A scene from Phantom set in what is supposedly war-torn Syria tells you everything you need to know about the film.
Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan), a disgraced-Indian-Army officer-turned-covert-agent, has been tied to a chair and is getting his face bloodied by Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives. The latter are in touch with Pakistan’s ISI, who need them to send across a video of Khan speaking so that they can verify who he is.
A bearded militant takes said video and attempts to send it via MMS. His phone informs him that it is unable to do so. He looks confused. At this point, a man standing next to him — not the one holding a smartphone, mind you — helpfully informs him that network in the area is down.
Because director Kabir Khan’s latest release is set in a world where anything can happen and logic is as unwelcome as a drunken stranger at a funeral. So, no, phones don’t tell you that there is no network in the area, just as receptionists at the Pakistan High Commission don’t refuse your request to be connected to the High Commissioner himself, even though you’re a random stranger calling from god-knows-where blabbering something about a murdered terrorist whose very existence their government has repeatedly denied.
This is Khan’s second release in as many months after the phenomenally-received Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which is currently the second-highest-grossing Indian film of all time. Although both films deal with India-Pakistan tensions, this one does its best to undo all the good work done by Bajrangi… (which I found facile but good-heartedly effective, if we don’t attempt to set the bar too high) by being gung-ho about its dangerously idiotic premise: to take revenge for the 26/11 Mumbai attacks by sending one man to kill everyone accused of plotting those attacks. Because that will end well.
Patriotism is always an easy card to play, but it has to be done with care. Globalisation has ensured that the words ‘us’ and ‘them’ are inevitably meant to lose relevance in the context of nationalities, however painfully slow this process might be. Even so, perhaps there is nothing wrong with showing audiences a ‘what if’ scenario, as long as you take care to make to flesh all your characters out and present as many points of view as possible (Steven Spielberg’s Munich comes to mind as a film that had achieved this quite competently in the mainstream thriller space).
Phantom, however, isn’t interested one bit in any of these niceties, barring a couple of throwaway lines. From the get-go, it blazes through its feather-weight screenplay with dialogue that is only meant to be get us from one scene to the next. Never mind adding layers or dimensions to characters, the film treats most of its characters as props.
The depiction of the RAW team that comes up with the mission is almost hilariously offensive. Roy (Sabyasachi Chakrabarty), the chief of RAW, mysteriously goes against the government to execute a plan formulated by an eager-beaver rookie (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) in a matter of hours. Khan is recruited on somewhat shaky grounds and sent immediately to London (guess he got through Heathrow's immigration line in record time) to make contact with fellow-agent Nawaz Mistry (Katrina Kaif), a Parsi from South Africa who may have never left home without applying foundation.
If there’s one thing Khan is good at, though, it’s set-pieces and Phantom gives us the opportunity to see them unfold over several places across the world: Chicago, Syria, London, and Pakistan. A stand-out is a sequence involving the infamous David Coleman Headley, where editor Aarif Sheikh (who also employs some nifty cross-cutting in other sequences) keeps the proceedings appropriately taut; the rest of the time, though, he tears through scenes with furiously quick cuts to keep the pace deliberately breakneck — even though most of them don’t really warrant it.
To be fair, even though impact is sacrificed for pace, the background score and the melodrama is considerably subtler than most commercial fare. However, this doesn’t do anything to hide the film’s complete lack of believability, beginning with the lacklustre performance by Khan, who goes through the motions struggling to find some depth in his poorly written character. His character’s central struggle, which is said to haunt him to the point of being suicidal, shows only in his actions, not expressions.
Meanwhile, the less said about Kaif the better because she isn’t, has never been, and — it’s time to say it out loud because she’s had over 10 years to prove us wrong — will probably never be a believable actress.
There are minor upsides here and there, such as a believable rally featuring the film’s version of 26/11 master-mind Hafiz Sayeed (called Hariz Sayeed) and an engaging gun-battle in Syria. But for every such moment, there are several moments of near-imbecility. For instance, did you know that the guys at RAW get news that pertains directly to them from the Internet, just like you do?
By the time the climax showed up, featuring a not-so-subtle nod to Titanic, the film’s lapses in logic, bad performances, and simplistic understanding of world politics had left me in a stupor. I never thought I’d say this, but it almost made me want to re-watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan.