Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

November 20, 2009

Love in the time of terror

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 4:30 am

November 20, 2009

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, Om Puri, Kiron Kher

Director: Rensil D’silva

Stripped to its bone, Rensil D’silva’s Kurbaan is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that seldom loses its grip on your attention. Credible performances from its leads, and a nail-biting screenplay make up for the plot holes that threaten to eat into this otherwise engaging film.

Set in post-9/11 America, Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan star as Avantika and Ehsaan, professors at a Delhi campus who move to New York after a whirlwind romance, that involves making out in the college staff room, and a prompt marriage. Avantika, who was teaching in the States prior to her stint in India, returns to her original job, and Ehsaan accompanies her, hoping to find a position for himself too. The couple moves into an Indian neighborhood in suburban New York, where Avantika stumbles upon the shocking secret that her husband is part of a sleeper cell of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists that’s hatching a plot to bomb the New York subway. She enlists the help of a news channel cameraman Riyaaz Masood (played by Vivek Oberoi), who infiltrates the gang to foil their attack.

More compelling than the similarly themed New YorkKurbaan scores for its brisk pacing, and for the fact that it doesn’t offer an over-simplistic view of the terrorism issue. The film allows enough room for all perspectives and avoids romanticizing the terrorist as a victim seeking revenge, even if characters like Bhaijaan (played by Om Puri) and Aapa (played by Kirron Kher) make the same point repeatedly. It’s in a dramatic classroom scene in which Vivek Oberoi’s character Riyaaz confronts white students and their predictable logic, that the film reveals its neutral stance.

The key problem with Kurbaan, however, is that it can’t decide if it wants to be a serious film addressing a burning issue, or a commercial potboiler set against the backdrop of terrorism. How else do you explain such lapses in logic as Riyaaz’s needlessly heroic decision to explore a possible terrorist situation himself, instead of alerting the cops right away? Or the terrorist group’s decision to include Riyaaz in their mission without as much as a thorough background check. Even the love scene between Saif and Kareena, although aesthetically shot, has a distinctly ‘filmi’ logic – Avantika seduces Ehsaan to get her hands on vital information that could prevent the attacks.

Another careless oversight on the part of Kurbaan is the more-or-less insignificant role the FBI plays in all of this. Anyone who’s traveled to the United States post 9/11 or even watched a handful of recent Hollywood thrillers will tell you that America became a different country since September 11 happened. Even a mention of words like ‘bomb’ or ‘terrorist’ could get you into serious trouble. Which is why it’s a little alarming to note that Ehsaan roams about freely on the streets of New York without bothering with so much as a guise, when the FBI have clear photographs of this most-wanted terrorist. Or that he can walk into a bar and stab a man to death, or escape from a run-in with the cops. Just watch the recent Harrison Ford-starrer Crossing Over in which the FBI swoops down on a teenage Bangladeshi girl for a class essay she wrote in which she may have sounded at best ‘casual’ to the Twin Towers attack. These irregularities might be dismissed as nitpickings in an average masala entertainer, but they stand out in a film like this which prides itself on attention to detail and credibility of intent.

Despite its hiccups, Kurbaan works as a suspenseful thriller, sucking you into its drama even though you may have figured out where the story’s going. Refer to that terrific scene in which Ehsaan reveals his real identity to Avantika, or the one in which Riyaaz’s secret is accidentally revealed to Ehsaan. There is genuine intrigue in these moments, and you’re undeniably hooked.

Kurbaan is convincing also for the remarkable acting by its three leads, who are a pleasure to watch. If Saif Ali Khan approaches his part with restraint and minimalist fuss, then Kareena Kapoor goes for a simmering, slow-burning performance that eventually punches you in the gut. Vivek Oberoi, despite the occasionally rickety accent, throws himself into the role and turns in a sincere, spontaneous delivery. As an ensemble, the trio turns Kurbaan into one of the best-acted pieces you’ve seen all year.

Armed with Hemant Chaturvedi’s efficient camerawork and Salim-Suleiman’s rousing music score that never distract from the storytelling, director Rensil D’silva makes a confident debut with a film that is respectable and engaging.

I’m going with three out of five for Kurbaan; it’s a compelling thriller that doesn’t shy away from touching prickly issues.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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