"(In) This school of ours he's the headmaster!" guffaws Sanjay Dutt, pointing to Amitabh Bachchan.
"Deewaar" is largely set in a prison camp in Pakistan. As in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List", the barbed fence plays a pivotal part. Prisoners jump on it in frantic attempts to escape, the heroes get their hair hands, limbs and torsos bloody and swollen over it.
Yup, the spiky fence is the real villain of Milan Luthria's film.
Screenwriter Sridhar Raghavan, who shares writing credits with director Milan Luthria and producer Gaurang Doshi, seems to have watched every prison escape drama, from Richard Attenborough's "The Great Escape" to John Flynn's "Lock Up" to Frank Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption".
In spirit, "Deewaar", like Raj Santoshi's "Khakee", is more Hollywood than Indian.
This patently Westernised attitude to adventure drama comes at a cost.
"Deewaar" often loses out on that moist feeling which so reassuringly separates the audience's Bollywood experience from Hollywood..."Devdas" from "Troy", so to speak.
At its pragmatic and rather cold heart, "Deewaar" secretes a potentially tear-shedding emotional drama about a son's search for a father he has seen only as a child.
This, and not the ongoing escape drama, should've formed the core of the plot in "Deewaar". The 30-year-old separation of father Amitabh Bachchan and son Akshaye Khanna just don't affect us emotionally.
To compound the emotionless crisis there's Tanuja as the patient wife. The actress hardly looks like a woman who would wait 30 years for her reportedly dead husband to return from enemy camp.
The improbabilities often threaten to swamp the film's undoubtedly meritorious adventurous spirit. Akshaye's infiltration into Pakistan, the way he suddenly collars a Pakistani soldier into divulging his father's whereabouts and the utterly ludicrous manner in which he runs into Sanjay Dutt reveal a sudden and startling lapse of reason in the plot.
But the escape drama is brilliantly mapped. The tensions in the prison camp captured through clenched jaws, defiant eyes and parched lips.
The orange glow of the setting sun, the ominous darkness of moonless escapades, the crowded by-lanes of Karachi (recreated in India) and the unforgiving desert-scape of the India-Pakistan border come vividly to life in this film.
Cinematographer Talat Jani and art director Jayant Deshmukh take the clever-but-cold-around-the-heart plot beyond the precincts of a Hardy Boys' adventure story.
Once again, it's entirely up to Bachchan to hold together the loose ends in the plot. As the headmaster of the bedraggled army of prisoners, he proves once again why he is what he is.
Bachchan is more assertive here than in "Dev". From the pain of whip lashing to the anguish of a father who comes face to face with his son after 30 years, his weary eyes convey anguish, hope and defiance as he takes on the sadistic jailor played with cocky diabolism by K.K. Menon.
Menon seems inspired by Ralph Fiennes in "Schindler's List". What a cross to bear! And not just for the actor.
Sanjay Dutt as the mercenary with a heart of gold provides comic relief in the tense drama. His growth as an actor is evident in the way he jumps awkwardly into the plot and proceeds to make space for himself...right next to the mighty Bachchan without looking like a sidekick in the main event. Among the very competent supporting cast of prisoners, Arif Zakaria's silences speak louder than words.
Akshaye plays it cool. The son's turmoil is all under the surface, a place where this film never really goes.
The Akshaye-Amrita Rao romance is wishy-washy and intrusive. Amrita's seductive song, which comes right in the middle of the main drama, is more idiotic than erotic. I suggest Luthria take a look at how deftly Farhan Akhtar wove romance into the war epic in "Lakshya" last week.
At the end, when the son gets back his father, he simply walks away from the girl back to the 'right' side of the border. The age of chivalry ended when cross-border politics became fashionable.
Aadesh Shrivastava's music is far more effective in the background, though admittedly he did a better job of recreating on-screen emotions in "LOC". The songs, especially the romantic duet and the belly dance, belong to another planet.
The climactic battle in the deserts with guns and camels finally narrows down to a fist-to-fist between the Indian soldier and the evil Pakistani jailor.
"Deewaar" is a terrific modern-day equivalent of the swashbuckler as long as you don't look too hard at the liberties taken with the rather-serious politics of cross-border terrorism.