Of the pleasures and pitfalls of cinema, a broad stroke artistic license is surely the big screen equivalent of the dramatic he-said-she-said? Taken a step further, the global movie industries that pretty much tell it like it is or how they wish it were—think large secular leaning Hollywood, the Indian and French film industries, respectively—often have the most thought-provoking entries with, not coincidentally, the largest audiences. Case in point: Kabir Khan’s plausible political thriller Phantom, which derives from recent history, where key reported masterminds behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks—most of whom remain free in Pakistan and elsewhere—are tracked down and given their comeuppance.
In a surreal staging, all fiction, mind you, the reluctant former Indian soldier Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan) is recruited to penetrate the shadowy world of terrorists that make up the who’s who of some of India and the world’s most wanted figures. Daniyal has a blank online profile, is a recluse who has pretty much checked out (for reasons that soon become abundantly clear) and little in the way of family connections. In other words, he is ideal for the solo mission. The mission: chase down or neutralize the bad guys from Chicago, London, Syria to, eventually, Pakistan where men who at times literally called the shots during the Mumbai attacks live openly with little or no official interference.
Indian writer Hussain Zaidi’s writings have extensively chronicled Mumbai’s underworld. He is well known for once having interviewed arch-terrorist Dawood Ibrahim. Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout at Wadala (2013) and Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004) were both based on Zaidi’s non-fiction in-depth investigative tomes. Phantom, in turn, is based on Zaidi’s recent fiction bestseller Mumbai Avengers. Not surprisingly, Phantom was immediately banned in Pakistani at the legal behest of one of the perps who gets his due onscreen in the single-focus story scripted by director Khan and Parveez Shaikh.
Saif Ali Khan’s Daniyal is a restrained anti-hero, who, because he has so little to lose, can use his deadly stealth for the most daring and dangerous scenarios. While the subject matter is highly speculative, it is etched interestingly. Somewhere in London, Daniyal meets up with Nawaz Mistry (Kaif), a bystander, who gets drawn into Daniyal’s adventure. Nawaz’s stakes in the outcome keep rising, especially after the action shifts to Pakistan.
As the body count from mysterious assassinations in crowded market places, opportunistic bombings of violence-promoting Islamist figures and death-by-poisoning begin to take their toll, Indian officials, not unexpectedly, go on record to issue vociferous disavowals of any knowledge of Daniyal having India’s formal seal of approval—exactly as Daniyal’s deeply-imbedded handlers would have it. Using lower-cost settings of Vancouver in place of higher-cost Chicago and London, Beirut subbing for Syria and Kashmir and Punjab fronting for parts of Pakistan nicely gives set designer Aseem Mishra a shot at figurative place-name alchemy.
Filmmaker Kabir Khan’s works tap into South Asian political angst that span everything from disrupted family connections (Bajrangi Bhaijaan) to downright espionage (Ek Tha Tiger, Phantom) and terrorism (New York, Kabul Express). Khan deserves kudos for diving into topics many others would shy away from.
The other element that works in Phantom’s favor is a respectable Pritam soundtrack that harness the flavors of central Asian sounds. Singer Asrars “Afghan Jalebi” is a rambunctious, foot stomping party anthem that boisterously evokes a hookah-camp big tent late night stop at an outpost on the Afghan steppes. Never mind that the song makes no appearance in the movie—it is used only in online promos, theatrical trailers, radio airplay and YouTube where it has acquired a sizable viewing audience.
India’s national neighborhood includes neighbors bent on doing harm to India every chance they get. The many terrorist attacks that the huge nation has withstood since Independence continues to test the nation’s unyielding, emboldened resolve to signal her arrival on the world stage. By the same token, the fact that perps of terrorist attacks walk freely in nearby countries is an affront to the civilized world. Going to the devil’s backyard, carefully sidestepping the vipers that guard it and poking the eyes—or worse—of the bad guys provides a refreshing pause to contemplate alternate outcomes. This time, we got ‘em!