What is this fascination for intelligence officers in mainstream Indian cinema these days? There was Agent Vinod, a secret agent who seemed to get caught so often and in so many countries that he clearly ought to have picked a different line of business. And Ek Tha Tiger, whose ridiculousness was redeemed by the fact that the titular character was played by a man who can play ridiculous better than anybody else in the business. And now Thuppakki, where the hero’s actions veer between spooky clairvoyance and abject stupidity. Why is it so difficult to make a film about an intelligence officer who deserves the adjective? Most of these guys have IQs that lie somewhere in-between furniture and retarded simian. The scripts are, if anything, worse.

The premise isn’t half bad — a military intelligence officer on vacation in Mumbai discovers the existence of sleeper cells about to awaken, and winds up preventing a series of terror attacks on the city. And the villain isn’t so bad either — aside from some of the usual movie villain malaises like the Talking Killer Syndrome and I-can-beat-you-with-my-bare-hands Syndrome, he seems to think rationally and makes for a worthy adversary. Had the protagonist relied on something more than Tamil-Hero-Awesomeness to beat him, this could’ve been a gripping thriller involving spy-versus-spy machinations played out on an urban battlefield.

The possibility of him having a team of collaborators is briefly flirted with, and then abandoned in favour of giving him sidekicks. His best friend plays a sub-inspector with the Mumbai police — given what he has to accomplish during the course of the film, wouldn’t an ACP have made more sense? Ah, but no, the man has to provide “comic relief” by showcasing his incompetence and genuflecting at the altar of the hero — a man who is actually competent at his job would’ve made that difficult. On the upside, genuine comic relief is provided by Jayaram, whose performance belongs in a screwball comedy; for the precious few minutes when he’s on screen, we can actually treat the film as such.

A fair bit of screen time is spent on Kajal Agarwal, who does justice to an extraordinarily shabby character sketch with a performance that equals it. Their romantic subplot reminds me of an exchange at the beginning of The Big Bang Theory, where Leonard takes one look at Penny and goes, “Our children will be smart and beautiful,” to which Sheldon adds, “Not to mention imaginary.” Given what these two people bring to the gene pool, imaginary would be a blessing.

 

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