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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Romeo Akbar Walter (RAW), Review: Uncooked meal, raw deal

Romeo Akbar Walter (RAW), Review: Uncooked meal, raw deal

Espionage, as a film genre, is more than 84 years old. A master, no less than Alfred Hitchcock himself, made The 39 Steps in 1935. So it is baffling that a spy thriller, made in 2017-18, is oblivious of the rudimentary ingredients entailed to engross audiences. Ennui and crawling pace are anathema to a spy story. When the yard-sticks are James Bond and even John Le Carré, a shoddy script, amateurishly executed, stands no chance of making any impact. Romeo Akbar Walter, with the acronym RAW, is one such example.

India’s secret service is called Research and Analysis Wing, usually abbreviated to RAW. Playing on the name, the makers of Romeo Akbar Walter have put-together a chronicle about a RAW agent, with the backdrop of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. This war led to the dismemberment of Pakistan, liberating East Pakistan and creating BanglaDesh. It was a war India won easily, and there was never any doubt about the outcome. This historical fact makes the whole drama a palaver, because the stakes were never high. Mercifully, the makers largely refrain from jingoism and flag-waving, although a flag-badge is pinned on to the lead actor’s shirt and there is a song that goes ‘Vande mataram’.

Son of a brave, martyred soldier, Rehmatullah Ali, a bank clerk by profession, is better known by his pet-name, Romeo. He puts on an elaborate disguise of an old Urdu poet at a bank’s gathering and reads a poem with flawless pronunciation. Word about his talent reaches the RAW Chief, Shrikant Rai, and Rai decides to recruit him for a covert mission behind enemy lines. His wit and fighting skills are both tested in a mock bank robbery, where he acquits himself admirably. With war clouds looming, Rai wants somebody to cross the border from Kashmir and blend into Pakistani society, and work his way into the military.

Romeo lives with his old mother, and the two dote on each other. Therefore, a sworn-to-secrecy Romeo cannot reveal the mission he is about to embark upon. He lies to her, stating that his bank is sending him for training, and it could take a few months. With forged papers, he enters Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) and begins his job as an assistant manager at a hotel. Pakistan’s biggest arms dealer, Ishaq Afridi, comes to stay there, and Romeo, who has now assumed the identity of Akbar Malik, wins Afridi’s trust by saving his life in an assassination attempt. Soon, he becomes the right-hand man of Afridi.

Ishaq is close to the Pakistani army chief, General Zorawar, and gets all his contracts by ploughing back half the profits to his benefactor. Nawab Afridi, his son, is also in the same business, and keen on getting these lucrative contracts for himself. In fact, Nawab, who is close to the military chief’s deputy, is the man behind several murder attempts on his own father. Akbar establishes contact with fellow Indian agents and starts sending information about a dangerous army plot, to bomb an entire settlement in East Pakistan. Called Badlipur, this small town is the centre where the Indian army is training the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) to take-up arms against their masters from West Pakistan. Just then, a senior army officer, Khudbakhsh Khan, gets suspicious about this outsider who has earned the trust of Ishaq Afridi and is in the thick of all his plans.

Credit for the script of RAW is given to director Robbie Grewal (Samay: When Time Strikes, MP3: Mera Pehla Pehla Pyaar, Aloo Chaat), with Ishraq Eba and Shreyansh Pandey. For the major part, the script seems to treat audiences as little children, by either unduly detailing the narrative or giving it an infantile treatment. A full-fledged bank robbery is staged just to test the prowess of a possible recruit. His romantic interest, who also works for the bank, turns out to be someone only a working overtime fertile imagination could think of. Romeo and his mother’s scenes are hardly indicative of a martyr’s wife and her 35ish year-old son. Romeo, the name, itself sticks out like a sore thumb. Romeo? John Abraham? Rehmatullah Ali? His letters to her are read out by the RAW deputy chief (!) at her home, indicating that she is illiterate, which is hardly plausible. And is the mother not concerned that her son has never made a phone call in months?

Romeo has a job as an assistant manager of a hotel waiting for him as soon as he enters Pakistan. The country’s most powerful arms dealer stays at a hotel which must be a two-star property at best and jerks his pen several times to make it write. Everybody says that the Joker, the head of RAW’s Pakistani operations, is an unknown entity and the less you know about him the better it is for your health. Yet, it is the Joker who greets Romeo when he arrives in Pakistan. To ensure Romeo’ safety, the Joker asks a man with a limp to follow him.  Point is, if RAW already has a network in place inside Pakistan, wouldn’t it be better to ask one of them to infiltrate the army, rather than training and sending somebody from India? Shrikant tells Romeo that he should grab hints, because all important information will be conveyed in this manner. As an illustration, he avers, “When I say that your tea has become cold, you should read that as ‘Don’t drink the tea’.”

After a meeting with Romeo, Nawab Malik leaves a hotel in his car, but, oddly, asks Romeo to have some snacks before he goes away. When Romeo finds that Nawab has forgotten an envelope, he runs towards the car. Nawab stops and tells him, even more oddly, that he was to deliver the envelope, an invitation, to room No. 117, so would Romeo do the needful on his behalf? Romeo does, without any fear that it could be a trap. Romeo changes his name and the length of his beard varies, but his look and face remain exactly the same, as does his language and accent. Pakistanis would smell a rat from miles away. To arrest Romeo, Khudabaksh Khan comes in a jeep, with a handful of men, when he should have spread a dragnet across the city. As a result, Romeo leads them on a wild goose chase. (Actors Johan Abraham and Sikander Kher, who play these roles, run more than 20 kms a day as a routine. Perhaps this chase was an extension of their fitness exercise). It is really too much to swallow when Ishaq entrusts the entire bombing operation to Romeo, including procurement of a plane and a foreign pilot. When you are into the last five minutes of the film, you begin to recall that the film is named Romeo Akbar Walter, and Walter has not materialised yet. That is when the director pips you at the post and, completely unnecessarily, imparts another identity to Akbar Malik: he is now Walter Khan.

John Abraham stepped in as Romeo in August 2017, when Sushant Singh Rajput had to leave on a dates issue. John is not exactly known for his histrionics, but to his credit, he tries hard. I am sure his poet bit is dubbed, but if it isn’t, kudos. His face has a strange complexion and, I am not splitting hairs here, but the wigs are gawky. When it comes to romancing and smoking, he is distinctly ill-at-ease. Mouni Roy as Parul, John’s beloved, has sharp features a deceptive frostiness, with, sadly, very little to do. Jackie Shroff as Shrikant is a piece of good casting, taciturnity being a distinct virtue for a man in his position. You wish, though, that he would not have been asked to keep lighting cigars, and playing with a bonsai plant, in pouring rain, time and again. And oh, that indistinct mumble! Sikander Kher, son of actor couple Anupam and Kirron, makes the most of his role, including a pronounced Punjabi accent. Raghubir Yadav is Mudassar, the man with the limp. Lame excuse for wasting the only dependable actor in the film.

Anil George is passable as Ishaq Afridi. Rajesh Shringarpure as Awasthi, the RAW Deputy Chief, is cast as a mere sounding board for his boss’s plans and pronouncements. Purnendu Bhattacharya is a misfit in the role of General Zorawar. Mushtaq Kak convinces as Joker, while Alka Amin as Waheeda, Romeo’s mother, is the epitome of good motherhood. Shadab Amjad Khan impresses as Nawab Malik, and Aashit Chatterjee appears briefly, as General Ghazi.

‘Bulleya’, a song written by Ashok Punjabi, composed by Sohail Sen and sung by Rabbi Shergill and Shahid Mallya, is both tuneful and well-picturised. Four other songs are a waste of film space. Cinematography is jerky, with the camera operator struggling to capture the right frames. Picture quality is poor, the brightness varying noticeably.

Once in a blue moon, a deft touch surfaces, like the lie-detector test, or Romeo hiding in the water trough or Ishak Malik’s man Friday returning to his hotel room not once but twice. Exceptions omitted, Romeo Akbar Walter seems stuck in antiquity. Quite like the acronym, the movie is raw, uncooked and difficult to digest.

Rating: * ½


Spy Ravindra Kaushik, the Black Tiger who keeps capturing film-makers’ imagination

Born and brought up in Sriganganagar, a border town in Rajasthan, Ravindra Kaushik was fond of acting, and staged mono-acting skits in college. As an impressionable teenager growing up between 1965 and 1971, the two years when India went to war with Pakistan, Kaushik became a fervent patriot. It was probably his mono-act in college, in which he played an Indian army officer who refused to divulge information to Chinese officials, that caught the attention of Indian intelligence officers. Soon after getting his degree in Commerce, Kaushik left for Delhi, entering a world of intrigue and espionage.

He ended up in Pakistan, where he converted to Islam, changed his name to Nabi Ahmed, married a local girl, graduated from a law college and finally, became the ultimate insider, by entering the Pakistani army. But just when he had infiltrated the inner fortress, his career came to an abrupt end. In 1983, when Ravindra, also called Black Tiger, was 29, an Indian agent, named Inayat Masiha, was apprehended at the border, trying to cross into Pakistan. When interrogated, Masiha blew Kaushik’s cover. Pakistan’s intelligence agencies arrested him on charges of espionage and threw him into jail, where he remained for 18 years. Just three days before his death, he wrote a bitter letter home, in which he said, “Had I been an American, I would have been out of this jail in three days.”  The film Ek Tha Tiger (2012) was also said to have been inspired by his story, as was Raazi (2018). Then there is an upcoming film titled, what else? Black Tiger.


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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