In the opening scene of Aiyaary, a gaunt woman (Pooja Chopra) in plainclothes is being interrogated by a Brigadier. She’s a member of a covert group and the top brass of the Indian army is trying to find two persons missing from this task force. She reveals nothing significant. The narrative then rolls back a few days. Over the next 160-odd minutes, we go backwards, forwards, across time zones and in and out of subplots without urgency or coherence.

We are following Colonel Abhay Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and his protégé, Major Jai Bakshi (Sidharth Malhotra). Bakshi has gone rogue. There is a “leak" in the system and the “covert" team has been “burnt"; they must cover their tracks. We have heard this jargon used liberally in Hollywood spy thrillers.

Writer-director Neeraj Pandey doesn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel. He also doesn’t seem to have spent much time constructing it—the script is confusing and chaotic. Sundry characters and plot points are entirely dispensable, such as a dull chase through Cairo and an arms dealer villain (played by Adil Hussain).

Bakshi has installed surveillance through which he has unearthed grave corruption in the system. He has become aware of an ex-Army officer’s (Kumud Mishra) collusion with an international arms dealer (Hussain). Bakshi, who’s trained under Singh, uses a disguise to skip out of India to London. All the while, Singh believes his junior is a turncoat.

“Aiyaary" means shape-shifting or mastery of disguise and the few instances where Malhotra and Bajpayee undergo physical transformations are the most interesting scenes. The rest just feels random, with flat lighting, dull visuals, lazy editing and zero pacing.

Characters like Sonia (Rakul Preet Singh), Bakshi’s girlfriend, Naseeruddin Shah as a key witness to a housing scam, and Anupam Kher as some kind of intelligence “asset" are under-utilised. Bajpayee holds the unravelling narrative together as much as he can while Malhotra looks ready to sink his teeth in but is barely served up anything to bite on. Even the notion of corruption in the defence forces is timidly dipped into.

In the 36 hours the story covers, Singh is hot on Bakshi’s tail, but always one step behind. In this game of who-blinks-first, the one to have the wool pulled over his eyes is the unsuspecting viewer who decides to watch this film.

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