The protagonist of Madaari is driven by anger and anguish to kidnap a powerful politician’s eight-year-old son.
With that daring act, the man hopes to force the world to sit up and take notice of his plight, precipitated by a bridge collapse in the heart of suburban Mumbai.
Two hours and a bit later, he achieves his goal: the minister and his cohorts are on their knees.
But the bitter battle of attrition that he wages against a battery of opponents remains strangely unengaging despite a superlative performance from the redoubtable Irrfan.
Madaari, directed by Nishikant Kamat, makes the right noises about the state of the nation and its people owing to the machinations of avaricious and insensitive politicians and crony contractors.
However, the methods that the film uses in order to do so are rather fanciful, if not outright harebrained.
Irrfan, at the top of his game as an actor, goes all out to inject some energy into the narrative.
If only the games that the aggrieved character plays with the handpicked CBI sleuth Nachiket Verma (Jimmy Sheirgill) had greater frisson, Madaari might have been an infinitely more riveting piece of cinema.
It is, at best, a tepid, occasionally intriguing thriller. It fails to create the required tension, suspense or anticipation as the intrepid crusader leads the cops and their feckless bosses on a wild goose chase across northern India.
At the outset, the film alludes to scams, bridge collapses, rail mishaps and farmer suicides before plunging into the story a distraught, dishevelled Nirmal Kumar, a common man blessed with uncommon courage.
He is hit by a tragedy caused by corruption, so he zeroes in on the Union home minister’s son, a Dehradun school student who has no special security cover.
Lest he be mistaken for a common criminal seeking petty personal gains, he puts his actions in a larger context.
When a falcon, he says, swoops upon a hatchling, the story sounds credible but it isn’t rousing enough.
But when the hapless quarry hits back at the falcon, the story may not ring true but it is far more exciting, he asserts.
Madaari is obviously all about rustling up the latter scenario, but it does not deliver the expected thrills consistently enough to count as a humdinger.
The film leaves several questions unanswered. For one, it is difficult to fathom why on earth a Mumbai resident who has lost a dear one picks on Union home minister Prashant Goswami (Tushar Dalvi), an affable gentleman who forgoes the trappings of his high office.
Another central government minister in the revenge-seeking vigilante’s line of fire, Pratap Nimbalkar (Uday Tikekar), whose portfolio is never mentioned but it might be safe to surmise that it is urban development, is dragged into the pit without much explanation until it is time to ring the curtain down on the action.
Inevitably, there is a shrill television news anchor in here – Swatantra TV’s Sanjay Jagtap (Nitesh Pandey) – who raises questions on a nightly basis on the ineptitude of the government.
Despite Irrfan’s controlled star turn – he moves from sorrow to sarcasm, and from shock to scorn, with effortless ease – the film makes rather heavy weather of its progress towards a bizarre climax in a Mumbai chawl that brings the audience back to the falcon and chick scenario.
Madaari isn’t the first Hindi film to advocate a brand of vigilantism that borders on the fascist. Nor is it likely to be the last.
But its point about the deadly distortions of democracy is terribly laboured and sketchily articulated.
Terms like instant justice, kangaroo court, media trial, rule of law and ideal voter are bandied about.
They do not eventually add up to much because the tale of loss and retribution that Madaari sets out to narrate is lost in a heap of cliches.
Besides its distractingly loud background score, the film’s biggest drawback is the superficially defined character of the abducted boy (Vishesh Bansal).
He is projected as a bright kid who knows his onions better than most lads his age.
That would have been perfectly fine had he not been as precocious as he turns out to be. An eight-year-old holding forth on the Stockholm syndrome is a bit much.
I hate you, the boy says to his captor at one point in the film when the former is laid low by a stomach bug. The latter retorts: “Your hate doesn’t matter. My hate… it matters. I could be much worse.”
In another scene, Nirmal Kumar declares: “I will not wrap up my story. I will leave it incomplete.”
He carries out neither of the two threats. He never directs his coiled-up rage at the boy and he also takes his tale to its logical end.
Unfortunately, by the time Madaari gets there, the hero’s life and death gambit turns into a disappointingly tame, mechanical rigmarole.
But all said and done, Madaari might be worth the price of a multiplex ticket solely for Irrfan’s flawless one-man show.