Neeraj Pandey debuted with a bang in 2008. His A Wednesday underscored the fact you don't need formulae to win at the Fridays stakes; a taut script and an economical production can deliver. Aiyaary deviates from that.
In the decade since his first film, Pandey established his calibre as a thrillermaker with Special 26, Baby and Naam Shabana (the last as producer). What worked for him were well-written scripts, ensemble cast and a good eye for details. The director seemed sure of himself and in-charge. However, Aiyaary leaves one wondering if this is the same Neeraj Pandey at work here.
Of late, his films have been getting longer. What started with a shade over 100 minutes in A Wednesday, has now come to 160 minutes. And Aiyaary doesn't have so much content to pack that runtime. The fallout: a thriller that fails to thrill.
In fact, at times Pandey seems to be unsure about his priority: did he set out to make a thriller or did he want us to be proud of our Army? Not that both can't be done together. But Aiyaary couldn't manage either convincingly.
The film leaves one feeling that Pandey wanted it to be grand; but what he achieved is a self-conscious movie that takes itself too seriously. The director has ticked the boxes: issues that concern the common man, subplots, different locales (including outside India), capable actors. But he couldn't tie all these strands strongly enough to keep the viewer on the edge.
Instead of fleshing out his characters, Pandey's subplots in flashbacks (be it romance or Valley violence) interfere with the story. To add panache to Manoj Bajpayee's Col. Abhay Singh, he unnecessarily prolongs a chase sequence. To show off detailing, the director borders on the improbable (Sid Malhotra's Maj. Jai Bakshi parks his mobike next to the India Gate).
He even falters in his detailing when his Army chief (Vikram Gokhale) and a former general (Kumud Mishra) look distinctly unfit on screen.
Pandey's brilliance shines occassionally, like in the use of the 'fly on the wall' imagery or the way his leads chose feature phones over smartphones to keep below the radar, but loopholes (Army chief bypassing others to trust a colonel; an officer trained in intelligence work stealing in plain view of CCTV cameras; Mishra speaking wrong English, but Naseeruddin Shah's accent is impeccable despite being a security guard).
Up to the interval at least, the audience remains expectant. But after that, boredom gradually takes over, not helped by the fact that the production value isn't top class either – remember, this industry now has enough moolah to keep its Tiger Zinda in an exploding Levant. Less-than imaginative camera work and a humdrum background score fail to induce any thrill.
In such circumstances an experienced cast often comes handy.
Ironically, here the relatively less-experienced Malhotra, Rakul Preet Singh and Pooja Chopra make some effort. Stalwarts like Manoj Bajpai, Anupam Kher and Adil Hussian hardly manage to make things interesting. Gokhale and Mishra shouldn't have been cast at all. And Naseeruddin Shah is downright disappointing (He, of course, would say his job is to carry out the director's brief).