By Subhash K. Jha
Film: "Kurbaan"; Cast: Kareena Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Vivek Oberoi, Om Puri, Kirron Kher; Director: Rensil d'Silva; Rating: ****
"When a bomb explodes, mainly the innocent die," says Vivek Oberoi towards the finale when, to put it at the most basic level, all hell breaks loose.
In "Rang De Basanti", Rensil d'Silva had taken screenwriting in Hindi cinema to a new level of expressionism. With his directorial debut "Kurbaan", Rensil carries the spoken, unspoken, visual and metaphorical language of mainstream cinema to an unvisited shore.
Blending the thorny theme of the political-cultural identity of the Muslim community post 26/11 with the commercial identity of contemporary Hindi cinema is not an easy task. The film manages to be superior to other films on global terrorism, a theme that now threatens to turn into a full-blown commercial formula.
In "Kurbaan", the characters are not representational of Islamic ideology. They function in the brilliantly-designed plot as people who subscribe to the view that the Muslim community across the world is the victim of American oil-politics that threatens to annihilate the Islamic world.
This is very thin ice for a debutant director to walk on. Rensil's film says that a sense of aggressive isolation grips the Muslim community. There are either those (like the characters played by Saif, Om Puri and Kirron Kher) who think a direct action plan of retaliation is required to save Muslims from mass destruction. Or, more alarmingly, there are those like the characters of Vivek Oberoi and his father (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) who are tacitly in favour of violence against their community's collective persecution.
Either way, Rensil's film looks at the theme of Islamic terrorism with fearless and brutal honestly.
After a rather pale courtship in Delhi, Hindu lecturer Avantika (Kareena) flies into New York with her ever-so-suave suitor Ehsaan (Saif).
The narrative immediately plunges Avantika into the vortex of a 26/11-styled conspiracy being hatched in her backyard on a deceptively quiet suburban street filled with Asian homes.
If the closet terrorists in the narrative are master plotters, director Rensil is no less. While the master-plotters in "Kurbaan" finally fail, Rensil walks past the finishing line with victorious strides. With cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi, Rensil moves stealthily in and out of politically-challenged lives with the least amount of drama and ostentation.
The background score is kept at a bare minimum. "Kurbaan" creates its drama from the characters' misbegotten sense of identity. From that vantage point of disorientation, the film dexterously moves into the mode of action-driven conflicts.
"Kurbaan" turns out to be one relentlessly breathless treatise on how to create a prolonged climax without losing the theme's bearings. The film has been shot as an extended crime thriller.
There is room in the commodious narration for disgruntled characters from a multitude of Islamic countries living in the US. But at the core, there are just three characters - the terrorist, his pregnant and rebellious wife and the expose-driven journalist, played by Saif, Kareena and Vivek respectively.
Vivek plays the progressive American Muslim with a resolute understanding of the underlying politics that plagues his character's soul. But Saif is a disappointment. In a role that could have been a career-defining event, the actor pitches a performance as a not-so-reluctant terrorist that simply swims on the surface.
There's no attempt by the actor to understand the workings of Ehsaan's mind or to revisit Ehsaan's roots. What we see is a confused rather than a politically and religiously conflicted soul tormented by an ideological crisis.
Where is the mean-spirited guy who exploited and cheated Urmila Matondkar in "Ek Hasina Thi"?
Finally "Kurbaan" belongs to Kareena Kapoor. In her most consistently-pitched performance to date, she pulls out all stops to play a betrayed wife with splendid sensitivity. Kareena accommodates her radiant beauty into an utterly credible character and performance.
Much of the credit for Kareena's compelling performance must go to the written word. Anurag Kashyap and Niranjan Iyenger enter the characters' dark and anguished world with words that avoid rhetorical excesses. However, a key classroom discussion on Islam and the Western world is ruined because even the American students speak in Hindi!
"Kurbaan" shows a deep understanding of the bonds that bind and separate the Islamic world from the West. It is a critically important work because it spells out uncomfortable truths in a cinematic language that's riveting and resonant without resorting to extravagant flourishes and fireworks.
Not to be missed.