AAMIR. Director: Raj Kumar Gupta. Players: Rajeev Khandelwal, Jhilmil Hajrika, Gajraj Rao. DVD release (UTV Spotboy). Strong Parental Advisory.
The central creed of the contemporary Hindi geo-political thriller has remained unchanged in recent memory.Sarfarosh and Fanaa, Aamir Khan’s two standard-bearers, all but sealed the expectation that the antagonist—no matter how brooding, handsome, or handsomely paid he is—must be doomed if his convictions, either real or imaginary, are sympathetic to Pakistan. Add to that a couple of well-placed plot twists that would do Hitchcock proud, and the genre can be updated.Kidnap and Aamir, two disparate new releases, muscle their way into the storied domain with surprising results.
The deeper-pocket Kidnap, helmed by Gadhvi, whose last two entries were franchise record-breakers Dhoom and Dhoom 2, finds Dutt as a billionaire tycoon, Vikrant Raina, whose marital discord takes a back-seat when his bratty daughter Sonia (Lambha) is kidnapped by Kabir (Khan), a raging, tech-savvy hoodlum bent on revenge. Aamir ropes in newcomer Khandelwal as Aamir Ali, a successful Indian doctor who returns from London to learn that his family has been kidnapped by Islamist militants.
The similarities between the two scripts are remarkable. Both feature nihilistic antagonists not afraid of dying—making them so very dangerous. Interestingly, both protagonists are connected to their tormentor via only a cell phone. Kabir’s seething hatred for Raina is the result of carefully plotting an air-tight plan to kidnap and then force Raina into submission by staging a city-wide cat-and-mouse track of deception and faulty clues. Aamir, meanwhile, is at the mercy of an unseen enemy, who calmly directs Aamir that, to win his family’s freedom, he must ferry a locked suitcase stuffed with ill-gotten international loot intended to expand Islamic fundamentalist presence in Mumbai.
The driving forces behind the evil being carried out in both films have single-minded purpose. While Gadhvi uses the Wisconsin-born Khan, whose sensational debut in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na has now earned him several chest-baring scenes (a sure sign that we’ll be seeing more of those in the future), as motivated by personal enmity that borders on self-destruction. Aamir, meanwhile, knows that the voice on the phone threatening to kill Aamir’s family is deadly serious; Aamir must keep pace with a sharply outlined timetable and minute details about exactly which street corner to stand on and which bus to ride.
The key difference between the two films is in execution. Gadhvi’s much larger budget for Kidnap allows him the luxury of song sequences and opulent dinner parties. But while the use of high-tech gadgetry and closed-circuit cameras is impressive, the songs actually distract from what is otherwise a tight ship. The smaller-budgeted Gupta, in sharp contract, literally cannot afford distractions, and that is Aamir’s greatest strength. Khandelwal, smartly cast in a role that requires little more than reactions to commands on a phone, nails the part of a helpless professional who finds himself way, way out of his league and running out of time.
The biggest fault line in the would-be ground-swell created by Kidnap is the huge letdown of an ending. Just when the rollercoaster chase approaches the brink of pulling a real punch, Gadhvi annoyingly pulls back. Must all loose ends be tied together so neatly? By doing so, all the grit mustered up to have us root for the underdog suddenly crumbles like a sand castle swept by a formulaic tide.
While the excellent Aamir has been largely ignored because of its small marketing effort, limited release, and a horrific real-life recent news story that bore unfortunate resemblance to Aamir’s entirely fictional account, Kidnap has managed a very decent box-office opening. Aamir, however, is the superior film. Viewed together, the two provide valuable lessons about how to and how not to make a thriller.
(The parental advisory for Aamir is due to the intensity of the violence both implied and depicted. Just because India’s Central Board of Film Certification, which still forbids onscreen kissing, “approved” this stuff doesn’t mean everyone has to tolerate it.)
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.