Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Katrina Kaif, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Sohaila Kapur, Zeeshan Ayyub
Direction: Kabir Khan
Rating: 3 stars
‘Simplistic’ is a word most of us would use for a story about a man, a court-martialed Army officer, being hired by RAW on a vigilante mission to kill the masterminds of the 26/11 terror attacks. But as one of the characters in Kabir Khan’s Phantom points out, when the leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba ordered a group of eight to ten boys to enter a city by the sea and bomb its most powerful landmarks, that too might have sounded simplistic, even absurd at that time.
If one went on a fishing expedition to catch the flaws in this spy thriller, they won’t return empty handed. Yes, the film, which is loosely based on S. Hussain Zaidi’s book Mumbai Avengers, which creates a utopian world where justice is meted out at last, albeit in roundabout ways, takes some cinematic liberties. But so firm is the screenplay and so breathless is the pace, that the story just about escapes from coming across as contrived. Kabir doesn’t allow a moment of calm as the story travels around the world from Mumbai to Chicago to Beirut, Syria and eventually Pakistan.
Phantom is set five years after the Mumbai attacks, when disgraced Army man Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan) is covertly hired by RAW to seek out and kill the terror masterminds Hariz Saeed, David Coleman Headley, Sajid Maeed and Sabauddin Umvi. There are holes in his plan, but then this is fiction unfolding in a brutally real backdrop. There is a slight tension in this paradox, however, with some able direction from Kabir Khan, leading man Saif is able to play his character with convincing earnestness that lends a certain amount of credibility to his own story and the plot on the whole. He keeps his James Bond swag in check (remember Agent Vinod?) and brings about a much-needed vulnerability to the role. The plot doesn’t dwell on the workings of Daniyal’s mind. As he goes from one mission to another, we barely see him planning, he’s right there at the scene of execution. This may seem abrupt, but the feverish pace doesn’t let you dwell on these quibbles. They come to you only as afterthoughts, but you have already had your fun by then.
Assisting Daniyal on his mission is Nawaz Mistry (Katrina Kaif), an ex-RAW agent. The actress has a substantial role, and is not there for mere eye-candy purposes. Respect again for the director for extracting a career-best performance from Katrina. Nawaz’s English backdrop explains Kat’s accent so it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, the way it does in her other films. Also, she’s at her expressive best in this one. However, her intent in being part of the mission remains confused. And if that were on purpose, neither the story nor the actress digs deep into the internal conflicts of her character.
The supporting cast is commanding. Sabyasachi Chakrabarty and Zeeshan Ayyub dole out powerful performances, even as Zeeshan as the young RAW recruit seems slightly underutilised despite the screen space he enjoys. A must mention is Sohaila Kapur in the role of an elderly nurse who lost her son to the LeT suicide mission squad. Hindi cinema could certainly do with more of this gifted theatre veteran.
Kabir Khan is well aware of what people expect from him after Bajrangi Bhaijaan. If his last film screamed “peace”, Phantom shows no mercy. It’s emotional but never manipulative. Working on two polar opposite spectrums almost simultaneously, it’s commendable how Kabir walks the line between patriotism and jingoism. Phantom scores in a gripping first half that sustains, if not surpasses its pace in the second half — not a mean task given a run time of 147 minutes. Aarif Sheikh’s editing is ruthless, just what a story that spans so many locations and so many characters, needs. This film is an editor’s triumph all the way. And of course Aseem Mishra’s cinematography and Peter Pedrero’s sleek fight sequences add to Phantom’s patina.
The film dares to throw some unsettling questions, one of them being, are Pakistani locals supportive of the militant outfits in their country? It even shows the ISI as hand in glove with the LeT. Disturbing scenarios yes, but they explain why the film has been banned in Pakistan. Phantom is no more just 147 minutes of big screen time. The reel and the real Phantom episodes have packed in an almost filmi irony bawling out the difference between the story that should have been and the story that is.