Raj Kumar Gupta’s India’s Most Wanted has been sold as a thriller about five nondescript men going after a dreaded terrorist. The actual number of men on the manhunt for Yusuf is nine. Still, “The Unknown Five” does have a nicer ring to it than the “The Ungainly Nine”.
The movie tries to achieve tidiness in other ways too. Investigating officer Prabhat (Arjun Kapoor) has exactly four days to confirm a lead on Yusuf’s whereabouts. The countdown is punctuated by flashbacks to bomb blasts caused by Yusuf, which are accompanied by sinister music and ominous chanting that seem to have emerged from the seventh circle at Hell.
The hype machine gets revved up further with its descriptions of Yusuf. He is unmistakably modelled on Yasin Bhatkal, the incarcerated leader of the Indian Mujahideen terrorist group that was accused of executing bomb blasts in several Indian cities between 2007 and 2013. In the movie, Yusuf (Sudev Nair) is pitched as the “Ghost Who Bombs” and “India’s Osama”. For the longest time, he is nothing more than a pair of light-brown eyes with the rest of his face hidden behind a mask.
The mission to hunt down Yusuf has shades of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, about America’s quest for Osama bin Laden that resulted in the terrorist’s death in 2011. Operatives look this way and that and huddle outside possible hideouts. Prabhat yells down the phone at his bosses back home when the target looks like he will get away.
This is the kind of movie in which hearing is believing. Prabhat is described by his boss Rajesh (Rajesh Sharma) as “pagal”, mad, a loose cannon who blasts his way through bureaucracy to save his nation. Going by Arjun Kapoor’s characteristically monotonous performance and with nothing in his demeanour to suggest an underpaid and overworked but highly motivated government officer who is willing to go any lengths to get the job done, we will have to take Rajesh’s word for it.
Had the loud background music that accompanies the covert operation been more muted and Prabhat’s for-the-nation speechifying cut short, the movie might have achieved its goals. Like Raj Kumar Gupta’s previous film Raid (2018), about an income tax raid on a corrupt politician, India’s Most Wanted is a tribute to the hidden ways in which everyday heroism manifests itself.
Gupta does the smart thing by staffing India’s Most Wanted with mostly nondescript actors. There is a pleasing ordinariness to Prabhat’s teammates, and a believable quality to the ways in which they blunder about.
But Gupta does these actors, who include Pravin Singh Sisodia, Prashanth Philip Alexander and Bajrang Bali Singh, no favours by giving them little to do on the screen. They fill the background scenery as Prabhat lumbers about, taking all the important decisions and making all the moves that will get Yusuf in the bag.
The overheated and undercooked film doesn’t have enough substance to justify its flourishes. It is entirely possible that real-life manhunts are just as prosaic, and that the drama emerges not from the operation itself but the build-up. The most interesting character in India’s Most Wanted isn’t to be found among the hunters. The informant (played by Jitendra Shastri) is actually this movie’s hero, who risks his life and career as a snitch to point the intelligence officers in the right direction.
The 127-minute film is padded with songs in the background and montages of characters looking worried. The best bits are right at the end, when India’s Most Wanted sheds its ripped-from-the-headlines pretensions and settles for the grandstanding that is possible only in fiction. The manhunts ends as per schedule, not quite as tidy as imagined, and its heroics not as ordinary as they needed to have been.