Without being spoilery, here are the good things I can say about Kurbaan.
- The acting ranges from solid to quite strong, with Om Puri and Kiron Kher perhaps tailing the pack only because their characters are extreme and tempt the actors into scenery-nibbling. I was especially impressed by Vivek Oberoi.* Even the American extras and bit players are pretty good, relatively. (Note: it seems like a wasted opportunity for some fun cameos, though. How fun would it have been if they had roped in someone Harrison Ford-ish to be the lead FBI agent - he could've done his belabored everyman bit in a totally new context!)
- Some of the characters are more nuanced than I expected.
- Cutey-cute love among the bookshelves and Delhi landmarks.
- Some blood and guts were at a level of gory that surprised me but felt in the right tone of danger and consequence of the subject matter.
- The pace is quick without being rushed.
- It successfully manipulated me emotionally throughout its climax as I wondered which of the terrorists' targets would go according to their plans.
- There is an unspoken contrast of behavior driven by conviction (religious, political, emotional) and behavior resulting from not knowing what to believe or think, between knowing one is right and not being able to grasp the world you find yourself in. In some ways, I wish the movie had made more of this, but leaving at least one important idea to permeate quietly was also very effective.
- Kareena Kapoor (Avantika)'s wardrobe and makeup staff did a bang-up job. She looks gorgeous throughout, whether in her "Indian" clothes in Delhi (intensely colored skirts and shirts with intricate earrings and pretty scarves) or in the more western-urban trench coats and boots in New York. (These two styles are cleverly bridged by using similar shirts - with full skirts in India and jeans in the US.) As the tension in her life builds, her makekup helps tire her face, and as it disappears (or becomes more natural-looking, at any rate), it accentuates how stripped-down her existence is becoming - no extras, no fun, no beauty. Saif Ali Khan (Ehsaan) also looked very natty in his suits and jackets, especially a gray one with off-center buttons. (Can you tell I just finished the Project Runway finale?)
- Likewise, the set design is great. A lot of time is spent in Avantika and Ehsaan's suburban New York home and neighborhood, and it looks exactly like many homes built in the last 10 years across the US, even in my little city. This was an effective way to communicate "evil lurks in the most normal of places"-style fear.
For all of its realistic touches, Kurbaan still gives us multiple characters who are supposed to be smart and good with words - we know this because they're professors and journalists - who refuse to call the police or FBI at sensible times. And when they do, they don't get to the point and share the really important life-saving information, even though they have time to do so, or identify themselves as a reliable source, even though they have already met the FBI agent and he has asked them to call him if they find information, and instead leave cryptic anonymous messages about meeting up in a church. Wha? Do not try to take out a terrorist cell on your own. Ask for help from the friendly FBI guy who gave you his business card. It won't make you any less of a man, I promise.
Generally, a film that offers unexpectedly complex characters is a good thing in my book, and I am grateful to writers who are willing to try making people more than caricatures, especially in a complicated story full of inner conflict in the face of fear and sadness. However, in this film, multiple facets didn't always cohere into a person that made much emotional or logical sense. "Is that really what s/he would do?" I kept wondering. The character that the FBI calls one of the most lethal terrorists in the world seemed to change his mind a lot, pulled to extreme action by his hatred of what American troops did to his family in Pakistan, then lurching as far back the other direction when someone accuses him of using jihad as a cover for his psychological pleasure in killing. I like the idea that even a terrorist who seems ready to kill hundreds of people might be able to change his mind when given new information or a different way of looking at his life, but in this case, it just felt jumbled. Is he conflicted, is he lying to get the upper hand, or is the writing disintegrating? I'm not sure.
[The next paragraph has spoilers. Sorry!]
The film's tag line - "Some love stories have blood on them" emblazoned over shirtless Saif and Kareena - implies that they have a romance, which I think is completely misleading. Ehsaan is a sociopath using Avantika for very evil purposes; he claims some sort of affection for her, but I don't buy it. He's too warped. Most of the actual connection he claims and seems to engage in is about their pregnancy, not about her. She's just a vehicle - first for entry into the country, then for a weird attempt to re-do the horrors of his past via their baby. I think she may have a romance with/towards him, though the film does not explain why or how she is unable or unwilling to disengage from him. (Idea: if she is in fact Indian, is she representing filmi-fied India as a great loving mother who accepts one and all and is always forgiving, always accepting, always compassionate?) I was surprised that she backs down from confrontation and retribution that a filmier film might indulge. The sensible, pacifist, real-life-centered part of me is glad, but my more emotional side was disappointed. "Take a page from Fanaa and kill the bastard!" I wrote in my notes (though Avantika is never sketeched as anything close to Kajol's "Desh Rangeela"-spouting character, so maybe she doesn't feel inspired to act decisively for the nation/world) - and I am not prone to recommending Fanaa-isms as a way to improve matters. (Though Tabu shooting bad guys from a helicopter should be in every film.)
Now for a laugh to get rid of that murky, depressed, vaguely dissatisfied taste: go right now and read this highly spoilery but hit-the-nail-on-the-head comic of Kurbaan at The Vigil Idiot. Go!
* I haven't seen any of Vivek's heavy-hitting films except Omkara, which I loved. What should I start with?