There is only one explanation for Phantom: the cast and crew of the film really wanted a paid holiday. This in itself is not an objectionable aspiration. Who doesn’t want to be able to bounce around London, Beirut, Chicago and other beautiful parts of the world, and get paid to do so? However, when the cost of that bouncing around is approximately Rs 55 crores and those who foot that bill expect the movie-going public to recover that amount as box office collection, things may get a little more complicated.
As an idea, Phantom crackles with possibility. Humiliated and furious after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) decides to send an operative on a covert mission to teach those who plotted against India a lesson. He is a man who goes unnoticed in crowds and who has evaded Google’s all-seeing eye. He doesn’t care if his target has a human side or redeeming qualities — if you had any part to play in the Mumbai attacks, the phantom wants you dead.
In your head, you now see a desi super spy with Daniel Craig’s cool menace, Tom Cruise’s stunt-worthiness, Jason Statham’s punches. What you get in Phantom is Saif Ali Khan.
As court-martialled soldier Daniyal, Khan takes the idea of a game face to a whole new level. For all of 147 minutes, he sports precisely one expression, give or take some make up and facial hair. He doesn’t move as much as lumber, he is thoroughly indiscreet and everywhere he goes, he sticks out like a sore thumb. If this was because of his good looks, we’d forgive it. But Khan spends the entire film looking both awkward and impassive, as though he’s got a hangover and is doing his best to block out the headache.
One can’t help but feel that there was hope and a prayer governing the decision to name Katrina Kaif’s character Nawaz in Phantom. Sadly, those prayers were not answered. Almost sharing a name with Nawazuddin Siddiqui doesn’t ensure the transference of his acting ability. Compared to Khan’s one expression, Kaif has none. Whether she’s crying over lives lost or reminiscing about having tea at the Taj Mahal Hotel, there’s not a hint of emotion to mar her perfect complexion and gorgeous features.
Smartly, director Kabir Khan decides to not rely upon his lead pair’s charisma and acting skills to woo the audience. Instead, he takes the audience globe trotting. We begin in Mumbai, move on to Kashmir, London, Chicago, Beirut, a recreated-in-Lebanon Syria and finally land up in Pakistan. In each place, people are killed and Daniyal wrinkles his brow, possibly because he’s trying to figure out how much of his beard he should trim since his facial hair changes as much as the landscape in Phantom.
When a film rests upon Khan and Kaif to hold the audience’s attention, the action better be explosive and the plot, tightly-wound. The stunts aren’t bad in Phantom, but they’re not memorable. Still, the sounds of explosions and bullets will at least keep you awake. For the plot, there is only one word: woeful. Phantom could have been a clever film. It borrows heavily from very dramatic, real incidents that are begging to be fictionalised. Only here, the characters are badly drawn, the dialogues are clumsy, the transitions are jumpy and the politics are horribly simplified — it’s as though the screenplay was written overnight. The film quickly starts feeling predictable and the strategies to kill the terrorists are not particularly gripping. It doesn’t help that one of the plans requires us to watch (and hear) Daniyal doing potty.
But well before art imitates life, you have to wonder about RAW’s judgement when we see Daniyal in action the first time around. With Nawaz, Daniyal is first supposed to identify a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative in a packed stadium and then, they’re to discreetly follow the suspect around London. Daniyal and Nawaz’s behaviour is so shifty and obviously suspicious — Daniyal’s midlife-crisis-signalling leather jacket really doesn’t help — that it’s a wonder they weren’t snapped up for questioning by the British security service.
Not only can he not blend in, Daniyal lets Nawaz (a civilian under contract with RAW) know he’s going around killing Lashkar operatives. This is not necessarily the best way to keep a top-secret plot, secret. Nawaz then proceeds to get deeply involved in Daniyal’s mission to avenge India. Why? Because her daddy used to take her to have tea and chocolate pastry at the Taj when she was a kid. If it’s the dessert-flavoured memory that’s fuelling her, it’s a good thing Nawaz hasn’t been back to Bombay and tasted Le 15’s chocolate and salted caramel tart.
Kabir Khan also tries the standard trick of casting good actors in key supporting roles, but Sabyasachi Chakrabarty, Rajesh Tailang and Zeeshan Ayyub are all wasted on characters that have been badly written. Ayyub, for instance, plays Samit Mishra, a chap who appears in the RAW director’s office out of nowhere. We mean this literally. His introductory scene literally has him materialise in the middle of a meeting, on the couch in the RAW director’s office, as though he’s been beamed in place by Starship Enterprise. Most tragically, he doesn’t even get to have chai with Nawaz despite having ventured into enemy waters to save her life.
Things finally turn a little tense in the second half of the film, when Daniyal is in Pakistan and the ISI start closing their net around him. There are a few close calls and at one point, it seems like Daniyal just might get caught after all. Unfortunately, since Daniyal might be the most bland and uncharismatic hero we’ve seen on screen in years, no one cares if he lives or dies. The man spends 147 minutes killing bad guys — Pakistani bad guys, no less — and the only moment when he drew cheers from the crowd was when he told a baddie called Haaris Saeed that India wants “insaf“.
In case you haven’t guessed, Haaris Saeed is the stand-in name for Hafiz Saeed. Evidently, his name was changed to Haaris at the last moment since when speaking of him, all the characters’ lips say “Hafiz” but voices say “Haaris”. Sajid Mir, the Lashkar-e-Taiba commander, doesn’t enjoy that privilege. Even the photo that we’re shown of him is quite similar to the photos of Mir that are in circulation.
Considering how Phantom cheerfully borrows from real life and makes no bones about ISI being in cahoots with Lashkar-e-Taiba, it isn’t surprising that the film isn’t being shown in Pakistan. However, considering just how much of a bore Phantom is, for once the Pakistani courts may just have done our neighbours a favour.