Can a leopard change its spots? Yes, it can, if the leopard happens to be maverick movie-maker, Vikram Bhatt. After dog-years of churning out erotic/psychological/whodunit thrillers that vacillate between almost-soft-porn and pseudo-intelligent content, Mr Bhatt has just come out with – gasp! – a patriotic, cat-and-mouse-chase, spy drama! Yes, believe us, o ye non-believers. Didn’t we just say a leopard can change its spots?
And spectacularly at that, if the latest figures of his new web series, Zindabaad, are to be believed. The PR machine of VB on the Web, Vikram Bhatt’s eponymous OTT platform, has thrown up fantastical figures to convince netizens that Zindabaad is the best thing to have come out of the Indian digital space in a long long time. Apparently, the spy drama has already hit upwards of 1 million views, within a measly week of release. And one more thing – Zindabaad has garnered an incredible rating of 9.2 on Imdb. To sum it up succinctly, the hoi polloi has their Sacred Games, while the masses have – you guessed it – Zindabaad.
So, how good is Zindabaad really? Is it as wonderful as the ratings convey? Or is it just hype and hoopla, with nary a hint of hallowed brilliance.
You don’t have to worry your pretty little heads over this teeny tiny matter. Allow us to deconstruct Zindabaad for you and strip it down to the very basics, in an attempt to understand the phenomenal response it has received. So read on friends, as we separate the banal from the brilliant, in our review of Zindabaad.
At its heart, Zindabaad is a portmanteau of a revenge drama and a spy caper, with heavy doses of patriotic fervour thrown in for good measure. Vikram Bhatt takes on the role of the spy-turned-loner-turned-one-man-army, Arjun Vashisht. Arjun is an ex-RAW agent, one of India’s best, but now lives the life of a haggard, perpetually hung-over, security agent cum recluse in Mumbai. His compulsive alcoholism and reclusive life have turned him into an angst-ridden, angry old man, given to raving and ranting sprees against a nursery school that runs on the ground floor of his rented apartment. He has multiple run-ins with the tiny kids as he shouts at them for making noise. There are a few scenes where we are shown cute exchanges between Arjun and the kids, and one kid in particular- Santosh.
An incident changes Arjun’s present state of circumstances, compelling him to revisit his RAW days and donning the spy avatar again. A bomb blast in Mumbai’s local train, perpetrated by ISI-backed Pakistani terrorist organisation, Fauj-e-Azaadi, kills all the children of the school that runs in his apartment complex. Arjun is traumatized by the kids’ deaths, for, even though he railed against them, he loved them from deep within his heart. The incident galvanizes him into shaking off his apathy and seeking revenge from those that wreak havoc in the name of religion.
Arjun calls up Hafiz Salim, the head of Fauj-e-Azaadi, throwing down the gauntlet at him, even while Hafiz is participating in a conference being beamed live on Pakistan’s national television. News channels on both sides of the border beam the call, as Arjun tells Hafiz that he will get into Pakistan, find him and kill him on his own home-ground. The scene borrows heavily from the iconic scene from Taken, when Liam Neeson warns his daughter’s kidnapper over the phone- “I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you." Rhetoric never sounded this good before. But in Zindabaad, the same rhetoric sounds hollow and contrived, if we may say so.
From there on, Arjun Vashisht sets out on a lone wolf mission to kill Hafeez Salim and his second-in-command, Ajmal Akmal. The Indian intelligence agency, RAW, and its boss, Mohan Shastri (Pankaj Dheer), meanwhile, want to curtail Arjun’s moves, so as not to let it escalate into an international embarrassment. Shastri assigns his top agents, husband-wife duo, Irfan and Sara Sayed (Anirudh Dave, Sanaya Irani respectively), to find Arjun and stop him. Sara is Arjun’s protégé, having trained under him, and knows his ways like the back of her hand. But Arjun is beyond their reach, as he reaches Dubai to tackle Al-Maghribi, (Partha Akerkar), the secret funder of Fauj-e-Azaadi. Both RAW and the ISI are hot on his heels. Arjun has multiple stand-offs with Benazir Khan (Sana Khan), an undercover ISI agent, living with Al-Maghribi as his girlfriend.
The story moves at scorching speed, traversing multiple countries- Muscat, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and finally, Pakistan, in lightening succession. Arjun is injured, recovers in a matter of a quarter episode, is injured again, recovers again, and so it goes on. With superhuman ability, he gets into the lair of Fauj-e-Azaadi, fights off the entire ISI force and does his job – all, mostly single-handedly, of course.
On the whole, the show is quite watchable, and manages to capture our attention. It is gripping in parts – not the hold-your-breath kind of edge-of-the-seat gripping, but gripping, nevertheless. Still, we expected better. Given the vast body of work behind Vikram Bhatt, it’s not like he’s a novice in the spy thriller genre. He’s the writer of the story, while Sidhant Sachdev takes on the mantle of director. Sidhant’s vision and execution are on spot. Srivinay Salian has written the dialogues, which, to be honest, are really good, showing glimmers of brilliance in between.
The story is riddled with implausible situations and inconsistencies. The ISI is shown to be toothless, and the entire cadre falls like a pack of cards, even as a badly injured Arjun Vashisht goes on a rampage inside the heavily-manned premises. Its head, Murtuza (Manish Khanna, making his web debut), meets a tame end, and Arjun Vashisht, aka Epic Hero – his RAW codename, emerges victorious. The sequences, the subterfuge and the storyline, though interesting, lack the conviction, persuasive power and raw appeal of a memorably impressive spy thriller. The story tries to play up the futility of religious terror, with long monologues dedicated to impressing upon us that terrorism only leads to death and loss on both sides of the border.
The music is the highlight of the show. One song in particular, Mere Khuda, is outstanding. It adds a melancholic, pathos-laden element to the going-ons. It conveys sorrow, vulnerability, bleakness and hope, all at one go.
All the actors have put in commendable efforts into their roles. Vikram Bhatt impresses with his turn as the Epic Hero. Sanaya Irani is really good as Sara Sayed, as she goes about her role of a no-nonsense RAW agent with effortless ease. Sana Khan as the ISI agent Benazir looks hot and is impressive in her acting skills. Aniruddh Dave, Pankaj Dheer, Manish Khanna give the needed impetus to the story with their mature portrayals. Special mention to Meherzan Mazda, for giving an awesome performance in the cameo that has been offered to him. The makers could have taken a better child actor to play the part of Santosh, as this character makes an appearance several times in the show.
The series is a joint production between Bhatt’s LoneRanger Productions and Jio Cinema. The deep pockets, brought on board by the collaboration with Jio Cinema, result in lavish, albeit not very high quality, production values. Lots of moolah has gone into the making of Zindabaad, and it shows.
All said and done, Zindabaad is a good watch, falling just short of must-watch by a whisker. We, at IWMBuzz, rate it 3.5/5.
(Written by Rashmi Paharia)