Terrorists, cops and ticking time bombs make for an explosive mix in tyro helmer-scribe Neeraj Pandey’s “A Wednesday.” A lopsided two-hander featuring a couple of legendary Indian thesps locked in mortal conflict, this brisk political thriller pits a solitary terrorist (Naseruddin Shah), atop a building overlooking Mumbai, against a seasoned police chief (Anupam Kher) with all the combined municipal forces racing around at his command. Though timely, the pic’s excitingly packaged rumination on the ethics of counterterrorism may be couched in terms too regional to travel very far, the post-“Slumdog Millionaire” trendiness of Indian locales notwithstanding.
A nameless agitator gives the police four hours to round up four incarcerated terrorists and bring them to a soon-to-be-specified location or he will detonate five bombs hidden around the city. He lets officials find one of them, stashed across from police headquarters, to attest to his bona fides.
Early intimate and/or comic scenes proceed unexceptionally as they establish the characters, making up in brevity what they generally lack in finesse or wit. The sole exception is antiterrorist cop Arif (Jimmy Shergill), who spectacularly, brutally wails away at a subordinate on a thoroughfare packed with horrified bystanders.
The pic doesn’t really take off until the countdown to doomsday. Once police commissioner Prakash Rathod (Kher) begins deploying his troops in all directions, editor Shree Narayan Singh’s complex intercutting, propelled by Sanjoy Chowdhary’s relentless score, keeps the tension mounting as the mission-driven terrorist and the calmly controlled Rathod engage in terse cat-and-mouse exchanges over the phone.
Shah and Kher’s mutual star-turn dominance recalls “Heat,” just as the general setup — the cops’ frantic attempts to follow the terrorist’s phoned-in directives while still scrambling to find his planted bombs — recalls “Die Hard With a Vengeance.” Helmer Pandey borrows freely from the Hollywood action toolbox; there’s even a “wrong building” scene like the one so iconically executed in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Hardly striving for originality, Pandey satisfyingly negotiates genre trappings to craft a familiar buildup, leading to a surprise twist that sends the pic careening off in unexpected directions closer to Paddy Chayefsky than to Michael Mann.
After suitable pyrotechnics, “A Wednesday” stops dead for more than 10 minutes to deliver the extended lamentation of a “common man” who, tired of living under the threat of terrorism, is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more. Only the extraordinary skill of the actors and the inventiveness of cinematographer Fuwad Khan save the film from bogging down in muddled, pretentious populism.