30 August 2015

The Fantasy of Phantom

My Mirror column this morning: 

Why Kabir Khan's journey from Bajrangi Bhaijaan to Phantom isn't the massive about-turn everyone's claiming it is.

Saif Ali Khan heading to a 'Haaris Saeed' rally in a still from Phantom
Kabir Khan has released two films in 2015: Bajrangi Bhaijaan (BB) and now Phantom, adapted from S Hussain Zaidi's novel Mumbai Avengers. BB drew on Salman Khan's role as Bhai to a country of young men to create a pure-hearted if somewhat mule-like hero, who could now perform that elder-brother function cinematically in relation to a mute Pakistani girl-child. (A 2014 documentary about Salman Khan fans and imitators was called Being Bhaijaan.) Not particularly interested in (or adept at) characterisation, Phantom is a pacey thriller, with Saif Ali Khan as a man on a secret mission to kill off the engineers of 26/11.

If BB's projection of a people-to-people Indo-Pak love affair caters to one kind of pervasive Indian fantasy, Phantom gratifies a collective desire of a very different sort. As our avenging hero Saif declares to Haaris Saeed (the film's token alteration of Hafiz Saeed's name) as he prepares to pump the last bullet into him: "Kya chahti hai India? India chahti hai insaf!".

I would argue that BB is a clever film, with an astute sense of how to deliver winning cuteness and melodrama with one hand, while doling out some sly jokes with the other (eg. Nawazuddin Siddiqui asking Salman: "Do Bajrang Bali's powers also work in Pakistan?") But even many who dismissed the film as simplistic grudgingly approved what they saw as its humanitarian message: I have heard BB proposed as a model means of cultural communication with Pakistan even in the India International Centre Auditorium. These voices are however now turning on Kabir Khan for having made an "anti-Pakistan" film that apparently 'undoes' all the good he may have done before.

But it seems to me that BB and Phantom are entirely of a piece. Both have a second half and a climax set in Pakistan. Both have an Indian hero who gets to Pakistan with only the support and knowledge of a female love-interest (though Kareena in BB stays stuck at home, Katrina in Phantom gets to participate). Each hero also has a secret mission, whose justness is so self-evident that several Pakistani citizens come to his aid. Yes, Phantom's hero is on a much more murderous mission than BB's, but I think it would be a mistake to see it as simply anti-Pakistani— unless you make no separation between the Pakistani state establishment, Pakistani militant organisations, and the Pakistani people. It might be more accurate — and fertile — to think of Phantom as an Indian nationalist film, which takes the position that the illegal vigilante murder of a few men is a much lesser evil -- from the perspective of both the Indian and Pakistani public — than the continuance of mass acts of terror, or the other possible alternative: full-fledged war. And it seems to me that the very fact that Hafiz Saeed — a man ostensibly in state custody— could get this film banned in Pakistan, says something undeniable about his power and access.

But to return to
Phantom's specific marshalling of nationalist tropes. First, there's the army. Director Kabir Khan turns the retired Lt General of Zaidi's novel into Daniyal Khan: also ex-Indian- army. But rather than being gracefully retired with military honours, our youthful hero is a man wrongfully shamed and dishonourably dismissed — and willing, therefore, to go to any length to win back the respect he once received from his jawaans (who clearly stand in here for the country at large, especially its non-Muslim majority). So second, there's the Muslim. This figure of the wronged good Muslim who must fight to regain his honour is a trope unfortunately familiar to Hindi film viewers: think of Chak De India's Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan's screen name, not our film's director) and My Name is Khan's Rizwan Khan (also played by SRK).

If the quest for "khoyi hui izzat" (lost honour) is the stated motor for Daniyal Khan, it is also what the film presents as the driving force behind the Indian secret mission: to make amends for the 'beizzati' and 'laachaari' India is said to have collectively experienced during the events of 26/11, when as the film puts it, 10 "jaahil, ganwaar" (uncivilised, rustic) young men put an entire nation to shame. And yet, as new RAW recruit Samit Mishra (played with his usual perfect economy by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub) says frustratedly to his boss Roy (the Bangla cinema staple Sabyasachi Chakrabarty, nicely cast here), "Yeh log kucch bhi karein, hum log toh kucch bhi nahin karte. Sirf cricket khelna bandh kar dete hain."

Both Ayyub's character and the stuttering Indian convict that Daniyal encounters in the Chicago prison are conduits for audience desire. When LeT-confederate David Coleman Headley's co-prisoner expresses a desire to do away with him, or Ayyub jumps up with a gleam in his eye upon hearing news of another successful 'accidental' death, they speak vicariously to our bloodlust. But at least those couched as national enemies are not another nation. If cinema's greatest power is its ability to approximate reality, the screen is also the magical space for that which cannot be made real. The unfolding of a collective fantasy is an eerie form of wish fulfilment. Phantom may not be a Zero Dark Thirty, but it is certainly a guide to what Ashis Nandy memorably termed the secret politics of our desires.

Read more: a link to my review of Kabir Khan's 2012 film Ek Tha Tiger, from the time I used to be film critic for Firstpost. My Mirror column on Bajrangi Bhaijaan is here, and here's my take on another film that took on our collective desire for vengeance for 26/11.

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