November Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 5 years ago

In the last decade or so, an interesting transformation has taken place in the public’s imagining of protagonists. On television, we witness ‘heroes’ that are so close to being villains that we’re not quite sure if we’re supposed to root for them or not. Whether it’s Breaking Bad’s high school teacher-turned-meth-cook building his empire of intrigue, or the serial killer with a moral code in Dexter, the anti-hero dominates cable TV. If too clean-cut and ‘good’ in the traditional sense, the protagonist becomes boring and unrelatable for contemporary audiences; the darker and more morally ambiguous, the greater the interest.

On the big screen, Batman was re-introduced as the Dark Knight, but perhaps the greatest change was in the spy-film genre, with the introduction of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. While there was still plenty of action, womanising and high-tech gadgets, there was also a significant personality makeover: brooding, doubtful and with tons of vulnerability beneath the cold and calculating exterior, Craig’s blonde Bond was in many ways darker than his self-assured and untouchable predecessors. For the first time, Bond seemed human.

For many of us, the world of espionage is fascinating because of its inherent ambiguity: the hidden, secret exchanges that take place beneath the apparent one of politics, rhetoric and ideology. Lines — like borders between countries — are drawn, never erased, but occasionally crossed over. It’s the question of the individual, with loyalties that can be bought or sold, and his values and choices that have the potential to trump state power.

And this is what I liked about Operation 21 (O21), released this Eid and marketed as a ‘spy thriller.’ Jami’s debut film, co-directed by Summer Nicks and produced by Azaan Sami Khan and Zeba Bakhtiar, is full of ambiguity and grey characters that don’t neatly fit into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ caricatures. You’re never quite sure of who is a friend, who is an enemy, and who is simply doing their job. It’s less about nation-states and more to do with self-vested corporations and individuals. The audiences’ own preconceived notions will effect how they judge the characters and their motives, but these notions are likely to switch at different points of the film, just as allegiances change and the hidden becomes apparent.

The film opens with a wide array shot of Afghanistan’s mountainous landscape, and we hear a voice — lone vigilante and ex-mujahideen Abdullah (Ayub Khoso), we later learn — recite a nationalist poem. The camera lingers here for a while, before diving straight into the action.

Multiple perspectives, all connected, are simultaneously presented: NATO tankers move into Kabul in the dead of the night; Abdullah waits to strike; Afghan government official Dost (Hameed Sheikh) carefully observes the progress of the tankers with CIA operatives Nathan (Joe Towne) and Stan (James Hallett); and a mysterious woman (Tatmain ul Qulb) waits anxiously in the shadows. Removed from all this chaos is Pakistani Kashif Siddiqui (Shaan Shahid), gambling with friends in a shady retreat somewhere in Karachi.

At the backdrop to all this are the all-important Afghan elections. Abdullah’s target is not the tankers or the people inside, but obtaining a chip that contains important information, whose whereabouts he learnt about through an inside informant. As the tankers are set on fire, he walks away laughing maniacally; it’s a scene and a role that may remind viewers of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

For the international community, Afghanistan is a minerally-rich no-man’s land inhabited by wild, crazed tribesmen. For Abdullah, it is the land of his forefathers, being usurped by outsiders. For both, the means justify the ends. “Sometimes people die, their families are compensated,” Nathan lectures Dost after his men are killed by Abdullah, embodying the role of the arrogant American.

Once the CIA learns that the chip is in Abdullah’s possession, he passes it on to Kashif (because Afghans are so trusting of Pakistanis), who previously was an informant for the Americans before turning rogue. What follows are a series of twists and surprises that will leave audiences either completely engrossed or confused. This is a fast-paced film that demands the audiences’ undivided attention. Get distracted for even a few seconds, and you’ll miss something substantial to the plot.

The highlights of the film are the performances by veteran TV actors Ayub Khoso and Hameed Sheikh. Khoso’s radical, uncompromising Abdullah is the yin to Sheikh’s stoic, conflicted Dost. As always, Shaan brings effortless cool to his role, but his dialogue delivery sometimes lacks impact. Model Tatmain only gets a few scenes, but she shines in each of them. Then there’s an amusing cameo by TV actor Nayyar Ejaz as a librarian who ‘issues’ passports. Ejaz also had a quirky, little role in Na Maloom Afraad and one hopes to see more of him on the big screen in the future.

Jami credits Christopher Nolan as an inspiration, but unlike Nolan, is working with a much smaller cast and budget, and still manages to make a thought-provoking, engrossing and (for the most part) beautifully shot film, which includes a world-class soundtrack by Alfonso Gonzales Aguilar.

There was an expectation that O21 would be Waar 2, as the film’s trailer and the inclusion of Shaan Shahid and Shamoon Abbasi indicated. But this film is less action and more about modern-day politics and age-old imperialism in the form of post-Cold War “adventure venture capitalists,” in the words of General Panetta, who is quoted at the film’s end. And while there is a message of patriotism here, too, it’s just not shoved down your throat. Where Waar was all sleek camera work, stylised sets, a simple storyline and black-and-white characters, O21 is complex, gritty, nuanced and — yes, it’s been said many times now, which just goes to show how little of it we see in Pakistani films — ‘intelligent.’

Not everyone is a fan though. At its first screening at Capri and Bambino, cinema-goers threw bottles at the screen and demanded their money back, resulting in the film being taken down just 25 minutes after screening. The reaction on Twitter after the premiere was even less flattering. Of course, there is no ‘right’ opinion here, but in a country where people are so self-congratulatory about minor achievements and mediocrity, to label O21 as the “worst film in Pakistan’s history” is… baffling, to say the least. I left the theatre wondering if I had watched the same film I was reading about.

Is the ambiguity too difficult to digest for some? Or the depiction of pragmatism over preaching and propaganda boring? Or, is it the lack of an item song? For what its worth, ‘Kutrina’ Kaif does make several appearances, but in a different context.

This is not to say the film has no faults. It does. The shaky camera movements and super-rushed scene-to-scene transitions in the first half do not sit well. Sometimes, the camera needs to let something establish itself before rushing to the next scene, and the only instances where this happens are the landscape shots of Afghanistan and an out-of-place monologue by Kashif’s wife (Aamina Sheikh) close to the film’s end. Secondly, audiences have to make an effort to think about certain aspects of the plot and connect the dots themselves, which is good… but some things just don’t add up, such as the inclusion of certain characters whose presence is far too brief to make sense. They exist solely to make the plot move forward quickly, but there is definitely a need for clarity.

It is these things that stand in the way of making O21 a truly great, international film. That aside, it has set the bar high for Jami’s second film Moor, slated for release in February.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue under the headline, “Spy World.”

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.