There are certain movies that are inherently difficult to rate. I know I have had this dilemma in the past with movies like Ishq and Dil Kya Kare. The former because the glamour, comedy and the performances were just too fun that I initially forgave all the melodrama and the beaten-to-death story-line. (On repeated viewings, I usually skipped the post-interval proceedings.) The latter suffered from a commercial-look wannabe syndrome, but the performances and the hard to comprehend motivations of the characters were most enticing. Now, Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Mission: Kashmir puts me in the same boat again. Undoubtedly, this is a very good film from one of our top directors, but Chopra's choice of story to complement the magnificence of every other aspect of his movie, brings the film down a few rungs from Classic status.
So first the down-side. The tale commences with Inspector Inayat Khan (Sanjay Dutt) and his wife, Neelima (Sonali Kulkarni) living in eternal bliss amongst the beauty of the disputed territory. Or so it seems until their only child dies of a domestic accident because no doctor is willing to medically attend to him as a result of a fatwa by a radical separatist (Puru Raajkumar). The Inspector is expectedly angered and troubled by his son's "murder" and in his police force's mission to eradicate the separatist clan, they unfortunately let loose also on a family of innocents. Altaf (a young Hrithik Roshan), is orphaned and traumatized in the police act, and Neelima insists Inayat and she adopt the young child to fill the void in their own lives. (And to compensate for the Inspector's guilt.) So far, so good. There's trouble in paradise (pun intended) when Altaf quickly discovers the identity of his family's killer and devotes the rest of his life to the cause of eliminating Inayat Khan from the planet. He joins forces with Hilal Kohistani (Jackie Shroff), a materialistically minded terrorist, who will help the bachcha in exchange for Altaf spear-heading Hilal's treaturous Mission Kashmir, a plan to enable Kashmir become an Independent State.
Now you hopefully see my problem. The movie lapses too quickly into the sub-plot of terrorist without a cause and it dwells on it too long. For a movie about Kashmiriyat, the narrative focus on terrorism is too much. (Yes, terrorism is undoubtedly a problem in the region, but other recent directors have already tackled this topic numerous times in Roja, Maachis, Dil Se, Hu Tu Tu and most recently, Fiza.) So if you can forgive the familiar story-line, you're in for a major treat elsewhere. Vinod Chopra uses enough other pawns to keep you glued to your seat for each and every minute of his ode to Kashmiriyat.
First witness, the unparalleled technical quality of the movie. Symbolism and metaphors (courtesy screenplay assistance of a US university professors and novelist) compliment the visuals, serving as blessings in disguise to the numbed brains of commercial film-goers such as myself. Of course, Binod Pradhan's cinematography of each and every breath-taking crevice of Kashmir helps demonstrate how we South East Asians are destroying one of God's greatest gifts to mankind.
The editing is sharp and quick in The Matrix-inspired action sequences, yet soft and transitory in the more dramatic and emotional moments of the movie. (The action sequences are a major highlight, particularly the awesome and stylized climax-based ones.) And the music, above all, is apparently authentic Kashmiri-folk. (The dances are unique, though I will admit I found some of them a bit too unusual to my naive tastes.) Shankar-Ehsaan and Loy know how important it is to use musical background themes to enhance a scene's mood and punctuate the dialogues.
Performances too, are first rate. I have never seen Sanjay Dutt give such a raw and heart-felt performance. He is the true star of the movie. (Here's an actor who has learned that it is never too late to defy convention and type-casting in his acting career.) Hrithik is raw and effective, excelling most in the action sequences (but most will notice how this role is almost an extension of his angry young man act from the recent Fiza.) Preity Zinta is gorgeous and disarming as always with her natural effervesence in the supporting role of Altaf's childhood love, Sufiya Parvez. And Jackie excels in a brooding and menacing performance which is unfortunately underwritten. (Then again, Jackie always steals the scenery in Vinod's films.) Only Sonali Kulkarni disappointed. What I found distracting about her talent is that her face and body language is most emotive, which is a rare aptitude for even the biggest talents, but her voice is stunningly wooden. She needs a quick course in voice modulation.
What then to conclude about Mission Kashmir? Yes, it is a must see, and likely one I will watch at least a half-dozen times more in the future. And so it will grow on me, a rare quality for movies which usually fade in their appeal over time. I must commend Vidhu Vinod Chopra for always making films from the heart. The problem remains for him that the average filmgoer wants instant gratification, not a movie that takes time to sink into your system. Let's see if this Mission proves me wrong.