Robbie Grewal’s fourth film has never been more timely, but the filmmaker wishes it wasn’t so.

In Romeo Akbar Walter, John Abraham plays an Indian espionage agent who goes undercover in Pakistan before and during the 1971 war. The April 5 release comes in the wake of the February 14 attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district, in which a suicide bomber from the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force men. Tensions along the Indo-Pak border have intensified, especially following a strike by the Indian Air Force inside Pakistani territory and warmongering by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, which is seeking a re-election.

Romeo Akbar Walter, then, speaks to the present despite being set in the past, but its writer and director clarified that he has been working on the screenplay for close to seven years, and started shooting the film a year-and-a-half before Pulwama.

“I wish my film wasn’t as topical,” Grewal told Scroll.in. “I wish Pulwama did not happen. Soldiers dying is a bigger issue than having a topical climate for my film’s release. Without Pulwama, the film would be less topical on a surface level, sure, but it’s not about warmongering or jingoism. Coming from a defence background, perhaps I felt the pain more than others.”

Romeo Akbar Walter took shape during conversations over drinks with Grewal’s father, a former Indian Army officer. “He had worked in the military intelligence for a while and had fought in the 1971 war,” Grewal said. “Listening to him made me fascinated about the era. Today, satellites do the spying for us, but back then, the spying was done majorly by humans.”

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Romeo Akbar Walter (2019).

The movie claims to be based on true events. Abraham’s character adopts several disguises to carry out his assignment. The cast includes Jackie Shroff, Mouni Roy and Suchitra Krishnamoorthi. Sikandar Kher, Raghubir Yadav and Anil George play Pakistani characters.

Romeo Akbar Walter is a film about spycraft rather than Pakistan-bashing, Grewal said. “The film is not about one country being good and the other evil,” Grewal said. “It’s about the pride an Indian can have about such a hero.”

Abraham remains unnamed in the film – “his actual name could be anything, Ramesh or Suresh,” pointed out Grewal, whose credits include MP3: Mera Pehla Pehla Pyaar (2007).

The initials of Romeo Akbar Walter form an acronym that also stands for the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency. “To have a cool name wasn’t the starting point,” Grewal said. “It just sounded right in my head and it also summarises the film”.

Who, then, is Romeo, Akbar or Walter? In one scene in the trailer, Abraham’s character refers to his mother as “ammi”. Grewal explained, “Yes he is Muslim, because I see him as Muslim.”

The undercover operative travels from India to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and then to the rest of Pakistan through Nepal. The film was shot in Mumbai, Nepal and Kashmir. Around 11 cities in Gujarat, including Junagadh, stood in for Pakistan.

“The Gujarati cities we shot in are virgin locations where no filmmaker has shot before extensively,” Grewal said. “No malls have come up there. These are densely populated with Muslims. They made the perfect fit for the film’s Pakistan parts.”

Romeo Akbar Walter. Courtesy Kyta/VA Film/Red Ice.
Romeo Akbar Walter. Courtesy Kyta/VA Film/Red Ice.

The gloomy colour pallete, as seen in the trailer, is the handiwork of Tapan Basu, who has previously shot Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh (2016). Grewal reasoned that a spy film could not have a “sunny and colourful atmosphere”. The scenes set in India, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Pakistan have three distinctive looks. “The Indian scenes have a bluish tinge, the Pakistan scenes have greenish hues, while the PoK scenes are brownish, arid, full of fear,” Grewal said. “The look of the film was put in place before we got down to shoot. It’s not like we built sets and put the actors in there. For example, in the PoK scenes, characters wear grey, not red or brown, as they wouldn’t stand out in the surroundings.”

The espionage drama will not have lip-synced songs or dance numbers despite having four composers – Ankit Tiwari, Sohail Sen, Raaj Aashoo and Shabbir Ahmed. One of the songs, Vande Mataram, has been composed by Ahmed and sung by Sonu Nigam. The background score is by Hanif Shaikh.

“The songs happen over scenes,” Grewal said. “For example, there’s a qawwali, but that comes while the story progresses.”

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Vande Mataram, Romeo Akbar Walter.

The story of an Indian spy being sent to Pakistan on an undercover mission evokes comparisons to Meghna Gulzar’s 2018 blockbuster Raazi, starring Alia Bhatt. “The core message of the story of Raazi and my film is different,” Grewal clarified. “Raazi is about the futility of war. Romeo Akbar Walter is about what it means to be an Indian.”

Grewal made his directorial debut in 2003 with the Seven-inspired thriller Samay: When Time Strikes. His last film, the romantic comedy Aloo Chaat, was made a decade ago. “I am not big on genres,” Grewal said. “I don’t have to prove I am a versatile director. If a story comes from my heart, I will do it, like I wanted to do this film about a spy during the 1971 war.”

Director Robbie Grewal.
Director Robbie Grewal.