TABLE NO. 21.    Director:  Aditya Datt.  Players: Rajeev Khandelwal, Tena Desae, Paresh  Rawal. Music: Neeraj Shrivastava, Gajendra Verma. Theatrical release (EROS)

After the over-the-top excesses of Salman Khan’s 2012 releases, it is a breath of fresh air to return to a small budget, near-independent movie that boasts a modest budget and less than A-list actors and yet manages to corner a satisfying viewing. Hitting the right balance between good writing, a catchy lottery-hinting title and action while imparting a contemporary theme, Table No. 21 is a winner.

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For struggling newlywed Mumbai couple Vivaan Agasthi (Khandelwal) and his wife Siya (Desae), winning an exotic trip to Fiji in a lottery is chance to reenergize their spirits before settling into middle-class lives back home. Arriving at the lavish tropical resort owned by the mysterious Khan (Rawal), Vivaan and Siya are scooped up for luxe treatment by Khan’s minions. To take their newfound luck to even bigger heights and riches, Khan offers the couple a fortune—provided they succeed in a series of increasingly challenging tasks.

Khan’s questions—a dare here, a mid-traffic-mid-day kiss there—get more daring and uncomfortable with each round. By the time the couple realizes that Khan appears to know much more about their history than he is letting on, Khan already has them boxed into a surreal nightmare in the making.

If onscreen antagonists personify mortal frailties magnified to morbidly exponential powers, Table No 21’s script does a mind-boggling twist on this motif. Khan cunningly cajoles Vivaan and Siya into accepting his now-serious challenges even as Khan appears strangely detached from the maze he sets out for the couple. Why does he appear to be making it his life’s mission to make sure that his prey, er, guests lucidly live through horrifying split second torments and sometimes sexual debauchery? Director Datt manipulates the viewer and so clever is his ruse that we are powerless to look away! Khan is purposeful and methodical.

Khan appears as if he is living in a parallel

universe—he sees Vivaan and Siya and yet his eyes are elsewhere. That perhaps is the hallmark of a true antagonist. Against Khan’s all-knowing, all-powerful puppeteer, Vivaan and Siya are merely two fun-loving newbies who haven’t quite understood that what they have stumbled upon will test their fidelity, their marriage and ultimately, even their lives in this fast-paced morality play.

Rawal plays Khan with subtle maniacal zeal.  Khandelwal, who made a splash as a doctor accused of terrorism in Raj Kumar Gupta’s Aamir (2005), along with Desae hold their own ground. The interplay between the carefree, attractive couple and the shrewd overlord forms the basis for a catch-me-if-you-can battle of wits and brawn. The use of culturally diverse and beautiful Fiji is an apt added metaphor. Not only is the remote island nation a rare destination for Hindi movies, but what gorgeous secrets island life awaits to reveal adds situational charm to the story.

Underlying this vast, truth-be-told gimmick, there is a highly potent anti-bullying outcry bounced off of contemporary headlines. This somber undertone is enough to set a hush over an otherwise crowded island.  Bullying, known as “ragging” in India, has been a hot button topic all across the globe. Aditya Datt may be best known for the low-budget semi-successful Aashiq Banaya Aapne (2005). That may be about to change. Given its plot twists, low budget, a come-hither cinematography and boatloads of word-of-mouth, Table No. 21 has been declared the first Hindi box office sleeper hit of 2013. With a sensational turn-the-tables-on-your-tormenter gamble most like Kanika Verma’s Dansh (2005), Table No. 21 is a tropic junket definitely worth signing up for.

EQ:  B+

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

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