It’s a little unfair to judge Rajdhani Express on the basis of the performance of its lead actor with tennis elbow around his acting muscles. Watching Leander Paes try to act may turn out to be embarrassing for tennis fans. Despite writer-director Ashok Kohli’s best efforts to write a role where he has nothing to do except keep his mouth shut and look away into flashbacks, seem angry and spout profanity (that Censors will mute) or laugh maniacally, Paes lands flat on his face… especially with the maniacal laugh.

It is difficult to take this thriller seriously when all you want to do is point and laugh maniacally. The support cast of Priyanshu Chatterjee, Sudhanshu Pandey and Puja Bose, who have quite a bit of screen time, try to make the best use of space (a major portion of the film is set in a first class railway coupe), but there’s very little they can do when the characters are under-written and the script is half-baked.

These four characters with secrets, sharing the coupe from Delhi to Mumbai, are in no way representative of India as the film tries to suggest. One is a fashion designer (Sudhanshu) who looks down upon the poor, another a Bollywood item girl (Puja) who doubles as a call-girl, then a plagiarising Bengali Bollywood writer (Priyanshu) and the fourth, a poor down-on-luck bloke (Leander Paes) running away from Delhi to Mumbai with a bag of pictures of his childhood sweetheart and a gun that belongs to his boss.

The action is interesting in bits and spurts as we get to know who these people are. To the director’s credit, the pace is never an issue as the film zips from one location to another and we are introduced to the other characters who represent the state of affairs in India faced with the crisis at hand — that one of the passengers on the train carrying the Home Minister’s parents has a gun!

In the process of keeping things busy, a lot of detail is sacrificed and we are never able to piece together specifics of why the protagonist leaves his life behind (though we do know in brief that he has had a rough romance with the daughter of his gangster boss).

For a film that’s trying to be Dog Day Afternoon on a train (a frustrated innocent man who picks up a gun and gets into a hostage situation, soon finds himself at the centre of the media circus, police action and politics), we don’t see the man pushed hard enough to do the things he does and the stakes here are never too high. He has no demands. And Paes is no Pacino!

Every character here is grey and unlike mainstream populist films where trial by media results in people coming together in support of the innocent, here the filmmaker dares to say it as it is. That people don’t care. Maybe the wrong time to say the truth with another seasonal wave of national “awakening”.

Jimmy Shergill cuts a smart cameo as the no-nonsense trigger happy Deputy Commissioner in charge of the case and Gulshan Grover evokes a few smiles but this Rajdhani Express doesn’t go too far otherwise.

Watch, but without ticket, on TV maybe.

Rajdhani Express

Genre: Thriller

Director: Ashok Kohli

Cast: Leander Paes, Jimmy Shergill, Priyanshu Chatterjee, Gulshan Grover, Sayali Bhagat

Storyline: A mysterious guy with a gun on a train triggers off panic as the situation escalates into a terrorist threat

Bottomline: Decent plot let down by a half-baked script, poor staging and a terrible lead in Leander Paes