Chalk it up to the fear unleashed by the ever-encroaching tentacles of modern technology invading your “personal space,” or everyday perils of that low-tech, ubiquitous, and sometimes maddening home phone, or just a darkly sparkling convergence of a series of technical misfortunes, Kathik Calling Karthik is anything but ordinary. Few Hindi releases have recently—or ever, for that matter—delivered such a bountiful thrill punch with as little as Karthik, Lalwani’s debut film. Boosted by unexpected plot twists and an unsettling undercurrent of suspense that emerge from the very mundane, Karthik brilliantly transforms a subtle hysteria brewing just below the surface of daily social interactions into a downright creep-crawly thunderclap. This is a very strong signal indeed.
Referencing decent techie-telephone thrillers, including I Know What You Did Last Summer, One Missed Call, the darkly endearing The Mothman Prophecies and a blown kiss to an Alfred Hithcock mystery or two, former ad film maker Lalwani and star Akhtar create a winning formula. Karthik Narayan (Akhtar) is a non-descript construction-firm functionary, treaded on by an abusive boss (Kapoor). He is all but invisible to Shonali Mukherjee (Padukone), the come-hither beautiful co-worker Karthik secretly loves. To escape from his overbearing shyness and to overcome a childhood trauma, Karthik also is also visiting a helpful psychiatrist, Dr. Kapadia (Shetty). One day Karthik buys a new house phone. That innocent act—hooking up the phone at home—sets in motion something quite sinister. Karthik soon starts getting cryptic phone calls from someone claiming to be Karthik himself. Unable to convince anyone else of the reality of the mysterious calls, Karthik finds himself caught under the spell of the mysterious caller who knows all his moves. And that’s only the beginning of his ordeal.
Director Lalwani uses the most clichéd camera gimmicks to sustain tension—and against all odds, he makes them stick. The most annoying setup is the first 30 or so minutes as Karthik sets about wooing Shonali. Strange that even in India circa 2010, office-workers can get away with smoking in an office where puffing is clearly verboten. Also, what passes as office “romance” for Karthik under the wink-wink guise of so-called “eve teasing” would be surefire grounds for sexual harassment charges and immediate dismissal anywhere else.
Those distractions aside, Lalwani and company construct a first-rate thriller that works surprisingly well. As the phone calls get more and more sinister, the closed in Mumbai office interiors provide no sanctuary to the claustrophobia Karthik senses closing him in. Like the fresh country vistas of Cochin where Karthik flees to in a frantic attempt to outrun the ominous calls—in a spellbinding turn of events that would do Hitchcock proud—Karthik Calling Karthik is a fresh stance apart from the mundane. This is definitely one call you do not want to miss.
Entertainment Quotient (EQ): A-
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.