Imagine a movie mash-up blending “The Bad News Bears” with “Hurt Locker.”
That’s “Torbaaz,” and Indo-Afghan sports drama/thriller about an Afghan cricket team formed in a refugee camp. And no, that unholy marriage of genres and subject matters doesn’t come off in a picture with hints of cute and a taste of heartache, and a heaping helping of grim, bloody violence.
In a bloody corner of the world where Islamic militants coerce children into becoming suicide bombers, a grieving backer of an NGO (non-government organization/charity) figures cricket is the one thing that can bring the many feuding and outright warring tribes together.
The idea doesn’t come naturally to Naseer, a doctor (Sanjay Dutt, a much-honored star of Indian cinema) who practically has to be dragged onto the plane in New Dehli to get him to return to Kabul.
He lost family there. But his late crusading late wife’s NGO’s mission goes on, led by Ayesha (American Bollywood star Nargis Fakhri). Still, Naseer sees a killer in every face, a suicide bomber in every child.
He’s not without concerns. The charismatic Taliban leader Qazar (Rahul Dev, oozing menace) is making online recruiting videos in Tora Bora, rounding up little boys for his secret weapon — child suicide bombers.
But Naseer stumbles across kids on the cricket pitch. And after some sullen moments with these refugee offspring he sees how mad the lads are for the game. Especially when he taunts them by not returning their ball.
“Hey,” the shortest and mouthiest one, Tariq (Rehan Shaikh) bellows (in Hindi mostly, with English subtitles). “It’s a dangerous match! We are ALL in a bad mood!”
They fight, curse, bicker and play — or refuse to play because that kid is Pashtun and I’m Hazara or Tajik. “Tribalism” trumps everything, even among orphan boys in the Tomorrow’s Hope refugee camp.
Naseer will turn them away from the Taliban, away from suicide bombing, and onto the ancient English game with the flat bat, wickets and what-not.
But this won’t work if he can’t get tall and athletic Gulab (Budra Soni) to play with Talib Baaz (Aishan Jawaid Malik). Get Baaz, and other boys of his pro-Taliban bent may change the course of their life as well. Not that it’ll be easy.
“I will grow up to be Taliban and KILL traitors and cowards like you!”
“Should I send you to hell to be with your mother and father?”
Forget your NFL or NBA taunting. THAT is some serious trash talk.
Co-writer/director Girish Malik (“Jal”) gives us four points of view, only two of which should matter — the quarrelsome kids, and the adult trying to give them purpose and focus and polish their games. But in this world, we have to know what’s going on with the murderous Taliban nut, and at NATO, where “reprisals” for attacks include destroying villages.
That threat of violence hangs over “Torbaaz” and in giving so much emphasis to it, Malik derails his movie and drags out the inevitable “Big Game.”
The style and tone are set early on — explosions, shootings, a blur of locations (each identified with a graphic) that really should be our last emphasis on the civil war context. But Malik returns to that again and again even if he seems to realize he’s overdoing that element of the story.
At some point, this actor-turned-filmmaker got drunk on the Paul Greengrass (“Bourne” films, “United 93”) school of shooting and editing.
This simple story is overwhelmed with edits, never letting a single, simple scene play out to its dramatic potential in a single shot when five different angles, a little drone overhead footage, and many many edits can be thrown at it instead. It’s a distraction that drains the emotion out of most scenes and overkills the Big Moments.
He does this right from the start, a blur of images and exposition and context which covers “Alright, get to the bloody point” and then keeps going and going.
In any other film culture on Earth, this story would be 90 clean minutes — a laugh here and there (Tiny tykes mimicking GI profanity –“MOTHERf—-r!” — is always funny.), just enough violence to get the idea of the stakes, Big Game drama and roll credits.
But no. On and on it waddles. Close-ups of Dutt emoting, donning or removing his RayBans, grimacing on the sidelines.
Because you know this contraption will end with an endless cricket match, that universal Big Game movie formula.
True story. The two longest movies I’ve ever sat through in decades of reviewing films — one, “La Belle Noiseuse” is a four hour French insomnia cure about watching a painter sketch, pose and paint a model. Like watching paint dry. The other was “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India,” a period piece set during “The Raj,” almost as long, but just as tedious and playing even longer as much of that Bollywood musical drama is consmed by an endless cricket match.
The kids in “Torbaaz” are cute, their stories amusing and potentially full of pathos. The adult intervening is your big star. The NATO scenes, the Afghan Army interludes, the endless examples of the sadism of the villain? Distracting filler that wrecks the flow and loses the thread.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, violence, smoking, profanity.
Cast: Sanjay Dutt, Nargis Fakhri, Rahul Dev, Aishan Jawaid Malik, Budra Soni and Rehan Shaikh
Credits: Directed by Girish Malik, script by Bharti Jakhar, Girish Malik and Mohammad Muneem. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:13