White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Hindi Movie Review: Article 370 is a solid spy thriller undone by relentless political posturing

Yami Gautnam Dhar stars in the new Hindi movie "Article 370," here reviewed by White Guy Watches Bollywood.

Following the recent Main Atal Hoon, Aditya Suhas Jambhale’s Article 370 is the latest in an election season wave of Bollywood films that celebrate the accomplishments of the BJP, under the thin guise of a uniting sense of Indian nationalism. Unsurprisingly, Indian critics have largely seen the film through the lens of their own politics; depending on whose assessment you read, it’s either a riveting political thriller or a propaganda piece liberally mixing facts and fiction. Audiences, in line with the BJP’s strong levels of current popularity and the self-selective nature of ticket-buying, have largely embraced the movie, catapulting it to box office success that caught some industry prognosticators by surprise.

As an outside observer stationed in the West, I found the movie’s politics to be entirely unengaging: too obvious and partisan to be thought-provoking, but not over-the-top enough to fuel the kind of rah-rah, saber-rattling entertainment that made Fighter so enjoyable for me. Just as I was getting into the rhythm of the story, there would come another explicit political appeal that took me out of the proceedings and reminded me that “this movie isn’t for you.” Which is not to say that I know enough to have strong feelings about the positions the film stakes out, but rather, that it adopts them with such inelegance that this interferes with the fluidity of its storytelling. A movie like Fighter goes so hard on the propaganda that it becomes part of its aesthetic; Article 370 is still trying to sell itself as a straight-ahead spy thriller, which makes its digressions into virtue-signaling feel like disruptions.

As the title signals, the film’s story revolves around the 2019 repeal of Article 370 to the Indian constitution, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir. It follows two parallel narratives: that of NIA agent Zooni Haksar (Yami Gautnam Dhar) working to quell threats emerging in the region that could threaten the repeal attempt (which not even she is aware of for much of the runtime), and that of the government effort to make the long-promised abrogation a reality.

There is a good deal of crosscutting between these two story tracks, much of it crude. Zooni pursues several high-adrenaline, high-stakes missions that the film tries to position as absolutely essential to the political success of the repeal effort. In order for the parallel narratives to feel justifiably connected, the movie must completely sell us on this notion. But in practice, the goal of this exercise seems entirely too transparent, even if we accept the claim that Zooni is apparently based on a real agent. The filmmakers are clearly only linking the two stories because they seek to use entertaining action as a way to make their political points more palatable and persuasive to a mass audience, not because of any real-life connection.

So far, this review may make it seem like I really didn’t like Article 370. But here’s the thing: the sections focusing on Zooni’s work as an agent – the bulk of the film – are actually very well-done and compelling. It’s the attempt to fit these pieces into a larger, entirely unsubtle political narrative that doesn’t work. But when we’re just watching Zooni on missions, the movie is tremendously entertaining. Much of her job as an NIA agent focuses on preventing mass unrest in Jammu and Kashmir before it happens, getting to terrorists while they are still in the planning stages. The film finds the right balance of building suspense around each operation and the action portion of said operation, which is a key challenge for any intelligence community-focused film. And the action itself is very well-staged and shot, largely riveting in the moment.

Yami Gautnam Dhar is also quite captivating in the lead role of Zooni. The film initially develops her as a classic agent with a chip on his/her shoulder, opening on a mission she spearheaded to take down a terrorist without full approval from her higher-ups, leading to unintended consequences. But she hardly comes across as a simple archetype as she works her way back to playing a pivotal role in the NIA, following a brief relegation to boring security work. Gautnam Dhar evinces both the charisma and the intellect needed to thrive in this type of role; she could go toe-to-toe with any Tom Clancy lead of the last forty years. Zooni does not just come across as an agent with immense professional skills, she’s also someone the audience can connect with on an emotional level, making her both root-worthy and vulnerable in action. So much of my investment in the film was driven by Gautnam Dhar’s strength in this role.

If Article 370 had simply focused on Zooni’s operations and kept its political messaging as more of a subtle undercurrent or contextual element to the material, then perhaps I would have embraced it more wholeheartedly. But as the movie progresses, the parliamentary drama grows into an increasingly prominent component, requiring the investigative action to become more convoluted in order to continue to convince the viewer that the two are inextricably linked. This proved to be a recipe for my disengagement as a viewer. I don’t hold the films politics against it; I do take issue with the fact that it doesn’t find a way to seamlessly integrate them into the storytelling. This is precisely when propaganda starts to feel objectionable: when the messaging takes over, and the movie you were really enjoying ceases to exist.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

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