This is the first film I saw at the 14th Pusan International Film Festival.
The opening starts off in a very Hollywood manner. A taxi drives down a street in New York City and is suddenly surrounded by hordes of policemen and cars - aggressively filmed with fast, hard cuts from multiple angles. Then cut to a room as a man is forcefully awakened (under noirish lighting) and is arrested. So it's a terrorist movie.
The man, Omar, a good-looking Indian who could be a Bollywood star in another life, is instead being accused of abetting his friend, a terrorist. Well, who else to interrogate but the great Irrfan Khan. Then suddenly, we find ourselves in Slumdog Millionaire territory, as Omar is asked to tell of the story of him, the girl he loved - Maya, and the best friend whom Maya loves - Sam.
From then on, I stopped thinking and just sunk into the story. The film found its way out of Slumdog Millionaire comparisons once it had done what it needed to do - that is, describing the characters' backstory to the audience - and then turned into a suspense drama involving best friends, unrequited love, undercover intrigue and terrorist threats.
This film is perhaps the best Indian film I've seen to date (not that I've seen many). It's not dumb like all Bollywood films - though it has its cheesy moments, such as the quintessential slow-motion montage sequences played to repetitive pop songs ... but hey, it's not overdone, so it's very much acceptable - but it's not trying to hard to be what some directors would've made it to be: a message movie. The central theme, of course, involves the costs of the American government's choices in over-persecuting barely-suspected terrorist suspects, both to public safety as well as the domestic tragedy it visits upon the terrorist suspects and their families. But not once did it feel like the movie was telling us that. All of that is inherent in the story, in the characters' choices, all of which we believe and understand as the motivations were just so well set up.
On top of that, the technical aspects of the film were, thankfully, very much excellent. The colours are vibrant and nicely saturated, there seems to be reason behind camera framing (e.g. during the interrogation scene, the suspect is filmed with jittery camera shakes while the interrogator's camera is calm, unmoving), the sound editing is obvious to me in the sense that I noticed what they were trying to do, the songs were not bad (only once or twice did the music went over the top ... compare this to the 120 times an average mainstream Indian movie goes OTT with the music), and the lead actors (John Abraham, Neil Nitin Mukesh and Katrina Kaif) all had just the right level of very slight over-acting that is perfect for such a melodrama as this. It all works so well, why couldn't more films be like this?
And the story - perhaps some people might find it contrived here and there, but only those who find plotholes in every movie. The film poses dilemmas often - friend of self? the public good or friendship? Each of the three main character has a full backstory explained to the audience - I suppose it's a luxury a 2.5 hour movie can afford - but it didn't bore. The twists are actually quite predictable - but the film doesn't try to sell them as if it really believes people won't predict them beforehand. The scenes of torture and interrogation are straight out of CIA's KUBARK manual (humiliation through nudity, sense deprivation through loud and unending heavy metal music, tight spaces to induce claustrophobia, etc) - these guys did their homework and used it. This is important - it sells the authenticity of the story, informs the audience about how it feels like to be arrested on charges of terrorism - and allows us to sympathise with the character who is a terrorist. (In fact, there was a moment where I was willing the terrorist to press the button at the climactic scene.)
But all is not doom and gloom. There are some funny moments, especially between Omar and his interrogator.
There is also perhaps the best-shot scene of a man jumping to his death that I have seen thus far. It didn't look fake, like so many CGI shots of people falling to their deaths. And thus very impactful.
All these setups pay off at the very tense climactic sequence - which delivers an ending that is what all movies should aim for: inevitable, but unpredictable.
There were a couple of moments of direct discussion between Omar and his interrogator, a sort of debate about questions such as whether terrorist suspects should be treated the way they have been, and what to do about it. The film didn't fare brilliantly in this area; I'd say B+ ... because, let's not forget, it is not easy for a mainstream genre movie like this that has to pretend it has the answers even when there aren't answers. Generally, Omar asks a question that comes from the specific situation he found himself and his friends in, but the interrogator replies with a symbolic, big picture answer that sort of whitewashes the fact that what he is saying is no comfort to those who suffered.
Did I Fall Asleep? Not once!
Did I Like It? Hell yes!
PS - One of the songs is so stuck in my head that it's still playing there even now when I'm back home - and remember, this was the first film I saw at PIFF.