Can a Martin Scorsese film be silent or a Rajkumar Hirani production be subtle? Can Vidyut Jammwal be in a movie without lashing out with his fists and legs?
One of Hindi cinema’s finest action heroes seeks to expand his repertoire in Khuda Haafiz, which is being streamed on Disney+ Hotstar. Written and directed by Faruk Kabir, the movie reimagines Jammwal as an ordinary man dropped into a hot mess and not always able to fight his way out.
As Sameer, an unassuming software engineer, Jammwal conceals his pecs in baggy clothes and puts on his most tender face. Sameer’s marriage has been arranged with Nargis (Shivaleeka Oberoi) in a corner of India where communal differences do not matter. For some reason, the film is set in 2008, when the global financial crisis hits India and results in unemployment. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s face floats out of the television as a reminder of the days when the country was in the economic doghouse, rather than in the stellar position it currently occupies.
There are jobs in a fictitious Arab country named Noman, but Nargis’s visa arrives before Sameer’s. I’ll join you in a few days, he promises, but he never does. Nargis disappears from the airport, forcing Sameer to land up in Noman to begin the arduous journey of tracing his wife.
The goodwill for India in the Middle East and Central Asia helps Sameer make some headway. Friendly Afghan taxi driver Usman (Annu Kapoor) and a couple of local Hindi-speaking police officers (played by Shiv Panditt and Aahana Kumra) assist Sameer. There are times when Sameer clenches his fists in anger as he gets closer to the awful truth about Nargis, but except for a few moments, Vidyut Jammwal sits this one out.
In place of the one-man army, writer-director Kabir presents the world’s greatest husband. Sameer is in the mould of Liam Neeson’s father in Taken – a man driven to unusual behaviour in order to save a family member. On the rare occasion that Sameer lashes out, it is suggested that his mission gives him strength. His moves are those of an untrained civilian rather than the martial arts expert or commando that Jammwal is usually called upon to portray.
Jammwal turns out a sincere and likable performance and carries off long stretches of anguished inactivity. Khuda Haafiz has been shot in Uzbekistan, with numerous rosy-cheeked locals filling up the scenes, some of them visibly glad to be in a movie. The slick production does a good job of conjuring up Noman out of nowhere. In the early portions, Sameer’s struggle to find the equivalent of a needle in a haystack appear credible, as does his agony over Nargis’s fate and his frustration at the slow pace of the investigation.
But it gets too easy for our hunky hero. Nargis’s kidnappers are operating in plain view, and at least one of them is ridiculously simple to track. The switch between emotion and action isn’t smooth enough, and events are needlessly stretched to 134 minutes.
The absence of implausible superheroics and Muslim stereotyping is a relief, but Kabir doesn’t fill the gap with tight-enough plotting. When Sameer finally lashes out, it’s not a moment too soon. Even Vidyut Jammwal looks relieved.