Dir: Bejoy Nambiar. With: Amitabh Bachchan, Farhan Akhtar, Aditi Rao Hydari, Neil Nitin Mukesh. 102 mins. Cert: 12A
Around the millennium, the venerable Indian writer-director-producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra was set to make his Hollywood debut with Chess – nothing to do with the musical, but a self-penned thriller about a traumatised cop that circled the studios with such names as Dustin Hoffman attached. The vagaries of 21st century production meant Chopra had to wait until last year’s Broken Horses to take his American bow, but traces of Chess have apparently persisted into Wazir, a plan B – delegated to emergent director Bejoy Nambiar – which arrives bearing The Big B: Amitabh Bachchan, who collaborated with Chopra on 2007’s fine Eklavya, assumes the chewy character part Hoffman would surely have been eyeing.
Nambiar’s film begins as a no-nonsense Bollywood policier: the sappiest song goes upfront to help define a family unit shattered forever by a moment of madness. The man responsible is Delhi detective Daanish (Farhan Akhtar), whose rash-to-poor decision-making in pursuit of one heavy directly results in the loss of his wife and child. Fate subsequently conspires to land this miserable figure on the doorstep of Pandit Dhar (Bachchan), the amputee grandmaster who coached Daanish’s daughter before her demise. Spying unprocessed pain in his visitor’s eyes – “The biggest enemy is time; it just doesn’t seem to pass” – Pandit proposes they play a game or two as a means of beating the clock.
What follows proves intriguingly poised. The fear, at least early on, is that Wazir will devolve into a sentimental drama about chess’s capacity to still the mind and soothe the savage breast – the kind of project 1990s Hollywood had already done rather well by (Innocent Moves, Fresh). Yet Chopra and Nambiar are savvy enough to leave in manoeuvres that make us question who’s playing whom here. When Pandit dispatches Daanish to investigate the mysterious passing of his own daughter – found at the foot of a powerful politician’s stairs – it reawakens the detective’s numbed instincts, while setting the audience to wonder what good this pawn’s errand is really going to do him.
This inbuilt ambiguity – that Daanish’s second chance might just be Pandit’s powerplay – owes much to Bachchan’s ability to describe both a genial host and something more shaded; Hoffman would surely have struggled to summon a comparable hum of menace. Against him, Akhtar – perhaps better known as a blockbuster director (Don) – offers a very solid defence as a protagonist who realises he still has some fight left in him. And there’s another colourful part for the increasingly prominent Neil Nitin Mukesh (Prem Ratan Dhan Payo) as a cackling sociopath who willingly introduces himself as The Queen. (Any American version would have had to do a lot of explaining around him.)
Nambiar gives their interactions a low-level, pulpy style, seeking out little felicities of framing that indicate a thoughtful imagemaker doing his best to outwit his mentor and make this project his own: at one point, the chequered flooring of Pandit’s rec room allows Bachchan’s rookish grandmaster to position himself between the hero and his beloved. By the third-act relocation to Kashmir, Wazir has turned out somewhat more distinctive than it might have done in California: if there’s something faintly absurd about the equation of characters to pieces, Chopra and Nambiar – wily teacher and keen student – move them around the board with dexterity and efficiency. It’s a fun game to watch.
Wazir is now playing in cinemas nationwide.