Thursday, 25 July 2013

The 'D-Day' Paradox [WARNING: Spoilers]

A lot of films drift into the ether as the house lights come on. Not the blandly titled 'D-Day', which I saw Saturday night and which remains tattooed upon my brain five days later.

It's a fictional tale of four RAW agents (external Indian intelligence, i.e., spies) who abduct India's most wanted criminal from his son's very public wedding in Karachi, Pakistan. The criminal is based on Dawood Ibrahim, wanted for funding the 1993 Mumbai bombings and still at large as the head of a Dubai-based criminal organisation. Director Nikhil Advani denies the connection, but the breakneck narrative unspools like historical fiction that Advani admits was inspired by a conversation he had with a taxi driver around the time of Osama bin Laden's extermination by US Navy Seals. The driver asked why Indian cinema hadn't made a film about the capture of India's public enemy number one.

A couple years later, Advani's delivered 'D-Day'.

Unlike most films of the genre that convey superhuman attributes upon a single, quip-ready hero, Advani focuses on the differing skills and flaws of the four agents, all of which contribute to their fate. Irrfan Khan's Wali has a Pakistani wife and child that make him emotionally vulnerable. Arjun Rampal's lone wolf Rudra scowls and grunts but falls into a relationship with a scarred prostitute (Shruti Haasan) named Suraiya that exposes the human within the killing machine. Huma Querishi has that rarest of roles -- an action movie heroine not in love or soon to be in love with a main protagonist -- whose commitment to her job is destroying her marriage. Akaash Dahiya's Aslam is a Pakistani driver with the most to lose if caught betraying his homeland. These variables contribute to a collective, gripping unease as the foursome's situation deteriorates.

Rishi Kapoor's larger-than-life scoundrel is code-named Goldman by RAW and he plays it like a star. Kapoor was a romantic hero in the '70s but has taken to negative roles like a portly, hairpiece-wearing duck to water in his career's second act. Advani jacks the volume of Kapoor's growl so he barks at subordinates with barely a movement, compacting his malice and making his soliloquies hypnotic. A film like 'D-Day' rises or falls on the believability of its antihero, and Kapoor nails it.

Besides the standout performances of Khan, Rampal and Kapoor, two scenes have lingered like concussion bombs in my brain. They represent a paradox that initially left me questioning the merits of the film and in a broader sense the morality of Indian cinema. They are two of the most harrowing scenes I've ever seen in a mass-marketed film, both beautifully shot, both crucial to the narrative, and both undeniably cruel.

The first does something uniquely Bollywood, but with a ghoulish twist: It employs a haunting song called 'Ek Ghida' (hear it at the bottom of this post) as backdrop to the sadistic murder of Haasan's Suraiya by one of Goldman's goons. Rampal's Rudra walks through the crime scene and visualises his lover's demise as Rekha Bhardwaj's voice pleads with Rudra to carry her with him. It's nearly seven minutes of cinematic genius with a graphic, slow-motion depiction of a woman's murder at its core.

The second scene reminded me of films about the Holocaust in which unknowing innocents are sent to their deaths. Anonimity in the vast numbers of victims in those films normally limit the horror but not so in D-Day. We've become familiar with Wali's wife and child. We've been in their tiny Karachi flat. We've followed Wali's attempt to fly them to London and watched the freakish cancellation of all flights due to the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. Advani uses this familiarity against us later as Wali's death in a hail of Pakistani bullets is intercut with his family's poisoning, which is introduced with a shot of the boy recoiling in disgust at a glass of milk given to him by a Pakistani guard holding the two captive. We know the milk is poisoned. We know he's about to die, and he does, in slow motion, spitting foam while his mother wails and begs for help. She also dies, of course, while we watch. It's a fucking brutal scene, the first time I've seen a mother and child's murder so carefully portrayed in a Hindi film.

The paradox? Indian actors endure abuse from fans if they kiss on-screen and, while item number girls wear provocative outfits, nudity is absolutely forbidden. What's the message? Sadism, murder and infanticide = OK. Passion and the female body = Obscene.

This isn't a criticism of Advani's film. If anything, I salute a director with the courage to accurately depict the horrors wrought by villians without resorting to evil laughs and cartoonish mannerisms. It's Indian cinema's bizarre double standard I don't understand.

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