Subhash Ghai wants to be relevant again. In a time when Ghai's films and the styling thereof are widely thought of as campy and old, no one waits for a Ghai film anymore. There is no anticipation or nostalgia of the Subhash Ghai style of filmmaking. Ghai perhaps realized his importance dwindling, and this is a stab at getting relevant again, getting that edge back again.
Unfortunately, an ego massage for a filmmaker rarely makes for good cinema. Ghai in his ambition has chosen to tell a small-scale story of a fidayeen terrorist changing his mindset on Islam and India, through the eyes of compassionate people. This is such a complex little thematic bomb, ticking away merrily, waiting to blow up in the face of anybody who cannot handle it with the requisite subtlety, realism, detail and intelligence.
The film could have been used to answer so many important and relevant questions - what it means to be a Muslim in India in these times; what is the reality of the sovereign secular state that was established more than 60 years ago; the reality of situations we only see as black or white; why and how are fidayeen made; what can we do to change the reality. It is such a quagmire of political and social questions and themes that Ghai chose to reflect upon in the telling of his story.
Never once, however, does he even ask any of these questions. His telling of the story is content with seeming to be important by raising issues, but not giving shape or form to them by actually making this stuff relevant to the plot or the themes. Fidayeen Numair Qazi (Anurag Sinha) is entrusted by his Afghanistan-based group to blow up the VIP enclosure of the Red Fort in the Capital on 15th of August. He lands in Old Delhi posing to be a long lost relative of an ageing poet (Habib Tanvir), parents summarily dismissed as being killed in the Gujarat riots.
Once there, he meets with the local people, sees the love and care that a Hindu family is ready to shower him with, and shares some time with a local girl (Aditi Sharma). We are expected to believe that only the family that consists of an Urdu professor (Rajan Mathur played by Anil Kapoor), and his social activist wife (Shefali Chhaya), can understand the plight of Muslims, and the true face of the ground situation.
Sad to say, the initial parts of the film are actually its strongest. The mood setting and the location shooting are a far cry from the fantasy world Ghai usually inhabits, and though he fails every time an extra opens his mouth - or, more damnably, doesn't - this is a far cry from the over-the-top maudlin films you would associate him with. Once you know the family and the scores of really helpful and loving Dilli wallahs, Ghai ups the ante by adding to the pressure of the situation by getting Numair's Delhi resource compromised. Now he has to take the help of the well-meaning Professor, and his skeptical but ultimately loving wife.
When the post-interval half begins, Numair is now going to use them to get close to the VIP enclosure, while a whole lot of disparate threads of the film will also be explored (but never resolved). This is when, bizarrely enough, Ghai drops all pretence of being a serious filmmaker, and gets straight into the Subhash Ghai we all know and love (well, not so much).
Extremely over-the-top acting is mixed with much-caricatured characters. All restraints are loosened. Brazenly bad moments by the supporting cast in threads that do not make any sense are presented with smug self-importance. Shop-worn evil politicians who are friends pretend to be enemies. The list goes on, and we are talking of an hour of this.
Ghai's proclivities for the bizarre increase as time progresses in the film; culminating in an end that is as much of a copout as pretentious claptrap. Actually, scratch that: the film begins with feelings of smug self-importance and pretentiousness. By the time it dives into the second half, the director believes we have bought into the half-baked characterizations (which is everyone, except Qazi) and drops all of this to make an over-the-top preachy film, that has no grounding in reality. (An extremely out-of-sync and loud background score doesn't help things, either.)
While the film is trying to explore the possibility of good and evil and all things in between, the director still has not dropped his fascination with the extremes of good and evil, replete with imagery he has used before. There is a moment in the film when Mathur and his wife are playing with each other like children. It seems completely natural, though no context has been set for it. It is a piece of reality with no meaning. Then it culminates with them making love - uncalled for, not in sync with the first part, and so forced in its staging. That one scene is completely representative of the whole film for very same reasons.
Ghai once wrote a review of Dil Se in Filmfare magazine. He blasted the film for its surreal imagery, poetry without meaning, and a whole host of other issues that I forget. What is ironic, though, is that superficially, he seeks to make an opposite of that film, but is guilty of all the complaints that he (rightly or not) laid upon it. A certain-to-be-doomed film, but for the spirited acting and amazing screen presence of new guy Sinha, and some decent acting marred by bad writing from Kapoor and Shefali, I can only recommend it for that and, well, some interestingly shot scenes in the Old Delhi bylanes.
In Ghai's world, everything else is just black.