Many years ago, a close female friend -- who shall here remain nameless because a) gallant men do not besmirch a woman's honour and b) because I value my life -- was breathless after watching the teaser of Ram Gopal Varma's James, marking the debut of a certain fellow called Mohit Ahlawat. She felt he had the presence to be the next big thing, the intensity of a young Shah Rukh Khan, and that elusive x-factor, "woh baat." No he didn't.
How badly she will cringe at reading this, and how Punjabi-expletive-ridden the ensuing phone call to me will be, are testament enough to that spectacular moment of Mohit-misjudgement. Presumably on screen in Shagird simply because they wanted a hero a head taller than Nana Patekar, the man is catastrophically awful at anything outside of keeping his trousers uncreased. He acts like he fires a gun in this film: very sparingly indeed. Not that this seems out of choice.
This is a crying shame, because everyone else in the cast of Tigmanshu Dhulia's latest film is either very good or at least having a very good time. It starts off in predictably Training Day mode, but Dhulia is a solid writer with a knack for both unpredictable punchline and weird quirk, and manages to not just suckerpunch us with a significant pre-interval twist, but also to keep the tempo crackling. Many current films claim to be songless only to hide behind musical interludes; this is thankfully one of the genuine articles.
It's a simple cop drama, or, as Nana casually tells a shocked guest as he chases a drug-dealer down the hallway at a party, "Chor-Police khel rahein hain." Patekar plays crooked Delhi supercop Hanumant Singh, a callous Bizarro-version of his own iconic Ab Tak Chhapan character. Ruthless, laconic and immensely likeable, Hanumant obsesses over old Hindi film music, thumbing his nose at banal recent dhinchak. Breaking into a room, he shoots the TV set playing an Emraan Hashmi song before he kills the coke-dealers watching it.
We can safely assume Pritam wouldn't like to meet him in a dark alley.
And while Hanumant goes on his rounds, he's straddled with a lanky liability: Mohit, played by Mohit, a young cop assigned to Crime Branch without having had to cut his teeth on less glamorous police duty. The boy mouths paap-'n'-punya platitudes and is significantly slow on the uptake, but it is hard to gauge whether this is Dhulia's vision of the character or just what the actor can deliver. The film is about the senior cop, the rookie and a kidnapping-ransom setup with enough twists and countertwists to keep the narrative going.
There is much of merit in the film. The actors, as said, are in top form, especially the chameleonically versatile Zakir Hussain and the increasingly reliable Khan Jehangir Khan. All the cops who make up Patekar's crackhead squad are well-cast, and so is director Anurag Kashyap, here playing a murderer with a rockstar attitude. His Bunty Bhaiya walks into prison flashing V-signs at the cameras, and expects extreme creature-comfort. A seasoned actor, he feasts hammily on the peculiar lines and has a blast, and his moments are great fun. So that makes it a strange lineup: an interesting assortment of character actors, a wooden hero and Rimii Sen, playing an intrepid television journalist who breaks up tense situations by saying "chalo na, let's dance."
This is the problem. Shagird is a perfectly servicable drama with an interesting narrative and several deft touches -- a wicked dig at Vir Sanghvi, Hussain's politician casually unwreathing himself of garlands while talking on the phone, Patekar's Hanumant forgetting Shabana Azmi's name (but remembering her father Kaifi's instantly), a second before a high-ranking official warns that they "don't want another Kandahar," ha -- but the hero-heroine casting compromise makes the film a lot less gripping than it should have been. Lines soaked with gallows-humour are all well and good, but a cat and mouse game can never work as well if the mouse isn't any fun at all.