Phantom is a screen adaptation of S. Hussain Zaidi’s novel, Mumbai Avengers. I have not read the novel. I watched the film on big screen with a bigger heart and nerve to convince my patriotic family (Pakistani, including my 17-year-old American son), that no matter how controversial a film is, it is better to spend money in the theater rather than buying a pirated DVD.

The action-thriller revolves around global terrorism with the pivotal character of Phantom who goes to take revenge for the coordinated attacks that took place in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. It is made by the director of Bajrangi Bhaijan, Kabir Khan and is filmed in India, London, Syria, UK and Lebanon.

Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan) is an ex-soldier, dishonorably discharged from Indian Army who is allured into a mission by the RAW with an incentive to restore his blemished image.  His mission is to kill the four perpetrators, the masterminds of 2011 Mumbai Attacks.  He is partnered with Nawaz Mistry (Katrina Kaif), a Parsi from Mumbai, with past connection to RAW and currently working for an agency named Dark Waters.  The mission starts from London where after target killing Sajid Mir, they flee to Chicago to finish David Headley who is serving jail time with a 35-year sentence.  Next they go to Syria to meet the high command of Lashkar-e-Taiba and finally to Pakistan. They end the mission by taking the lives of Harris Saeed and Umvi.  Needless to say, Harris Saeed and Umvi are characters representing Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, respectively.  The Dark Waters may very well be alluding to Black Waters. The script has direct references to Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba and ISI.

The movie starts with a scene where RAW officials confer about Mumbai Attacks. A young officer utters   the catchphrase:  “If America can do it, why can’t we?”  Of course they are referring to the CIA-led Bin Laden operation carried out by the US Navy Seals on Pakistani soil. The officer sermonizes on how India was made to get down on her knees and how terrorists made every Indian feel powerless that day, hence sell them the jingoistic doctrine of killing the terrorists.  So right from the beginning, the director falls short of demonstrating the merit of the mission to the viewer.  Firstly, America did not call it a “War for bruised egos, the feeling weak and humiliated” but raised the slogan of world peace and war on terror. Secondly the movie noticeably demonstrates   RAW going against rather than carrying out a mission assigned by their Government.  In doing so, it diminishes the integrity of their own intelligence agency by clearly presenting to the viewer that the mission was contrary to the orders of the PM who unmistakably calls this mission an unlawful revenge. It was politically correct to show the PM saying that a war-mongering mind set like this “belongs to FB and not serious policy making”. This is in coherence with the standards of morality that define heroes and villains, in real life as well as in the fantasy world of films and comic books. Even pure thrillers, not necessarily message oriented, like Mission Impossible, James Bond, Kingsman, and recently, Man from U.N.C.L.E, portray the agencies going after rogues and criminals who execute plans of evil.  The mission is usually to abort a catastrophe with minimum collateral killing. In the mind of the viewer, the hero is glorified for averting a calamity and saving rather than ending human life. Phantom could have given a stronger message had it demonstrated  Daniyal Khan as an ex RAW agent gone rogue and leaving it at the judgment of the viewer to decide if what he did was right or wrong.  On the contrary, the salutes that Katrina gets at the end did bring a tear or two in my eyes but minutes later I was left thinking who the hero was?  The felonious executioner of four people, including an already convicted prisoner? This model of heroic vigilante that glorifies murderers   does little to serve the patriotic message of nationalism.

There was a lot of discrepancy in technical details of the film too. Phantom’s first target is in London.  A man who underwent plastic surgery and all they know is that he breaks his cigarette’s butt before smoking. With this clue, they are able to identify him at a cricket Test match played in the Oval Grounds in London in the middle of thousands of spectators.

On another occasion an ISI officer asks for the profiles of the 160 prisoners who shared the prison in Chicago with David Headley and in no time, the “American Officials” send them complete security files. A bit more substantiation with showing involvement of bureaucracy etc. was in order there.

Reminiscent of his last block-buster, Bajrangi  Bhaijan, it is evident that  the director did not care to delve into the details of  Lahore and its culture, let alone to have travelled and spent time there.  The four characters that help Daniyal Khan and Nawaz in executing their murder mission i.e. the shopkeeper, his young apprentice, Umvi’s doctor and his nurse, all spoke chaste Urdu with a flawless accent.  They were more close to Karachi walas than Lahoris.  Let me also point out, that as a Lahori, I was disappointed at the lack of food and culture in any of the scenes screening my city.  Even the wedding was utterly non-Punjabi – rather non Pakistani. I do not recall seeing a group of bearded old men dance on a qawwali at a wedding.  

In the scene when Harris Saeed’s vehicle is toppled over, after a jazzed up car chase in the streets of Lahore, the Phantom, with a poorly symbolic patka on his head, approaches the half dead man. He then delivers his five minute speech before shooting him and not a single person from the crowd tries to save Harris Saeed. We Lahoris believe in interrupting others’ business even if it imperils our lives. If a police officer is in the middle of performing his duty in a roadside accident, we believe in barging in and asking:

“Ki hoya  Bhai jaan?  Sab khair ai?”

[What’s up Bro? All okay?]

Lastly you know it can’t be Lahore if a gorgeous damsel like Katrina Kaif roams around the streets without a whistle blown, an eye winked at her and without someone asking:

“Kithay challay o sohniyo?”

[Where to m’ babe!]

So was I upset to watch this film as a Pakistani? No. As a Lahori, yes.

If you want to see a badly made film on a very good subject, go for it. Kabir Khan did not make India look good in the movie. Nations do not look good taking revenge through the hands of vigilante. This portrayal of a country usually comes from the other side of the fence.