Neeraj Pandey’s latest nation-in-peril movie is set against the backdrop of graft in the Indian Army. Aiyaary is a mish-mash of ideas that have featured in Pandey’s back catalogue as a director and writer – the ordinary Indian who becomes a vigilante to fight corruption, the high-tension and hi-tech pursuit between the rogue element and government forces, and the justification of unlawful means towards a noble end.

Aiyaary is framed as a flashback story, which in turn contains a couple of flashbacks and then a flashback within a flashback. The confusing structure, laced with an overwhelming background score, is presumably inspired by the title, which variously translates into magic, shapeshifting and trickery.

Sidharth Malhotra plays Jai, a possibly double-dealing Army officer who has hotfooted it to London with his girlfriend Sonia (Rakul Preet Singh) and hard discs containing valuable information. Jai’s mentor Abhay (Manoj Bajpayee) is outraged, especially since his protege always seems a step ahead of him. The men are members of a covert military espionage unit that has been disavowed, and Abhay must find Jai before it’s too late.

Jai has vamoosed after stumbling upon a high-level procurement scam, represented by ex-Army officer and arms dealer Gurinder (Kumud Mishra). Is Jai working for Gurinder’s boss Mukul (Adil Hussain), who operates from the heights of a London skyscraper and has a grunt named Roger? Or is Jai a sheep in a wolf’s hide, actually saving the country by stepping beyond the rule book?

Aiyaary (2018).

Even more mysterious is the connection between the first scam and the other one that is threatening to stink up the capital. It resembles the Adarsh Nagar Housing Society scandal in Mumbai, in which apartments meant for war widows and Ministry of Defence officials were grabbed by military officers, bureaucrats and politicians. There are links between these two crimes, Pandey will have us know, but he leaves it to us to figure out the bread crumb trail.

One scam actually turns out to be a poorly disguised MacGuffin to throw off viewers. By the time the end credits have rolled after 160 minutes, it is hard to divine the common thread that runs between the arms dealers, the members of the covert unit, and the honest men in olive who apparently represent the last vestiges of decency in a country gone to seed.

Stripped of its overweening self-importance and lack of plausibility, Pandey’s surgical strike on corruption passes muster as a cut-price version of the Mission: Impossible and Jason Bourne films. The movie is engaging enough when on the run and hopping flights and continents. Gifted with the best lines and the most rounded-out characterisation, Manoj Bajpayee makes all his scenes crackle. Aiyaary is meant to be a two-hero film, but Bajpayee ensures that it’s a solo ride.

Bajpayee’s competition is weak, even though Sidharth Malhotra’s blank-faced beauty, usually deployed for peppermint romances, actually makes him a good choice for Jai, whose real motives are saved for the extended climax. Most of the other actors fade in and out of the proceedings. Naseeruddin Shah has an extended cameo that includes scenes that a more ruthless filmmaker might have nixed to hurry along the plot. Rakul Preet Singh, who is a star in Telugu cinema, is as disposable to the proceedings as is Adil Hussain’s army dealer.

Pandey’s previous espionage-themed outings, including Baby (2015) and Naam Shabana (2017), did a better job of suggesting the existence of murky parallel worlds of spycraft and statecraft. The filmmaker’s sharp ear for repartee, which is especially evident in a dockside encounter between Abhay and Mukul, nudges Aiyaary towards something resembling a big statement on bribery and fraud in the Army. There is little doubt that Aiyaary tackles a bold subject, one that is worth exploring alongside the frequent tales of battlefield valour. There is palpable and relatable outrage at the rot within the system, but the response is inchoate and not particularly clever.