laptop) and there is Aslam (Aakash Dahiya), about whom we know almost nothing. Much more screen time is given to Rudra (Arjun Rampal). He is presented as a single-minded, individualistic killing machine, but shortly after making his base in Karachi’s “jism-faroshi ka bazaar” – one of the few places where no questions are asked of strangers – he falls in love, or something resembling love, with a prostitute (Shruti Hassan) whose name he barely registers through all their time together (though her quiet reference to the song “Kajrare” indicates that she has guessed where he is from and that it doesn’t affect her feelings for him).

On paper, this is a touching romance; in actual practice, it amounts to little more than a series of nicely shot still-picture moments set to good music, and there is something alarmingly random about a scene where Rudra uses some of his free time in the countdown to Operation Goldman to kill the man who scarred her face. (Perhaps he sees this as part-practice for his big mission, but he might at least have done it in a way that drew less attention.)

Anyway, having perfunctorily established the characters and their relationships, and returned to the scene of the busted operation, the second half follows a familiar action-movie template: the unraveling of a carefully laid plan, its immediate aftermath, the dynamics of group paranoia, the hurried counter-strategising and second-guessing. There is the broad tone here of a heist-gone-wrong film, but it seems out of place in a situation where the stakes are so much higher, involving the destinies of two combative countries that also happen to be nuclear powers.

More generally too, I thought the film became uneven in its tone and pacing around this point. On the one hand, it has delicate touches and is attentive to the small gesture, from the use of a phrase like “vilaayati badmaashi” (which occurs in a romantic conversation between husband and wife but has added edge in this story) to the comical sight of a liquid-soap spray being pressed into service during a fight in a restroom. But there are just as many detours into heavy-handedness and superfluity: take the scene where Wali catches a segment of TV news in a marketplace and comes to a realization that has strong emotional and practical implications. Narrative tautness is of the essence at this point in the film, and the scene needed nothing more than a couple of seconds of Irrfan’s expressive face; instead there is an unnecessary montage of brief flashbacks to things we have already seen a short while ago.

By its very nature, this story is about the grand and the banal, the personal and the political, brushing against each other. This is effectively done in places, and there are signs that the script intended to puncture the balloon of lofty, sloganeering ideas about patriotism, nationalism and duty, rather than set up a good-vs-evil dichotomy. The unsentimental, no-nonsense performances of the veteran actors Nasser – as the R&AW head – and KK Raina – as a Pakistani general – are reminders that national defence and intelligence agencies necessarily inhabit a moral twilight zone. And this is also why Iqbal’s big, mocking speech at the end, though a very amusing bit of business on its own terms (and one gets to hear Rishi baba say chutiya on screen! Twice!), strikes a jarring note. It makes Iqbal an all-too-easy focal point for an Indian audience's pent-up rage, and catharsis is too conveniently achieved.

One of the most striking visuals in D-Day comes shortly after this: a shot of Iqbal’s red-tinted glasses sitting in the desert, the sand blowing past them. The image reminded me of Ozymandias’s crumbling statue, a symbol of hubris laid to waste, but perhaps the glasses can also be likened to the billboard eyes in The Great Gatsby, gazing dispassionately at (while also being a symptom of) an increasingly amoral landscape. After all, Iqbals and Dawoods come out of a long and complex history of violence and corruption – they aren’t the single-point sources from which all evil things emanate. But at the very end, a film that has otherwise shown a head for nuance seems to cop out and plumb for an easy solution. If this is what D-Day was headed for all along, perhaps it should have stuck to being an explicitly jingoistic, adrenaline-fueled thriller from the beginning.


  1. How do you counter criticism that as a film critic you have not been involved in the production of a film or in the writing of script or dialogues? Do you think that should be a prerequisite to becoming a critic because it helps you understand the process better? (which in turn, can make you a better critic. Both Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael were involved, no matter how briefly in moviemaking)


  2. Anon: no, I don't think that is a prerequisite, though it does help in understanding the filmmaking process better. (Of course, you might then become so sympathetic that you end up suspending your critical faculties - so it can be a double-edge sword.) It also helps to have read scripts and detailed literature about the making of specific films - how the process went, what changed at various points. Both of which I have done.

    Btw, Kael was involved in moviemaking only very briefly (and unsuccessfully) at a very late stage, after her major work as a critic had already been done. And some of the best film writers I know have never had such experience.

  3. Pardon me, but isn't the film's neocon hawkish premise alone antithetical to any consideration of nuance? Are you really surprised that the resolution is devoid of any?

  4. Sapera: 1) not necessarily (btw, I hadn't looked closely at the posters before writing this - the ones with the "Ab Hamaari Baari hai" and "India gets back" or whatever), and 2) Yes, given what the film had shown itself capable of at other points in the narrative.

  5. Most of the espionage films world over are more fantasy than anything else. Having served in this oldest profession for almost 3 decades, wish Indian bunch of RAW hands were able to do something what the film shows.The agency has failed and that is why Pak ISI is one up on us.Our CI is equally bad and IB thinks informing the State heads with general intelligence every now and then is enough to justify its existence. The state chief's complain about lack of actionable intelligence, but have no guts to speak the truth.Wish Indian movie makers someday make a sensible film in this genre otherwise every other film is Ek Tha Tiger.
    Suresh Mandan

  6. I am yet to see the movie. But I like the way you have reviewed. In most of these movies even I like to check the possibility of realism or the effort of making it look realistic.

    A lot of people it seems tend to think that IB or RAW dont do anything or are completely useless. I dont agree. We dont have the policy that USA has that all govt information should be made public at some point of time. They have this declassification of information. even if its after 75 years. We don't, I don't think most countries have anything remotely like that hence its difficult to fig out "which agency is involved to what level of activities?"