REVIEW / THRILLER
MADAARI (PG13, some violence)
133 minutes/opens today/ 4 stars
The story: After losing his son to the collapse of a bridge under construction, Nirmal Kumar (Irrfan Khan) seeks revenge. He kidnaps the home minister's son, sparking a countrywide military and police operation.
This hard-hitting socio-political thriller, Madaari (The Puppeteer in Hindi), is carried by the strong performance of its seasoned lead, Irrfan Khan.
As the "puppeteer" of the title, Kumar pulls all the strings, sending the police on a wild goose chase to find him and the boy, hiding his tracks and moving around via India's vast network of trains and buses.
The film is a bold exploration, in Indian cinema at least, of what would happen if an Everyman stood up against widespread institutional corruption.
Kumar takes matters into his hands with his version of vigilante justice, by kidnapping the son of the home minister, from whom he wants answers on why a public bridge was so shoddily made and why shortcuts were taken.
The home minister is at the top of a chain of governmental ineptitude that sees corrupt officials - including engineers, contractors and government cronies - take bribes to approve substandard work, ultimately resulting in the death of innocent citizens.
Director Nishikant Kamat is no stranger to tense political potboilers, having helmed Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008), a film that dealt with the aftermath of the 2006 Mumbai train bombings. Keeping Madaari running at a quick trot, he ensures that the audience never stops too long to ponder the plot's implausibilities.
He also captures the zeitgeist of the current social media and news era to great effect, showcasing Twitter firestorms and viral news clips in the multiple montages, quickening the pace alongside with flashbacks that reveal how Kumar discovered that his son had died.
The film is also anchored by a gripping performance from Khan, who is performing in his first Bollywood movie after 2015's Jurassic World. His character radiates a cool determination and clarity of purpose that are never far from madness and grief.
Another shout-out goes to Vishesh Bansal playing the kidnapped boy, a precocious boarding school kid who proves to be a hardy companion as they traverse the country on the run.
He is the perfect foil to the hardened Kumar, who against his will, forms a bond with the boy.
After a while, the plot gets a bit tiresome with Kumar's efforts to keep the boy as leverage while making no discernible progress with the authorities. But the explosive pay-off, where Kumar gathers all those responsible for his son's death in one room, is worth the slight dragginess.
Madaari achieves a great balance: It dares to ask uncomfortable questions about accountability that are otherwise swept under the rug and is an engaging and entertaining piece of cinema with well- sketched characters, so that the message never overpowers the narrative.