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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Operation Romeo, Review: Regaining consciousness and recharging consciences

Operation Romeo, Review: Regaining consciousness and recharging consciences

When Neeraj Pandey, of A Wednesday fame, is co-producing a film, and it is titled Operation Romeo, you expect a taut thriller of the terrorist/spy genre. But Operation Romeo takes the ‘Operation’ part of its title to mean a set of planned moves by an individual, bereft of any spy/terrorist inclinations, though there is a crime of sorts involved, and some scenes do go for your jugular. ‘Romeo’ is very loosely meant to inform you that it is a love story where the main character is madly in love with his ‘Juliet’. Parts of the film lull you into anaesthesia, others cause operative and post-operative pain, and the regaining of consciousness leaves you in shock. It has thematic novelty, but fails to rise above the script on paper.

Aditya and Neha are ‘a couple’. He, and IT professional, is so smitten that he cannot keep off his mobile phone even for a few minutes, constantly texting her. They live in Mumbai, Aditya with his mother and sister, while Neha is from Jaipur, studying in a local college, and a hostel inmate. Two events are coming up for the couple. Firstly, it is Aditya’s sister’s wedding, and, before that, is Neha’s birthday. Aditya shows only perfunctory interest in the wedding plans, while he makes elaborate plans for his girl-friend’s 20th birthday. And soon, the big day arrives. Planning to give her a big surprise, Aditya takes her out in his car, for an all-night spin, across Mumbai. She has already taken permission from her hostel Warden, making the excuse that she is spending her birthday with her local guardian.

In the college, her friends had celebrated her birthday with a cake, and someone presented her with a single red rose. She comes to Aditya’s car with the rose, and he just has to ask her who gave her the rose. She gives a boy’s name, which makes him really jealous. It was a joke, she explains, and they get cosy. After driving around for some time, he parks his car at the parking lot of Paramount Hospital, around 2 am, and they indulge in a bit of necking and petting. Suddenly, there is a knock on the car’s glass window, and a tall, well-built man hauls them up, saying he has made a video of their ‘act’. Soon he is joined by another stocky, short man, and the two grill the couple, abusing them, terrorising them, threatening them with uploading the video on social media, locking them up in jail, and extort money, to let them off. Aditya, who has told that he is sleeping over at a friend’s house, is desperate to save their reputations, especially considering the upcoming marriage. And then, he is asked to withdraw money from an ATM for the hush-money. While he is there, he notices Mangesh getting into the back seat of his car, where Neha is sitting.

For the last two decades, there have been some instances of moral policing reported in the media. Operation Romeo addresses this issue, with a twist at the end, that brings up another man-woman issue that could open a fresh new debate, after the moral policing theme has been played out. It is a remake of the 2019 Malayalam film, Ishq-Not a Love Story, directed by Anuraj Manohar. Since this film was released, and probably before its Hindustani version was shot and completed, the Allahabad High Court judgement had not given its verdict on the issue of sex between consenting adults.

The Court, in October 2021, said that that having sex with the consent of an adult is not a crime, but it is unethical, immoral, and against established norms of the Indian society. The court observed that it was duty of the petitioner, claiming to be the boyfriend of the girl, to protect her when she was being sexually harassed by the other co-accused. The court held that if the victim is the girlfriend of the petitioner, then it becomes his duty at that very moment to protect her honour, dignity, and reputation. “If a girl is ‘major’ (above 18 years in age) one, then to have sex with her consent is not an offence, but certainly it is unethical and immoral and also not in consonance with the established social norms of the India society,” the high court observed. Our couple here neither had sex, and the man did his best to protect the honour of the girl, as written by Rateesh Ravi in the Malayalam original and Arshad Syed, who is credited with the Hindustani screenplay.

Too much is made of the affair and the film takes its own sweet time in coming to the fulcrum, marked by the sudden appearance of the two antagonists. All this while it appears to be a frothy, frilly, cakey, chocolatey, festoony, balloony kind of romance, which rings hollow, considering the homely and demure demeanour of the girl, who keeps in touch with her mother in Jaipur with repeated “Khamma ghani”s (Rajasthani greeting) on the phone, and the IT professional who looks at least 24-25. Okay, so who says two such individuals cannot fall in love? They absolutely can, only it has to be convincing and well-written, which it is not. The moments between the boy and his family are better written.

One cannot dwell further on the plot without revealing spoilers, yet there are some comments that must be made in analysing the film. The ease with which the two men indulge in ‘moral policing’ as a routine, and the incredible ease with which Aditya manages to trace them later, are difficult to digest. Dialogue is mainly used as a give and take. The language given to the Marathi-speaking moral police is completely in character, with just the judicious mix of Marathi and Hindustani. Yes, there should have been no Hindustani at all, when the two talk to each other, but then a lot of viewers would not have understood. As it is, there is substantial chunk of Marathi in those sequences. Arshad Syed has done a good job.

It must have done well in Malayalam, otherwise why would the film be remade in Telugu and Hindustani? Subject-wise, it is good material for a psychological thriller, but does not have enough meat to see it through till the end. By reducing the length to 122 minutes, from the Malayalam 134, the director has made some effort to impart pace. In the process, however, there comes up a jerk, as Aditya’s investigation is cut to a bare minimum. Director Shashant Shah (Dasvidaniya, Chalo Dilli, Bajatey Raho; a lot of TV work) is handicapped by a mismatched couple, and reinforced by the two characters playing the moral police. They have been wisely chosen from the vast ocean of native Marathi-speaking actors found in Mumbai. The other two characters, the mother and the sister, are competent and ring true.

As is the case with any remake, there is no way of knowing how much of the original is retained in the screenplay and the direction. Actually, in any remake, you have a good opportunity to correct the mistakes and improve upon areas that might not have been the strong points of the original. However, if they have totally adhered to Ishq, there is little to judge their efforts by. But casting and handling actors is an area that merits criticism. And here, the boy, who is highly enthusiastic, and key to the film, fails to deliver, for which the director must take responsibility. Also, there are a few shots that go nowhere, perhaps being intended to create an ambience. Of the three twists in the tale, two come in the first half and the third, the most powerful, is the last shot of the film, a case of too little too late.

Sidhant Gupta (Bang Bank Bangkok, Badmashiyan, Bhoomi) as Aditya is not a newcomer, but appears so in some scenes. His unconventional features are fine, since no poster-boy face was required, but his diction and his ability to emote are highly suspect. Vedika Pinto, playing Juliet to Sidhant’s Romeo, is best known for starring in the music video Liggi, by Ritviz, in which she played the role of a bold, wild and fearless bride. Both actors come from the modelling background and have reprised the roles of Shane Nigam and Ann Sheetal from the original. For Vedika, it looks like a debut. She has a disarming smile, Indian looks, is inhibited and bold in equal measure, confused, like any 20-year-old, madly in love would be, and caught between Jaipur orthodoxy and Mumbai’s metropolitan mores. Of the two, Vedika makes a better impression.

If the film is still watchable, a large part of the credit goes to Sharad Kelkar, who is cast as Mangesh Jadhav, the more aggressive and ruthless of the two moral policemen. It will be hard to imagine anybody in real-life who is seen in such a situation, as anything but the way Sharad Kelkar has portrayed him. The same cannot be said about him in the later half, though, where he is given little to do, except groan and beseech. Old native Marathi speaker warhorse Kishor Kadam is Sharad’s side-kick, and he always does what it takes to get under the skin of the character. He, like Mangesh and rarely Aditya, has no qualms about using abusive language. Bhumika Chawla, playing Mangesh’s wife, is given role that epitomises anything everything that Mangesh doesn’t. She has to go through a whole gamut of emotions, and comes out on top.

Background music by Advait Nemlekar goes with the film, which has a lot of ‘more of the same’ in the first half. One cannot miss the strains of ‘Roop tera mastana’s instrumental portion, coming in for heightened effect. Cinematography by Hari Nair captures the night scenes quite well. Film editing by Kathikuloth Praveen has been probably too ruthless and needed to allow a few more minutes to make things understandable and logical. M.M. Keeravani has composed the songs, the tune of which might have been recycled from the original. Lyrics by Manoj Shukla ‘Muntashir’ are expressive of the moods, and the two songs, ‘Abhi abhi', sung by Neeti Mohan and 'Tere bin jeena kya', sung by Vishal Mishra and Rupali Jagga, strike a chord.

Taking-up a gender-related social cause requires some derring-do on the part of a film-maker, and ending the film on another gender-related social issue was even more brave. I wonder if showing the characters smoking time and again is a symbolic manifestation of manhood. But along the line, the film often runs out of steam and gives you a repeated feeling of déjà vu, of repeating itself, only expanding the span a bit every time. You want such films to succeed, and feel disappointed that they fall just short of the target. Neeraj Pandey, who made a fabulous debut with A Wednesday in 2008, has an operation at hand that deals with neither Roadside Romeos not Shakespeare’s legendary lover. It is a very serious film that takes itself too lightly in the first 30 minutes or so, and then too seriously from then on. In spite of the low star rating, I will still suggest that lovers of serious cinema, cinema with a conscience, should see the film, as also Romeos who are unconscious about female sensitivities and gender equality.

Rating: **



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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