In Rensil D’Silva’s Kurbaan, New York, soon after 11 September 2001, is a surreally unsafe city. The policemen are incompetent, floundering men missing their targets; the FBI agent is ponderous and unsure. The reality, as we know, was different—US homeland security was on such overdrive that racial profiling reached inhuman proportions. Kurbaan does have a scene where a Muslim man is frisked because of his name, but that’s lip service.
Chemistry, really? The much-talked-about lead pair comes across as awkward even in the most intimate scene.
This is fiction, of course, and writers of fiction (in this case, Karan Johar, the producer, who has also written the story, and D’Silva, who has written the screenplay) have that convenient tool loosely called “creative licence” to interpret or fictionalize history. But when the subject is as immediate, as contemporary and so charged with politics and public sentiment, such misrepresentation is inexcusable.
Anti-Americanism was a popular sentiment all over the world at that time. Kurbaan uses that sentiment to make a mockery of modern-day terrorism—and of the rage and pain of those from the Arab world who have become victims of US military power.
The story is meant to be a thriller. Avantika (Kareena Kapoor) is a professor of psychology at a Delhi college, on a sabbatical from New York University to live with her father. Ehsaan Khan (Saif Ali Khan) joins the faculty as a professor and is charmed by her. Love blossoms instantly. Ehsaan tells Avantika he is willing to accompany her to New York, wins over her progressive father, they tie the knot and land in the Big Apple. They move into a quiet Indian neighbourhood. Their Muslim neighbours, living as a joint family, invite them for dinner to their home, where women are clad from head to toe, not allowed to speak or work outside the house. The men are physically aggressive, brusque and big eaters. The next day, Salma, the wife of one of the family members, confides in Avantika that her life is in danger and asks for help. Avantika is soon dragged into a quagmire, in which she is a pawn in a plot to kill Americans.
Very few films or novels have been able to articulate the randomness and absurd horror of terror attacks. It is indeed a difficult task when, on one side, there is an unknown evil and, on the other, an aggregate of human beings. Perhaps a new grammar is required to articulate terrorism in fiction.
But in Kurbaan, the writers depend entirely on the worst kind of clichés. Almost every Muslim in the story is a psychotic ideologue. D’Silva, who wrote the script for Rang De Basanti, might have intended the contrary—by justifying through some long-winded dialogues what drives a man to become a terrorist—but irrational Islam is so overwhelming in the story that he ends up perpetuating the same myths. He makes his directorial debut with Kurbaan; but his failure as a director is minimal, considering he is working with such flimsy material in the first place.
Positing the story as a thriller is a mistake. From the beginning, the moments of suspense are manufactured by the background music, not by the script itself. There are no surprises, only the simulation of a surprise—we know all along who the bad guy is, who is innocent and which path they are on.
The screenplay is confused. Lodged somewhere between a thriller and a melodrama, it bores the viewer with some very inconsequential sequences. For instance, at Webb Institute, the New York college where Ehsaan teaches Islamic Studies, a debate ensues in his class about why Muslims hate America even as the story is poised at a point when Avantika is perilously close to being killed. Riyaaz, a journalist (Vivek Oberoi) out to get to the terrorists himself, speaks for the Islamic world, arguing with a seemingly ignorant American student.
The dialogues, by Anurag Kashyap and Niranjan Iyengar, are dull. This has got to be Kashyap’s worst work as a dialogue writer—his words usually smack of the real. Riyaaz first appears on screen as he returns from Iraq, reporting for a news channel. “Iraq’s a mess,” he says. Huh?
Khan and Kapoor, both very competent actors, are limited by the flaws in the script. Ehsaan is a man with a tragic past who has chosen an evil path, and who is in love with a beautiful woman—it could have been a character with nuances. Kapoor has to play the victim throughout and she carries it off with ease. Oberoi, who is the voice of liberal Islam, tries his best but fails to arouse either sympathy or admiration. The anticipated and hyped on-screen chemistry of the lead pair is a myth. Even in the most intimate scene, Khan and Kapoor seem mismatched and awkward.
The film doesn’t have an emotional centre, and the technical brilliance, especially the cinematography by Hemant Chaturvedi, is wasted. Kurbaan has the kind of visual finesse that can be seen in the best of Hollywood—the lighting is real, yet evocative; and camera compositions are innovative, without seeming contrived.
But that’s no saving grace. Kurbaan is shallow and uninspiring.
Kurbaan released in theatres on Friday.