Dedicated to the unsung soldiers and aimed at intelligence agents gone rogue and ex-army men turned thugs who speak in weird English accents, Neeraj Pandey’s latest film exists to punish cinephile civilians with its tortuous 160 minutes of tedious indictment and baffling chronology.
Three fourths of Aiyaary is just people walking and sitting, looking at their phones and outside their balconies as if acknowledging the emptiness that is this film.
To be fair, one is offering an early indication of how sluggish things will get when the camera first pans over Sidharth Malhotra staring into India Gate — I am surprised there’s an editing credit at all.
Sidharth plays a third generation soldier, now stealing classified military data like those amateur shoplifters clumsy enough to leave footage on CCTV and for reasons that make him look more juvenile than disillusioned.
His seemingly shady deals with crooked arms dealers throw him on top of mentor Manoj Bajpayee’s hit list.
Apparently, they have some special camaraderie, one that never makes it on screen despite a second half entirely dedicated to flashbacks about one another, of which I remember little someone wanting to eat Maggi.
Aiyaary loves flashbacks like Dennis loves trouble.
Regardless of need or subtext, it finds ways to force a visual of a past no one cares to know.
There are a handful of moments that show sparks of what Aiyaary could have been if not for its stubbornness to stay stiff and safe that neither allows it the potboiler attitude of Ek Tha Tiger nor the gravity of Madras Cafe.
Neeraj Pandey never had an eye for visuals or technique.
In Aiyaary, irrespective of its globetrotting vigour, he doesn’t even try.
What he does do is slap it with a background score filled with jump scare sound effects that have no business being anywhere near a spy thriller, even one as deadbeat as this.
Part of its disjointed narrative, erratically jumping from one scene to another involves Vikram Gokhale’s army chief showing his bribe-offering ex-colleague Kumud Mishra the door.
Mishra, an able actor, is reduced to unintentional comedy when bragging, ‘I’ve been a soldier, a decorated one at that,’ making one wonder his need to deceive.
There’s also Sidharth’s job interview of Rakul Preet Singh, who seems to be something between an IT professional, hacker and compulsive online shopper specialising in illegal fund transfers. The next minute, they’re celebrating birthdays, spinning in the rain and plotting to run out of the country.
Sure, Sidharth looks good in uniform. And in pink lipstick and prosthetic, bearing an eerie resemblance to the British actress Juliet Stevenson. But neither he nor the film has the humour to make a laugh out of it.
Aiyaary assembles a cast of mostly solid actors, including Pandey favourite Anupam Kher in a superfluous role, and then takes great pains to cut them down to size.
Bajpayee can sink his teeth into snappy dudes any time of the day. This is a walk in the park for him, but it’s no fun to see his energetic fury squandered for wishy-washy valour.
All the more conspicuous when Pandey treats treason like a game of musical chairs and doodles a prank of a plot. There’s some talk about the war widows fund, a trump card like secretive air around the sparsely used Naseerudddin Shah, Bajpayee’s domestic life squeezed in awkwardly to no effect and Adil Hussain as a dapperly dressed London businessman treated like the desi mom whose phone no one answers.
It’s a bloated, prolonged mess of misplaced purpose that digresses from military misdeeds to animal cruelty.
By the time I could make sense of any of this yawn, I was collapsing with exhaustion and disinterest. That I learned is not the worst thing when there’s still half a film remaining to roll.