Language: Hindi and Arabic
If the world had not suffered an economic meltdown in 2008, Sameer would perhaps have spent that year gazing moonily at his bride Nargis in Lucknow, and she would most likely have continued existing as a virtually wordless, porcelain-doll-like figure.
Instead, the global economy went into a tailspin, Sameer and Nargis found themselves unemployed, and Bollywood invented a Middle-Eastern country called Noman where the couple find jobs and he runs amok to find her when she goes missing. Obviously this means Sameer's moony gaze on Nargis is interrupted, but one constant remains: in India and in Noman, pre- and post-disappearance, Nargis has little to say or do and has even less spark than the meagre number of dialogues and facial expressions assigned to her.
Writer-director Faruk Kabir's Khuda Haafiz (May God Be Your Guardian) is about Sameer taking care of business and Nargis being taken care of. She is a bland being but we are compelled to believe that he fell in love with her and risked his everything for her since the opening text plate and media reports state that the film is based on true events. The zero effort in writing her character is the pivotal flaw in the otherwise good-hearted Khuda Haafiz.
Vidyut Jammwal plays Sameer, who will stop at nothing to get Nargis (Shivaleeka Oberoi) back in his arms. His frantic quest takes place in an oil-rich land called Noman. Why particularly Noman, a word that resembles Oman? Why Noman when at least one media report says the events of the story occurred in UAE? While we solve the mystery of whether this is meant to be clever wordplay, Sameer must crack the mystery of where his wife could be.
As our good-looking, much-in-love hero races around Noman, he encounters the Pathan taxi driver Usman (Annu Kapoor) and officers of the local Internal Security Agency, possibly named thus in the script since its initials, ISA, closely resembles Pakistan's ISI, which is every Indian conspiracy theorist's favourite spy agency.
The naming of ISA is part of the script's dual game: everything in Noman could be a red herring if you are prejudiced against Muslims or opposed to prejudice. In the ultimate analysis, the tables are turned on the viewer since Khuda Haafiz does not reduce Islam, Islamic countries and Muslims to clichÃ©s - saccharine, neutral or negative - as too many Hindi films do. Its Muslims and Nomanis range from downright wonderful to outright evil and everything in between, as any spectrum of people would be. Their Muslimness is treated as a routine phenomenon, which is how the representation of any community should be.
The script also plays around with the blend of religious identities in the leads' background, through their fluid names, their marriage rituals (a nikaah and pheras), her parents' mixed marriage and certain small gestures.
Khuda Haafiz even overturns the "oppressed Muslim woman in a Muslim country" stereotype by featuring Aahana Kumra as the hijab-wearing senior Nomani ISA operative, Tamena Hamid, who is a mover and shaker in the profession and gets a substantial action scene in which she fights one man to protect another.
Considering the present real-life political scenario, all this is noteworthy. Sadly, a film cannot be carried on the shoulders of positive intentions alone, and the fact is that everything else about Khuda Haafiz feels generic and worn.
An extremely violent confrontation in a building in Noman and an action-packed chase scene immediately after have some energy, but the rest is ho-hum. Each twist seems to have been pulled out of a pot pourri of existing options, a transparent effort is made to create suspense over innocuous actions in some places (note the rather silly build-up to a namaz scene in a desert) and the overall effect is unexciting. Some of this has to do with the direction, some with the weak writing of every character barring Sameer, and above all, the sidelining of Nargis once she and her romance with the hero are established through precisely one conversation and one song within the first 15 minutes.
Nargis is the motivation for everything Sameer does in the film but since it is hard to invest in her, it becomes hard to invest in his motivations too, which makes it hard to be emotionally invested in Khuda Haafiz as a whole.
Vidyut Jammwal has a reputation as an action star with a well-worked-out body that he is not shy of showing off. In Khuda Haafiz both his trademarks are pared down. It is nice to see him look boyish in some scenes in contrast with the all-muscle He-Man he usually plays and it is nice to see him try his hand at something different after the brutal fisticuffs in the likes of Force and the Commando franchise. The two fight scenes he gets in Khuda Haafiz are bloody and shot in gratuitous close-ups, but for the most part he is being human here. Jammwal is strained in Khuda Haafiz's romantic passages, but pleasingly earnest in the rest of the film.
Shivaleeka Oberoi is uninteresting. The other primary cast members have shown more natural charisma and talent in their earlier works. Annu Kapoor has too studied a manner as Usman. The Indians playing Nomanis wear their Arabic and their accents lightly, which is a good thing, and since Nomanis don't exist in reality, there is no question of whether they sound authentic or not, I guess. Shiv Pandit, who was terrific in 2011's Shaitan, is hammy in his role as an ISA officer. Kumra, who was a firecracker in Lipstick Under My Burkha, tries her best to rise above the listless direction here and barely manages. For the most part though, the performances are as uninspired as the writing.
Khuda Haafiz was shot in Uzbekistan and Lucknow. Unlike the recent Gulabo Sitabo in which Lucknow has character and personality, even this film's locations feel generic, like most other things in it. Cinematographer Jitan Harmeet Singh, for one, manages one interesting overhead shot of two sets of people pulling two individuals apart in a narrow corridor early in the film but the rest of his frames remain indistinctive albeit pretty.
Khuda Haafiz means well but it is dull.