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God helps those who help themselves – Beyond Bollywood

Nushrratt Bharuccha makes a sincere effort in playing a character that is held captive by Islamic State in Mosul. Writer-director Pranay Meshram’s story had potential but is let down by its average writing, screenplay.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️ ( 2 / 5)

By Mayur Lookhar

War, terrorism only leads to death and destruction. Amidst the destruction though there always are tales of grit, determination. They are more celebrated if it involves Herculean acts by ordinary citizens. The survival tales often make for great stories on celluloid. Of course, every filmmaker around the globe adds the element of fiction to make it more appealing to the audience at large.

The wave of Islamic State terror in Iraq and Syria from 2013 had a catastrophic effect on the civil population. Though India is far away from the Middle East conflicts, its citizens working in these lands were also caught in the cross fire. Malayalam director, editor Mahesh Narayanan had drawn praise for his gripping survival thriller Take Off [2017] that was inspired by the rescue of Indian nurses from Tikrit, Iraq.  In the same year, actor Salman Khan, director Ali Abbas Zafar took a Rambo-like approach to tackle similar crisis in their blockbuster Tiger Zinda Hai.  In 2020, Tiger Shroff literally took on entire ISIS in Syria to rescue his brother.

The Kerala Story [2023] unabashedly questioned religious indoctrination, conversion, plus it also shed light on the IS terror ideology afflicting Kerala. 

Disney + Hotstar will soon have the series Freelancer that involves daredevilry inside Syria. It’s quite possible that there are other films that have tapped into the ISIS menace to create desi entertainers. This Friday [25 August], we have Akelli, another film that travels to IS-hit Iraq. Jeez, is there an overkill of these IS-infested Indian thrillers?

What separates Akelli from the rest is that here is a film where no Indian commando, agent is deputized to rescue the lone Indian woman entrapped in the IS net in Mosul.  God helps those who help themselves. Jyoti [Nushrratt Bharuccha] is pretty much on her own if she is to get out of this hell. The title is thus so befitting.

Interestingly, the film doesn’t claim this to be a true story. Nor do we recollect the word fiction in the disclaimer.  In fact, the disclaimer was pretty short and it played for barely few odd seconds. A brief conversation with first-time writer-director Pranay Meshram revealed that this is a story loosely based on the ordeal of a brave woman. She is not from India, but Middle East.  Her identity is naturally guarded.

So, Meshram, his co-writer Gunjan Saxena [not the celebrated Indian Airforce Officer] replace the Arab lady with an Indian. If you’re a stickler for logic, then you are bound to question as to how long can an Indian Hindu lady, who makes no effort to hide her true identity, survive in the custody of a radical group like ISIS? Islamic terrorists treat all non-Muslims as kafirs [non-believers], who are often the first to be beheaded.  

Hey, it is a movie. Filmmakers are entitled to creative liberty.  The curiosity here purely lies in how will Jyoti escape? Watch Akelli to know that but as always, the pertinent question is how did Jyoti land up in Mosul?

The Delhi woman was working as a ground staff who operates at the tarmac. She accidently injures an unruly passenger, who had grabbed her senior colleague by the throat. Poor Jyoti loses her job. She was the only earning member of her family consisting of her mother and young niece Mahi, who lost her parents in the Kedarnath flash floods.  Crushed under financial crisis, a desperate Jyoti agrees to take up a supervisor role in a garment factory in Mosul, Iraq. She is privy to the crisis in Iraq, but the greedy agents falsely claims that there is nothing to worry about. Jyoti lies to her mother and niece that she is migrating to Muscat, Oman.

After landing in Mosul, she sees the extent of crisis immediately as she watches a little innocent girl blow up in flames. Any other person would have asked the driver, in this case her manager Rafeeq [Nishant Dahiya], to take her back to the airport. Desperate times though call for desperate measures. Jyoti sticks around and things seem fine until IS takes large control of Mosul four months later.

An Indian in IS-infested Iraq/Syria isn’t new but the idea of an ordinary Indian Hindu woman contemplating rescue all on her own makes Akelli appealing. Unfortunately, the film is let down by the average writing, and the inconsistent screenplay.  One feels that Meshram stretched the atrocity one scene too many.  More alarmingly, there is no thrill, no strategy in the early escape efforts. In fact, it is not even an effort as Jyoti merely reacts to an improbable situation.  Often in such dramas, a victim first endures pain, spends times in deciphering every corner, crevice of the location before conjuring an escape plan. Destiny accidently threw a probability and Jyoti simply heads into that direction. These scenes lack conviction. They mirror poor sudden escape sequences in Bollywood flicks.  It makes you question the threat of IS? The climax action though is cleverly crafted.

One usually has a set impression of hardline terror groups. This view stems from the regressive ideology of such terrorists who abhor all means of entertainment. Meshram and Gunjan Saxena surprise you with certain unexpected traits.  An ISIS leader sipping wine, playing music [perhaps Iraqi Joze] will stun the viewers.  A certain hypocrisy is expected from influential figures in terror groups too.

Akelli had potential to be a gripping survival thriller but the average writing, screenplay don’t do justice to the plot.  The lone hope for building engagement here then lies on the shoulders of its cast. Nishant Dahiya makes a fair impression. Rafeeq [Dahiya] is initially smitten by Jyoti. There is something brewing here before the IS menace casts its ugly shadow on this budding friendship. Dahiya is fairly consistent in his performance. The intrigue around Rafeeq stems from his veiled identity. A crucial Rafeeq-Jyoti conversation throws up the word neighboring nation. Well, which is India’s neighbour that speaks Urdu? Ah, we don’t need to mention that. It’s brave though on the part of Meshram, Gunjan Saxena to float in this equation.  Spell out the name, nation and the love jihad trolls will be after you. The director though is wise in not crossing boundaries.

Nushrratt Bharuccha is no longer the selfish girl from Luv Ranjan’s misogynist rom coms. She has taken up strong feminist roles in films like Chhorii [2021], Janhit Mein Jaari [2022]. There’s no way that she could have let go off the Akelli opportunity. Jyoti is an ordinary woman but Meshram banks on her feisty Bhartiya nari [Indian woman] spirit. Jyoti braves the odd to put her life at risk, but not once does he turn into some Lara Croft.  Jyoti’s action is pure self-defense.

In a key moment, depressed after seeing a little child blow up on her first day in Mosul, Rafeeq requests Jyoti to come down, dine and watch some Hindi film with colleagues. “It will help your mind escape from the horrors of the day”, Rafeeq tells Jyoti.  The lady does dine but we don’t recollect her seeing any Hindi movie. How can one resort to escapism when there is terror lurking around? Is there a message here for Bollywood’s ‘leave-your-brains-behind’ filmmakers, audience?

Like its inconsistent script, Bharuccha’s performance, too, has its ebbs and flows.  There is no lack of spirit and sincerity from Bharuccha. If only Bharuccha was armed with a taut screenplay and better troubleshooting strategy, then we could have seen a wholesome act by the lady.  Though brief, the actor who plays Bharuccha’s mother is consistent in her performance.

Roping in a foreign cast often comes with its lingual dilemma. Do we get desi actors to talk in poor Arabic-accented Hindi or you let foreigners stick to their roots? Meshram bravely opts for the latter, but a balance has to be struck to ensure that the core desi audience doesn’t feel neglected. There are times when the desis would feel neglected, but the problem is more compounded by the short duration of sub-titles. If you can’t read Devanagari, then you are unlikely to catch the Arabic conversations. We presume that international screenings will have English sub-titles.

There are two local men who grab attention here. They are both IS terrorists. First is the local IS commander [played by Amir Boutrous] who is truly painstaking to watch. The nauseating background music each time he comes on the screen all the more makes it insufferable.

Then there is Israeli actor Tsahi Halevi, who makes his Bollywood debut as Assad, the chief antagonist of Akelli. Halevi is globally known for his impressive act in the acclaimed Israeli action, thriller series Fauda. Fortunately, he speaks less Arabic. The particular English tone here seems more acquired than natural.  For all the hype, fear around him, Assad doesn’t really strike you as a menacing IS terrorist.  The other international actors have very little presence.

The playback music is average and perhaps borne out of formulaic compulsion.  Meshram does well to understand the politics of the region when the Islamic State took control of Iraq and Syria in 2013-2014. The director though gives a cliched, poor representation of Indian media back home during the IS crisis.

Like its title, Akelli has few fine individual efforts, but as a whole, the Pranay Meshram film doesn’t live to its potential.

Akelli [2023] is set to be released in theatres in theatres on 25 August.

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