Romeo Akbar Walter Review: A sluggish spy thriller without smarts or pulse
Purportedly based on a real man, RAW is singular in its ambition of making the most of patriot season
My heart goes out to Anil George. For the third time this year, he appears in a film that — on account of his flowing beard and beady grey eyes — parades him as the face of Muslim villainy. He was there in Uri, in Manikarnika, and now he turns up in Romeo Akbar Walter, as a Pakistani warlord humbugged by John Abraham’s Indian spy. “Tum koi jasoos toh nahi?” he enquires of John in their first meeting: a crude bit of dramatic irony that packs zero comic punch. One of the film’s few subthemes is the prejudicial treatment of servicemen — a bold call for a film that casts actors by the hook of their nose.
Cast: John Abraham, Mouni Roy, Jackie Shroff
Director: Robbie Grewal
Set during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, RAW finds John in le Carré territory. He plays — or at least starts off as — Rehmatullah ‘Romeo’ Ali, an Indian mole smuggled into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. This is Raazi bleached of both smarts and pulse. There’s none of that tip-toeing suspense of Meghna Gulzar’s measured storytelling, or the innate resonance of Alia Bhatt’s evocative acting.
In fact, the only time this dreary marriage between Robbie Grewal’s tackless direction and John Abraham’s sleepwalking persona makes complete sense, is in a much-delayed scene. It takes place inside a barbed military hideout, where Khudabaksh (Sikander Kher), a suspicious Pakistani colonel, puts Romeo (under the alias of Akbar Malik) through a polygraph test. Even in his bloodied state, Romeo passes the test easily without blowing his cover — an implausible scene by any measure but sold effectively here by John, an actor so emotionally inert he can trump any lie detector. Sikander, for his part, gnaws hard on the Urdu lines (the film is heady with phrases like ‘watan parasti’ and ‘ghere talukat’) but he looks too much like a North Indian cop to suggest a suave Pakistani officer.
Among others, there’s Jackie Shroff in the role of RAW chief Srikanth Rai, a shifty old man in waistcoats with a bizarre obsession for horses. He speaks in equine metaphors, has framed pictures of stallions in his drawing room, and works out cross-border transmissions in just a glance (making Morse code seem more like horse code). It’s Srikanth who trains Romeo and sends him into enemy territory, marshalling a long chain of pawns leading back to the Delhi headquarters. Raghubir Yadav plays a limping snitch in charge of Romeo’s safehouse, a spy-fiction cliché saved by Yadav’s dexterous stillness of craft. There’s one more cliché — Mouni Roy as an Indian diplomat-cum-undercover spy — who exists solely to lift the romantic track Jee Len De (a chorus I found myself singing back to the film’s 144-minute runtime), and yet another in the form of actor Alka Amin, as Romeo’s widowed mother.
Throughout RAW, there’s talk about the importance of ‘subtlety’ in espionage arts. Srikanth, for one, urges his recruits to “read between the lines.” This advice is contradicted by the film’s callously campy treatment, complete with a loud background score and overblown colour grade: there’s an early visual of Romeo standing against a setting sun, with the sky in a triband of orange, white and green. Now, what exactly could that mean…
I sat up for a few minutes near the end. For a brief moment, RAW cranes its neck into the murky politics of covert operations. There’s a climactic twist that’s dispelled too quickly for the buildup (my theory is that the makers wanted to hold off for longer, but were scared off by the communal implications of the scene). Several such compromises run through the script. Purportedly based on a real man, the film has little interest in truthfully engaging with its subject, clearly driven by the singular ambition of cashing in on patriot season. The title is the biggest decoy. There’s little research in RAW, and nothing worth the analysis.