What the media is so fond of referring to as 'the strife-torn state' also provides a rich tapestry of situations that, with some skilful interweaving, can make for a rivetting human tale. Some 10 years ago or thereabouts, Mani Ratnam cemented his reputation with the superhit Roja. Now local boy Vidhu Vinod Chopra does one better: unlike the former, who given his geographical location, and language, had to kick off his screenplay in the south, Chopra has based his story entirely in Srinagar, even if he was forced to pass off parts of Bombay's Film City as Kashmir.
The risk in trying to present a conflict situation, especially through the commercial genre is that one, it could so easily end up trivialising a grave problem, particularly when the song and dance routine is brought in. Or two, the director could easily be accused of being a partisan, given that taking sides in such a situation is unavoidable.
Given these sharks in the water, Chopra has done a deft job in avoiding them. Bowing to the rigours of the box-office he has thrown in songs, but has taken care that they don't dampen audience interest in the proceedings. And realising that he has to perforce take sides, he has plumped for Kashmiriyat, so no one's unhappy.
So the first question: is Mission Kashmir a hit? Yes, it is. Certainly it works. Chopra has produced a human tale that could have done with tighter editing, made the end a little less predictable, but on the whole even if Mission Kashmir does not race into the record books it is not going to sink like the Titanic. This is a story from the director's heart, not his head, and the sincerity comes across in frame after frame.
The story is simple. SSP Inayat Khan (Sanjay Dutt) mows down a band of terrorists, and along with them an innocent family. The balaclava-clad angel of death is seared into the consciousness of the surviving lad. Wife Nilima (Sonali Kulkarni) persuades Khan to bring home the boy, especially since the duo recently lost their only son in an accident. A little later the boy, Altaf, realises that the man he has come to call his 'abba' is in fact the man who torments him in his nightmares, and flees to become a terrorist (Hrithik Roshan). Altaf swears vengeance against Khan, and abetted by the Afghani terrorist Hilal Kohistani (Jackie Shroff) who conceives of Mission Kashmir to dismember India, he almost succeeds in this. Till, of course, love scores over hatred. Or, Kashmiriyat over azaadi.
Film-making can easily be likened to a marathon race. In both it is not how you start off that counts; it is how you end that gets you the hosannas. Most film-makers begin well, have a story to tell, call recess at the right twist, but after that either seem to lose the narrative or simply go berserk. The climax often is a long-drawn out affair, and curtains, when it falls, a relief.
And this is a malaise that Chopra doesn't seem to have shrugged off entirely. His first half presents the human side of the conflict, and tells forcefully that the conflict is not of faiths but of men. Since the denouement is known, the only cat in the director's bag for the second half is the nitty-gritty of the terrorists' plan. But even that does not have the required shock value when it becomes known.
For the second consecutive time -- and in only his third film -- Hrithik Roshan plays a Muslim who embraces the gun. He also almost gets bumped off at the end. Which, had it happened, would have made it a 3 out of 3 record. As far as his performance goes, you know he can't be having a bad day at the office. But yes, his character is not flawless, thanks to the director's muddled vision.
Like Amaan in Fiza, Altaf really does not seem to know his battle. Is it with himself, his adoptive father, or with India? He hates Inayat Khan so much so he does not think twice before walking into the latter's office to murder, but nevertheless brings Khan's wife to his hideout when he realises he is missing his mother... Or, like when he consciously uses his girlfriend Sufi's (Preity Zinta) affection to further his violent plans but subsequently has guilt pangs... A killing machine, but with a heart, no less...
Well, Mission Kashmir is not an out and out Hrithik Roshan film, so all you fans out there cool your ardour, he makes his entry a cool 45 minutes into the film. But yes, there's enough potential for the latest heart-throb to strut his stuff. Ageing war-horse Dutt gives him a run for his money, both in terms of footage as well as performance.
But the real scene-stealer is Sonali Kulkarni. She excels in a role that brings out the entire gamut of a mother's emotions, and finally gives her life to save her husband's. Preity Zinta has her moments, and thankfully she is not reduced to a prop. That honour goes to Jackie Shroff; again not his fault that Hilal fails to convince... By portraying a shadowy, mullah-like figure, and bringing in foreign agents, the director attempts to convey that the real brains behind the conflict are elsewhere.
Binod Pradhan's cinematography, of what the crew has been able to shoot on location, is brilliant. The music by Ehsaan, Shankar and Loy is non-intrusive. The songs don't make you dance in the aisles, but are pretty hummable, especially Socha ke jheelon ka... But given the difficulties of shooting in the Valley, it is art director Nitin Chandrakant Desai who scores, especially in the climax.
Ultimately, what makes a memorable movie are the situations the director manages to pack in. There are a few in the first half -- like when Altaf joins his adoptive family for dinner for the first time -- but nothing that lingers in one's mind after that. But the narrative is brisk, there is no time lost in unrelated humour and such, it is almost like the director has no time to waste, either his or the audience's.
Given Chopra's own displacement in the conflict, and given the popular perception of it being a Hindu-Muslim war, the film could have easily turned into a politically correct definition of patriotism. But true to the spirit of Kashmiriyat that he swears by, the director has resisted the temptation. If the terrorists are Kashmiri Muslim, so is the policeman who wages war against them. While a Hindu policeman rues his inability to protect his own people, his Sikh colleague who lost it all in 1984 explodes if he should now go around killing all Hindus for that tragedy. And suggests that they are not there to destroy, but heal... A message that is bound to go down well in the Valley, if not elsewhere.
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