Ever since it’s advent in India more than 1,500 years ago, chess has evolved as a powerful tool for testing one’s discipline to anticipate the opponent’s moves. The symbolism of chess pieces—each with its own highly precise movements that can only be overcome by the next hierarchical piece—is a teasing play on power and cunningness. For their part, scenarists have woven chess strategy and chess pieces into elaborate plot lines since ancient times. In Nambiar’s well-made and thought-provoking terrorist conspiracy riddle Wazir, a real life chess match is afoot and the wrong outcome may well invite total mayhem.
Set mostly in Delhi, the name of the game is male bonding as a most unlikely pair of virtual single men find common ground while poring over a chessboard. One guy is anti-terrorist cop Daanish (Akhtar), who is taking time off as he recovers from the recent death of his young daughter. The other is the wheelchair-bound retired teacher and chess expert Pandit Omkar Dhar (Bachchan), who is, coincidentally, also mourning the loss of his daughter. Over a game of chess—Daanish is learning the game from the retired expert—both men find common threads to their stories. Not only did both men’s daughters know each other but they also had the same friends and frequented some of the same places. Could this be sheer coincidence?
Daanish has bankable insider connections; chief amongst those is superintendent S.P. (Abraham) whose team is chasing down the same bomb conspirators while assuring the safety of rising political star Minister Qureshi (Manav). Pandit, on the other hand, provides a sounding board for Daanish not only to get him back to work but also possibly help him reconcile with his estranged wife Ruhana (Hydari). Pandit may be wheelchair bound. His mind, however, appears to be doing figurative wheelies.
The clever script by Abhijat Joshi and Vidhu Vinod Chopra (who also produces) creates a mood of distrust early on. Because there is death—and death at a young age at that—at the root of what appears to be driving both Daanish and Pandit, the script can’t help but offer a sympathetic eye towards the two fathers. It’s the others characters we gotta worry about. For added uncertainty, there is the diabolical, mysterious Wazir (Mukesh), a ruthless, shadowy assassin linked to the bombing conspiracy that, out of the blue, zeroes in on making nocturnal rounds of Pandit’s house in a very scary way.
Ever since Chopra roped in Akhtar and Bachchan together in Lakshya (2004), he had been toying with the Wazir storyline with Akhtar and Bachchan. That casting pays off. Akhtar, who put on weight for the command-in-lead role here, and Bachchan, in his wheelchair-bound scholarly best, offer an unusual stamp of male bonding against a background of chaos. As the distant estranged spouse, Hydari does a decent turn and while Abraham’s role is limited, Mukesh’s knife-wielding night prowler is downright creepy.
On an eclectic soundtrack, with many lyricist and music directors making contributions, the standout tunes are Sonu Nigam and Shreya Ghosal in Shantanu Moitra’s “Tere Bin,” a heartfelt lilt to a loved one and also Ankit Tiwari’s “Tu Mere Paas,” about loss, which the singer also provided the music for. For added measure, try Bachchan’s rich baritone anchoring “Khel Khel Mein.” This song’s ominous lyrics and sizable thematic appeal rounds off a good score.
Nambiar, who earlier made the note-worthy three-in-one David (2013) featuring Mukesh as a lead, has a trick or two up his sleeve here. As Daanish and his team shuttle between Delhi and Kashmir, where Minister Qureshi is giving a speech and also exactly where the cryptic Wazir threatened violence, the mission may necessarily need to change from a race to protect a VIP to a frantic effort to restore public safety. The big reveal at the end—and mind you, it may pop a surprise—is a twist that departs from Hindi movie conventions on several different and satisfying levels. Take notice!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.