Monday, August 15, 2011

Mission Istaanbul (no that's not a typo) or mission to NOWHERE?!

“World... hold on...
Instead of messing up the future, open up inside.
World... hold on...
One thing you will have to answer to the children of the sky.”

- "World Hold On"

This year Bollywood beat the box office with five hits in the month of July. In July 2008, the industry was not as lucky. Money, splashy special effects, and big stars (with big paychecks) were thrown at cinema screens but audiences flat out refused to pay up and be dazzled. Friday anticipation quickly fizzled into Sunday damage control as yet another film stunk up the box office.* The mood of audiences was changing and the slick, Hollywood-aping mainstream thriller was on the way out. And despite the hype and hoopla over the global flavor of Mission Istaanbul, by the time it released, it seemed nearly as dated as Sanjay Dutt’s Mehbooba, which had moldered on the shelf for eight years before limping into cinemas the week before Apoorva Lakhia’s Mission to flopsville.

Mission Istaanbul grew out of director Apoorva Lakhia’s success with 2007 film Shootout at Lokhandwala, which had combined Amitabh Bachchan, action, some second tier stars, and ripped from the headlines cachet into a very gripping gangster film. Mission Istaanbul was very much positioned to be as just real as Shootout but bigger, better, and global in scale. Set against the backdrop of Islamic terrorism, Istaanbul would bring viewers directly onto the battlefields of wars being waged right now, not to mention that the action would be done by a Hollywood stunt coordinator - one who had worked on The Departed. Realism and action were Apoorva’s keywords. “It will be filmed on a scale never seen in our cinema,” said Apoorva in late 2007.**

But one can’t film a war without actors and casting for Istaanbul was almost as difficult as locating bin Laden in his hidey hole. Vivek Oberoi, who also appeared in Shootout, was in from the beginning. Bobby Deol signed on and then dropped out to due to “date issues” only to be replaced by Zayed Khan, a third tier hero whose only real hit to date had been in 2004 with his first film, a Shahrukh Khan film, Main Hoon Na. Tusshar Kapoor was attached to do a villain role, only to back out. The role was filled by Nikitin Dheer, whose only credit to date was a small role in period epic Jodhaa-Akbar. Suniel Shetty, who was co-producing the film, signed on to do a guest appearance. There was a distinct irony that despite the talk of expensive stunts and sets, the cast seemed to have been assembled from low ball bids - just enough of a name to make the gossip columns but not big enough to demand a pay check.

And then were was the mystery surounding Abhishek Bachchan. Abhishek had also appeared in Shootout with Vivek but in between filming Shootout and Istaanbul, one thing had changed - Abhi had married Vivek’s ex-girlfriend Aishwarya Rai. Aishwarya and Vivek had not had an amicable split, to put it mildly. Still, although Abhishek had now formally entered into the opposing camp of the filmi cold war, he had signed on to the film and was allegedly going to be doing scenes with Vivek - a role that got downgraded to a “guest appearance” and then ended up a last minute song picturization. All of which meant that when the film opened, it was flying without the safety net of a strong hero fanbase, relying completely on the slick advertisements and word of mouth.

Mission Istaanbul follows television reporter Vikas Sagar (Zayed Khan) as he gives up his (patriotic) job with Mumbai-based Aaj-Tak network for a high paying job with the al-Johara network. As Vikas’s soon to be estranged wife Dumbo (Shriya Saran, and yes, really) points out, Al-Johara has a reputation for being the mouthpiece of shadowy terrorist Abu Nazir but Vikas doesn’t seem too concerned about it. He packs up for his orientation in Istanbul, where the network is headquarted, leaving Dumbo and an uncertain marriage at home in Mumbai.

Al-Johara is run by a man named Ghazni (Nikitan Dheer), a slick talker and dapper dresser who has no real information for Vikas, except to warn him to stay away from the 13th floor of the building. Vikas is soon taken under the wing of veteran Turkish reporter Owais Hussain (Sunil Shetty), who explains the ropes and helpfully expositions that Vikas is a computer expert, a fact which will be important in about 2 hours. A little later on, a chance*** meeting at a club introduces Dr. Lisa Lobo (the fetching Shweta Bhardwaj), a mysterious woman who seems to know a little too much about Vikas.

Oswais heads off on assignment to Afghanistan, taking his new junior associate Vikas with him. Before their meeting with terrorist leader Khalil (television actor Shabbir Ahluwalia), the two witness a woman being brutally stoned to death by a group of men. The two reporters try to stop it only to get in a confrontation with Khalil that ends with Oswais being shot and killed.

At Oswais’s funeral, Vikas spots a mysterious man (Vivek Oberoi) with long, flowing locks lurking by a tree. Vikas assumes he was just imagining things (could any human fill out a pair of pants so well?!) until the man materializes again later in a waterfront cafe while Vikas is drinking tea. The man is real and his name is Rizwan Khan. He expositions to Vikas that al-Johara is bad news and hints that there is something unseemly going on that results in nosy reporters ending up dead. Vikas, not being the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, takes this to mean that he should try to sneak up onto the 13th floor, whereupon he is promptly tied up and tortured. He’s rescued by Dr. Lisa Lobo only to be betrayed by Dr. Lisa Lobo and then rescued for real by Rizwan who tells him to take off all his clothes because he’s being tracked and, oh, yeah, guess what else - Abu Nazir is actually dead and Rizwan is the one who shot him.

Rizwan then decides to team up with Vikas in order to break into al-Johara headquarters and download all of their files to a flash drive. (Yes, really.) Their plan as executed is to sneak up to the front entrance and then leave a trail of dead bodies from there to the 13th floor, which they will gain access to by cutting off the hand of a security guy and using it to fool the palm print reader. (This is played for laughs.) After they reach the 13th floor, Vikas downloads the entire computer system - including conveniently recorded screencaptures showing how Abu Nazir’s face was digitally edited to make new videos despite the deadness problem - onto a single flash drive while Rizwan shoots everyone who comes in through the door, leaving yet another pile of corpses.

Our two heroes escape, run into Dr. Lisa Lobo again, who explains - over cold, frosty product-placed Mountain Dews - that she is actually with a unit of Indian intelligence called RAW. The three new friends then take on yet another group of al-Johara security guys. This fight features Vikas beating the head of al Johara security with a baseball bat into a bloody pulp while he’s lying prostrate on the ground. Rizwan then lights the whole scene on fire and the three heroes strut away in slow motion while all the bodies burn.

So, now they need to get the flash drive to India while not being found by al-Johara. Dr. Lisa Lobo has a plan to get them out but she needs time. Until then, Rizwan and Vikas go back to chill at Rizwan’s pad, where they discover that they are being reported as terrorists by al-Johara! While going to get more product placed Lay’s Potato Chips, Rizwan stupidly leaves Vikas alone with strict instructions to not make a phone call because, duh, his wife’s phone is 99% likely being tapped because everybody now thinks they are terrorists. Vikas makes the phone call as soon as Rizwan steps out of the room, leading to yet another chase and action sequence.

Vikas and Rizwan are separated when they are escaping through the sea, leaving Vikas to run around Istanbul in a black tanktop by himself. He eventually bumbles over to the Indian ambassador’s residence where he tries to explain what has been happening but she doesn’t believe him and tries to turn him over to the police. So, then, more fighting and Rizwan and Vikas are reunited and Dr. Lisa Lobo, who with her final breath tells them to go meet up with her contact at the Sheraton hotel. Then there is an awkwardly placed Abhishek Bachchan item song that begins as mysteriously as it ends.

The contact is dead, of course, and Vikas and Rizwan run around some more. Vikas gets a phone call from Dumbo saying that she is coming to Istanbul. They go to head her off at the airport but Ghazni gets there first and takes Dumbo away while Rizwan has Vikas backed up against a pillar to keep him from blowing their cover. The last bit of running around leads to a plan where Vikas “tricks” Ghazni by giving himself over to in order to save Dumbo, while Rizwan sneaks in, in order to save them both. After a lot of posturing and threats to kill, the movie climaxes with two parallel fights - Ghazni against Vikas (for which they both remove their shirts) and Khalil against Rizwan. Our heroes win and the film ends with Vikas back at Aaj-Tak, delivering the nightly news.

After watching Mission Istaanbul, I am unsurprised by two things - 1) nobody let Zayed Khan be the lead in a film ever again and 2) nobody gave Apoorva Lakhia any more money to make a film ever again. The film is terrible and only intermittently entertaining, but neither of those things have ever prevented films from catching on with audiences before, so what is it about the special brand of Mission Istaanbul awfulness that kept audiences away?

For one thing, Zayed Khan is truly terrible as cub reporter Vikas Sagar. In this supposedly ripped-from-the-headlines story, audiences are supposed to believe that Vikas is a television reporter with off the charts computer hacking skills who is also a skilled physical fighter. A more charismatic hero in masala mode might have been able to dazzle audiences into believing it (e.g. a Hrithik Roshan in full Dhoom 2 mode) but as it is, Zayed wears a baffled expression on his face through 90% of the film, as if he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on or where he is supposed to stand next. By the time the infinitely more capable Vivek Oberoi swoops in to steal every scene he’s in, it’s too late to save the entertainment factor of the film. The rest of the cast doesn’t embarrass themselves like Zayed does but other than Vivek, nobody really stands out, either. Vivek seems to be the only actor who understands that when acting opposite a stupid plot and lots of special effects, you have to go big or go home.

And the plot is not only stupid, it’s also extremely reckless in its treatment of the very real issue of Islamic terrorism. We see that Arabic news network al-Johara (aka al Jazeera) as a mouthpiece for terrorists; Abu Nazir (aka Osama bin Laden) was secretly killed years ago; dialogues have terrorists claiming attacks in the name of Iraq and Iran while other dialogues have the targets set as American, Israel, and next... India; and add to all of this the lack of any sort of Turkish names or characteristics for the Turkish characters. The villains were a lazy conflation of every scary Muslim stereotype and the hero was a virtuous (Hindu) Indian boy. The headlines this story were ripped from could only have come from famously xenophobic American news channel, Fox.

Although it is tempting to blame a dumb story, Zayed Khan’s wooden performance, or the anti-Muslim bias of the film for the poor box office returns, I suspect the failure has more to do with the particular half-assed production choices that Apoorva Lakhia decided on. Mission Istaanbul was conceived and developed during the “we compete with Hollywood only” bubble of the mid to late 2000s - a time period when seemingly every studio in Mumbai became embarrassed by Bollywood storytelling conventions but had nothing to replace them with. The solution, as demonstrated by Mission Istaanbul was to make a film that tried to capture the action-packed spirit of an American film like Con Air but weighed down with a long run time, a dull romantic plot line, and songs - remnants of masala tossed indifferently at the audience with no rhyme or reason.

Mission Istaanbul is full of masala detritus, as if Apoorva thought audiences were so stupid that they would swallow anything if it was given to them with enough sugar. The choice of Zayed Khan as the main hero of the film is still baffling almost five years later. My first thought was that it was a cost issue. With so much money to spent on exotic locations and guns, there just wasn’t enough money to hire Hrithik Roshan, who was the only hero working at the time who could have pulled off this ridiculous role. But then, why not bring in somebody from down South or from television or launch somebody new? A talented television star would surely have been even cheaper than Zayed Khan but then I thought that maybe co-producers Sunil Shetty and Ekta Kapoor expected a “name” hero to play the lead. If Ekta’s brother Tusshar was out, Bobby Deol was out... Zayed Khan must have really been the bottom of the hero barrel. But Apoorva still cast him in the lead role - even knowing his record of flop films - because he either assumed audiences wouldn’t care, as long as the protagonist was a “hero” or he thought Zayed Khan’s terrible acting skills were good enough to be in his mainstream Bollywood movie. And either way is insulting to the audience.

Along with the inclusion of the “hero” (such as he was), other masala detritus sprinkled in among the Muslim bashing was the romance storyline. Shriya Saran does an adequate job as the wife but the track is awkwardly inserted and her one purpose in the plot seems to be to give Vikas somebody to rescue at the end. Their romance was established with one song picturization at the beginning of the film, from which point forward he maybe mentions her twice. How is the audience supposed to care about Vikas’s wife, Dumbo, when he doesn’t seem to care about her himself? And why is her name Dumbo? Is that code for how stupid Apoorva thought we all were? Or just how stupid the character is?

Which leads me to the song picturizations, of which there were three. The first is the aforementioned dull romance song, the second is a dance number in a club, and the third is a guest appearance from Abhishek Bachchan which is inserted late into the second half of the film with no rhyme or reason. The way they were placed was awkward and didn’t fit into the emotional arc of the film and all three were insipidly shot and represent the absolutely laziest of picturization styles, as if Apoorva couldn’t be bothered to think about the songs beyond - “we need them to please the masses.” The romance song dragged out every Yash Raj cliche from Euro-style street cars to sailing to sweaters while the club song actually had the villain surrounded by a bevy of blond beauties before he gets up to dance, too. And the item song is essentially a lazy rehash of “Right Here Right Now” hip hop style. I just kept getting the feeling that Mission Istaanbul was mocking masala conventions by doing them so terribly.****

And I hesitate to speculate on the extreme anti-Muslim sentiments of Mission Istaanbul because they are so outsized as to be almost as comical as the song picurizations. Iran and Iraq joining together to attack India?! REALLY? Is Apoorva really that hateful or is this film a big joke that backfired when nobody understood it? The stoning of the woman would point to the former but the strong homoerotic current running thorugh the film points to the latter. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that this was Apoorva’s take on the OSS 117 style spoof spy film.

If I sound really annoyed at the path that Apoorva chose for Mission Istaanbul it’s because there was actually a decent timepass film buried within the junk and conspiracy theories - a film that maybe Victor Acharya could have brought out. Vivek Oberoi had a nice bromantic report in most of his scenes with Zayed and the villains were quite menacing in an enjoyable way, if only one could forget the horrible anti-Muslim bias. If the tone of the film had been more Dhoom 2 and less serious, the comedy inherent in a dopey journalist also being a computer expert would have been quite enjoyable. And if the terrorists hadn’t been generic Muslims but specific bad guys - Russians smuggling drugs through Istanbul or something - then I wouldn’t have had my mouth open in indignation so often at the expositionary dialogues that painted everybody with a prayer rug from Marakesh to Malaysia as evil. And if Apoorva had paid attention to the limits of Zayed’s talent, he might have actually been able to make him look good by keeping him paired with Vivek for most of the film instead of letting him flounder around in solo scenes he couldn't handle.

This is the first second film that I’ve reviewed for my flop series that I’m actually very glad it flopped because making a film that entertains takes a certain amount of respect for one's audience, something that I hope Apoorva Lakhia learned when they rejected his pile of shit film.

* One of the few producers to anticipate the mood of the audience was Aamir Khan. His boutique release Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na destroyed Harman Baweja’s big budget, special effect laden debut on July 4th.

** Lest you think I’m exaggerating, the full quote is supremely ridiculous: “For the war sequence the Turkish government will be providing us with helicopters, tanks and the locations. It will be filmed on a scale never seen in our cinema. The film is loosely based on all the terrorist activities that have been going on all around. If among the recent films you were to ask me to pinpoint one source of reference it’d have to be The Last King Of Scotland where the incident about the toppling of Idi Amin was true. But the rest of the characters were fictional.”

*** OR WAS IT?!!!! No, really, it wasn’t.

**** Seriously, these songs do a better job of lampooning stereotypes than Delhi Belly did. Compare Istaanbul with Switty and see for yourself.

Now, the important stuff - extreme homoerotic tension and evil Muslims.

The film opens with a beheading... and about 2 hours later there are gags about our heroes cutting off hands. Yeah.

Would you trust this guy to bring you the news? Or fix your computer?

Shabbir Ahluwalia was quite good, actually. I wonder why he hasn't done more films... unless this was just such a terrible experience for him. Come on, Ekta! Cast Shabbir in something good.

Dreaded terrorist "Abu Nazir." Just wait, we'll see this image again.

"I love you but you're kind of a tool."


Are we sure this wasn't a parody film?

Oh, ha ha ha! Al-Johara is working with terrorists! VIKAS IS SUCH AN IDIOT! IF YOU KNEW THAT WHY DID YOU EVEN TAKE THIS JOB?!

No, Anna, don't look indulgently at him! He's TERRIBLE!

O HAI Nikitin Dheer! You were surprisingly enjoyable in this role. Why haven't you done more villainous roles? Want me to call Sandalwood for you?

The beautiful Dr. Lisa Lobo - we never do find out what she is a doctor of. Vikas never asks because he's an idiot who can't be trusted to find out basic information. What kind of journalist wouldn't be grilling a mysterious woman who approaches him in a club?!

"World... hold on..."

Look, Vikas, he's CLEARLY EVIL! Haven't you seen a single film before?

This song had bonus exoticizing and hyper sexualizing of "Turkish" imagry - a fitting contrast to the Afghan women who is stoned to death in a scene soon after this one.

Oh, I'm glad Apoorva has such a high opinion of women.

Come on, this is supposed to be a spoof, right?!







I suspect that Vivek discovered early on that this script was a pile of shit and decided to just ham up every scene to make up for it. I, for one, salute his valiant efforts to keep me entertained!


I liked Baldie the security guy. I didn't get his name but he certainly didn't deserve to be beaten to death by Zayed Khan. But, really, the thirteenth floor? Either this is an old Madhavan starrer or A SPOOF FILM.




Just a couple of casual Joes, just sitting around... I see you peeking, Zayed!

*supremely homoerotic*


Oh, bt-dubs, "Abu Nazir" has been dead for like ages.

Ha ha ha! Two garbage with two hands... hilarious. Look, Apoorva, how is this funny when the film opened with a guy getting beheaded?! I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR MOVIE IS TRYING TO DO.

Okay, people, are you ready for a computer hacker at work?!

Prepare yourself for genius...

Is your mind blown?

Rizwan! Come on, yaar, genius at work here!

Ah... time for a refreshing Mountain Dew!

Dr. Lisa Lobo: "Here you guys go. I keep 'em on ice in the back of my SUV just in case."

It's approximately two hours into the film before Vikas the crack journalist tries to figure out who Dr. Lisa Lobo is.

She works for THE RAW, dude.

Rizwan: "Mmm... better drink this Dew before beatin' up some Muslims! Oh, yeah!"


George W. Bush makes a cameo where he gets confused between Turkey the country and turkey the animal. THESE JOKES WERE OLD IN 2002!

Rizwan: "I've got to get some delicious Lay's brand potato chips from the kitchen and Vikas, I'm trusting you to NOT touch the phone. There is a 100% chance everybody we know is being bugged."

Vikas: *is an idiot*

Maybe one minute later, a SWAT team tears up the place.




This song is dropped in out of nowhere and ends with no warning.

Yes, the shirtless fight ends with a nutshot. Obvs.

If I hadn't wanted to ruin my television screen, I would have egged this title screen.

All I can say is THANK GOD he is no longer making films. Nobody give this man a camera again, unless he promises to let Victor Acharya look over the script first.


Bombay Talkies said...

I was totally behind you on this until I saw all the delicious Mt. Dew, and then I felt torn, because I find it psychologically impossible to root against Mt. Dew.

If they'd been drinking Pepsi though...the film would have really been a lost cause.

Yunus Perveez said...

The overt racism, assanine plot, the amount of male hair floppiness and the casting made me quit the movie mid-way and its seems I was lucky to do so.
Sometimes you wonder why Vivek's career is in the drain and then you look at the choices he made and it all becomes clear again. Some responsibility has to be taken somewhere, it can't all be a conspiracy between the Bachchan's and Salman Khan getting together to mess up his career :-)
(He actually challenged Salman to a boxing match during a press conference... SHMUCK!)
And like Kurbaan this was another movie where we where supposed to root for Vivek's "moderate" muslim character and forigve all the other racism the movie was preaching...

Zayed Khan should just never be cast, he belongs with Sanjay Kapoor and Faisal Khan and he probably got cast because of his family connections. I havent seen a shot of his Dia Mirza produced movie but I am sure it s going to be horrible too. Zayed has no talent and I cant believe he is still making movies after so many years( and hasnt even shown an ounce of improvement)

I can't believe this movie is making me so mad and I havent even seen it but you're right there was a whole period they made these slick actioners. I' m thinking of Asambhav starring Arjun Rampal and even Prince ( again starring Vivek). It's seems in Bollywood no one gets irony except Amir Khan.

Thanks for writing this up altough it annoyed me thinking abou this movie again hahaha


Filmi Girl said...

@bombay talkies Ha!! I should have capped the Lay's, too, for your complete snack enjoyment.

@Asim You know, it probably didn't seem like a bad idea at the time for Vivek to do it because Shootout had done so well. What I want to know is why he didn't drop out after Bobby Deol, Tusshar, and then Abhi managed to weasel out.

But, YES, to everything else. This is film where the takeaway should be - "if you are STUPID enough to cast Zayed Khan as the lead of an EXPENSIVE film, even post Dus, Rocky, and etc., then you deserve to have it flop miserably. (MOUNTAIN DEW!)"

Sal said...

Just a minor correction - Zayed's first film was Chura Liya Hai Tumne with Esha Deol.

Filmi Girl said...

@Sal LOL! You guys keep me honest. ;) Thanks for the fix.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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