Kaabilseems to be less of a film and more of a desperate effort to resurrect Hrithik Roshan’s sagging reputation as a bankeable star. Needless to say, Hrithik performs with a seriousness and sincerity that is familiar territory for him. What is missing is the over-weaning need for Hrithik’s hero to be a macho hero. There seems to be an effort to present more of him than the perfectly carved abs, classy steps and melting eyes. An effort that makes a point but sadly misses the mark.
Hrithik plays a blind dubbing artist who is naturally gifted to lipsync animated visuals without seeing them, how he manages the feat is something left unexplained. It does not bother us because everything else in the film is explained at length and in detail, sometimes excruciatingly so. Yami Gautami yet again plays the lovely, loving wife that dies too soon, whose death Hrithik sets out to avenge.
It is gracious of Sanjay Gupta to spare us gory graphic details of violence and violation but he does not spare us the agony of a tediously laid out plot that explains every move of its protagonist even as it shows it. Thankfully, some twists and turns arrive in an otherwise predictable howdunit to lift interest back.
But this ping ping pong ball session with interest becomes tiresome after a point when the long drawn out agony of the lead pair refuses to move you, or the shenanigans of the villains refuse to distress you. A film that was calling out to be vulnerable and raw quickly ends up being a cold, blunt butter knife instead.
The vulnerable hero’s journey is portrayed as an incredibly uphill task that he apparently covers with sheer grit and brains. However, the grit comes off more as courage by habit than an inner strength born of adversity and his smartness more as successful flukes. In the David vs Goliath battle Ronit Roy and Narendra Jha play the Goliaths with little impact, one is caricaturish, the other too dull. Yami Gautami looks as gorgeous as any lovely advertising model and performs accordingly too.
Perhaps, what is interesting to note also is the gaze that is telling the story, a gaze that thankfully refrains from lending a morality to the crime but is biased about the individual pain it has caused. Rohan’s pain is all that we see, Supriya is a mere reflection. Her pain is not important, not to her, not to the makers who sacrifice her conveniently to spare their hero more agony; that is the reasoning given to us for Supriya’s death. In the 21st century. But given the regressive route the world is taking it is not much of a surprise either. The gaze is far more telling of our real world than it is of the film.
Late into a Delhi evening, a car rushes to a hospital. Inside are three young men, one of whom is bleeding profusely from a nasty cut above one eye. Across town the easygoing lives of three young women, who share an apartment in an upwardly mobile enclave, takes an unexpected and ugly detour. The three women appear to have been involved in the incident that resulted in the young man’s eye injury. What exactly happened? Why the blood? Why the secrecy? Why the fear? And all of this happens in just the first ten minutes.
From this unsettling, uneven high stakes opening we are on to something remarkable. The three men claim to have been attacked by the women after agreeing to meet them after a rock concert. Of the three men, Rajveer (Bedi) belongs to a powerful and well-connected family while the women—Minal (Pannu), Falak (Kulhari) and Andrea (Tariang) are working girls from modest backgrounds. The men begin to harass the women. Minal gets nearly run over by a car and is then attacked and Falak loses her job. The police, not countering any of the womens’ claims, instead jail Minal on attempted murder charges.
Slow but astute in his step, Deepak Sehgal (Bachchan) is an ageing retired attorney caring for his ill wife. Sehgal is the neighbor to the three women and guesses what might have happened and, ever so reluctantly, steps in to help the women in court. What follows is an excellent court drama that lays bare the hypocrisy of social norms that allow men to be independent and decry women for choosing to do the same thing—especially when it comes to living arrangements.
As the tense splendid court drama unfolds, with the women represented by Sehgal and the men represented by a bald-headed lawyer (Mishra), crowded court room adult confrontations that speak boldly on what makes up sexual consent and sexual morality in a changing society take center stage. This is indeed uncharted territory for a mainstream Indian film. Should the accused individual’s ethnicity, bank balance, dating history or age at first sexual experience matter? What does it mean when a woman, anyone really, says “no” to a come on?
Like highly refined court procedurals, Pink also tenses up quickly. Credibility is questioned. Memories are recalled. Versions are re-told. Alibis are offered. Alibis are denied. Witnesses are cross examined. Closed circuit video is played, and replayed. With what actually happened shown almost as an afterthought as the camera is pulling away, the urgency is all about the here and now. What the men are saying against what the women are saying. His word against hers.
Bachchan’s Sehgal wears a mask during his carefully routed daily walks through a neighborhood park. Outwardly to ward off Delhi’s polluted air, the mask brilliantly foreshadows fear—the fear of strangers. Anyone in the presence of the mask, especially in dimming light, is gripped by a stay-or-run existential jolt. This pretty much sums up the daily fears of urbanites, including Minal, Falak and Andrea after they are harassed. That the mask serves a perfunctory use is of little consequence. The fear it represents must be overcome.
Bachchan’s cranky-goat Sehgal is an old school legal eagle that wants to, and even needs to help, in part to compensate for his helplessness in not being able to help his ailing wife but also to help overcome official indifference he sees the women having to suffer. Pannu and Kulhari decently put up brave fronts and unite when their characters have to, while Bedi, as Rajveer, is a scion of privilege unprepared for court. Shantanu Moitra’s musical score is ear worthy with repeated listening.
The result is a modest budget movie that raked in huge box office returns— Bachchan’s biggest in recent years. For an original script that taps into collective fears about the perils of urban living, Pink has few parallels. For opening social conversation, however, add Pink to the short list of notable Hindi movies that feature strong female characters having to clear their name in court following a sexual assault (Damini, Insaf Ka Tarazu, No One Killed Jessica).
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
To mention Pakistan in a Hindi movie script, habeas corpus requires that it be in the context of either a) war footing (Refugee, Border, Line of Control, Kargil) or b) parody (Filmistan). Yes, there was the sordid romance that more often than not gets entangled in border lining barb wire (Veer-Zaara, Henna)—which squarely place them back at war footing in the grand scheme of things. That leaves precious little space in the middle. There is no other route.
Unless you are Happy Bhaag Jayegi. Avoiding a movie focused on war or parody, this nifty border-hugging comedy takes a friendly cultural clash between neighbors and elevates it into an unlikely delight.
This story, written by Director Aziz, has a somewhat far-fetched and yet pleasantly approachable premise. Harpreet Kaur aka Happy (Penty) is about to be unhappily married off to the strong-armed Bagga (Shergill) in New Delhi. Not so fast. Happy, you see, has other plans. On the nuptial date, Happy plans to elope with her beau, the not-so-rich Guddu (Faizal). The teensy weensy bummer is that instead of hiding in the truck that will carry Happy to her beloved Guddu, Happy mistakenly jumps onto the wrong truck and ends up in—wait, wait—Lahore, Pakistan where Happy becomes a most unruly and unwelcome house-guest to the Lahore princeling Bilal Ahmed (Deol). Jeepers creepers!
Aziz and company make this completely implausible scenario so seamless and so plausible that before one can truly appreciate the irony of precious turns to Happy’s misadventure, we are already onto the next escapade. The comedy style that Aziz employs is often reminiscent of black and white 1960s Johnny Walker or Shammi Kapoor mistaken-identity, mistaken-deliveries capers. A large enclosed basket that should haul flowers instead has a highly surprised—and angry—bride popping out of it. A no-nonsense and handsome lord of the manor clad in traditional salwar-kameez must rely on his bumbling cast of benevolent underlings to maintain a social straight face. They are trademarks that help this bridal flight remain afloat.
From the get-go, the staging is also surprisingly non-religious. Happy, her angry father back in Delhi (Singh), Guddu and Bagga are all Sikh or Hindu. Everyone in Lahore is Muslim. And yet there are no signs of comeuppance directed at anyone’s creed. This is all about the inflections of vernacular—Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu—that mix in comical phrases and the juxtaposition is uncanny. It is all good clean fun.
As Happy, newcomer Penty brings a nice who-me-surprised expression to her role. She must—and does—remain feisty to throw everyone else off-kilter. Deol’s political. Grand Poobah-in-the-making is refinement personified—at least in his public appearances. His trespasses with his upper crust fiancé Zoya (Sheikh) might as well be Dharmendra and Saira Bano from another era. Ahmed’s unwitting sidekick is the not-so-bright Lahore beat cop ACP Afridi, played with impeccable self-deprecation by Mishra. Afridi being made to go to New Delhi against his better judgement is seen refusing to step off of a bus to touch Indian soil. That pretty much sums up the state of diplomatic affairs that often characterize the India-Pakistan rivalry: the scene is both hysterically funny and also simply insightful.
Sohail Sen’s soundtrack has good things to offer. There is bhangra bounce—Harshdeep Kaur and Shahid Mallya’s Happy Oye and especially the throb of Mika Singh’s Gabru. There is emotion—Arijit Singh’s Zara Si Dosti and especially Altamash Faridi’s beautiful Ashiq Tera. And there is a sufi-qawalli stop—Javed Ali’s Yaaram. The quality, pacing and choreography of these songs greatly enhances the story’s appeal while the somber musical moments gracefully counter-balance the non-stop laughs.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the script is its apolitical take. For all the zingers flared in both directions, Indians and Pakistanis might as well be neighbors settling a missing-bride case over the fence. Improbable as it may seem, it is highly refreshing to see an India-Pakistan détente through soft focus binoculars which capture a blurred-line contiguous landscape separated by miles and not trenches.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, acclaimed director shares his insights into filmmaking in an exclusive interview with Geetika Pathania Jain about his upcoming film, Mirzya.
Geetika Pathania Jain (GPJ): Rakeysh, thanks for making yourself available for this exclusive interview. What would you like to tell our readers from India Currents about your new movie Mirzya?
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (ROPM): Mirzya is based on the legend of Mirza-Sahiba. It’s in the collective consciousness of South Asia. It’s an epic love story which has a likeness to the tragic love stories of Romeo and Juliet, Heer Ranjha and Laila Majnu.
I first saw the play when I was in college. What really resonated with me was the part of Sahiba, the strong female protagonist. Here was a woman who was pretty arrogant, maybe even a bit vain. Very aware of her inner beauty, not just her outer beauty and she uses that as a weapon. Mirzya falls in love with her. There’s no logic to why we fall in love—when love beckons, everything else fails. And so they elope on her wedding night. Mirzya is a skilled mounted archer, and they are pursued by a posse of her brothers. They ride for three nights and four days and finally they take shelter under a tree. There is only one more night of travel left. It’s getting dark and there she imagines that her brothers have arrived, and that Mirzya, a sharp shooter kills them one by one. And at a cathartic moment in the story, she picks up the arrows, breaks them and scatters them around. Dawn breaks and her nightmare starts to come true. Her brothers arrive and they are soon surrounded. Mirzya wakes up, grabs his bow and arrows and finds them broken. He looks intently at Sahiba, and seems to ask—Why? And, then hundreds of arrows kill him, and he lies there bleeding to death, and Sahiba is taken away.
Typically, at the end of the play, the director would ask the audience—why did Sahiba break the arrows? And we would struggle to come up with answers—but, do we really know why we hurt the ones we love the most?
GPJ: The story of Mirzya and Sahiba is a famous Punjabi story and also one which resonates with today’s times. What do you feel about the fact that, in contemporary times, this could be construed as an honor killing? How do you feel about some of these regressive traditions and how can we be careful to not glamorize this idea that women who transgress will be answerable to their families who have the ultimate responsibility of bringing them back into the fold?
ROPM: On the contrary, it’s a question of why we do what we do in love. Somewhere deep inside of me the question remains—why did Sahiba break the arrows? Mirzya was quite capable of defending himself from any kind of attack—he was such a great archer that he could hit a moving target while galloping on his horse with his eyes closed. With this burning question inside of me, I called Gulzar bhai and said, “a cup of tea?” and he says “aa jao, beta.” (Come over, son). We are neighbors so I walked across to his house.
GPJ: Gulzar! Gulzar is such a well-loved lyricist and important part of Indian film culture. So what did Gulzar say?
ROPM: I asked Gulzar, “Why did Sahiba break the arrows? So he said“bachoo, tum woh Sahiba se ja ke poochho.” (Kiddo, go ask Sahiba).
GPJ: Ha ha. Super response.
ROPM: I told him—I’ve been looking for her, and she seems to elude me. He had a twinkle in his eyes and told me to travel this journey to find the answer. Why do we do all the crazy things that we do when we’re in love?
GPJ: That is indeed a question to be asked to all the hopeless romantics and all the star-crossed lovers. Rakeysh, as you may know, India Currents is a community magazine for the Indian diaspora. My next question is about the followers of your art in the West—are we in your thoughts at all?
ROPM: It may sound corny, but I think of you all the time. And the reason is this: I want to tell Indian stories to the world. I want South Asians to be proud of Indian cinema and take their friends out and say it’s not just all song and dance. So it’s always been our endeavor to keep raising the bar with each story that we tell. Someone at the Venice Film Festival named me un-Bollywood and I loved it! I treasure that article so much. And the time has come for us to tell human stories that interest the world at large: not just stories about conflict. To introduce ourselves, our culture, our tradition, not in a jingoistic fashion but in a more universal way because we all know that human emotions remain the same across any culture.
GPJ: I have really enjoyed your previous works. Do you feel that this film is a precursor or a successor to any of the films you’ve made?
ROPM: My first film, Aks, was a paranormal thriller which had its roots in the Ramayana. My grandmother told me at the end of every story—Ram and Ravan are both inside you. So I brought that idea out in a contemporary thriller.
To address questions of corruption, I did Rang de Basanti. Rather than pointing fingers and saying: “In India, nothing works,” you have to be part of the system to change it.
And then I went on to make Delhi 6. I belong to Old Delhi and grew up in an environment of intolerance. When you look at the mirror, you are looking for Allah, you are looking for Bhagwan—you will find that answer inside you. Please don’t break mosques and build temples or break temples and build mosques. So, that was Delhi 6 and then Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was obviously about the pain of Partition. Milkha Singh was one of those kids who suffered—a 12-year old who saw the massacre of his family during the ethnic violence of 1947. But even then, he grew up to be a world champion. Milkha Singh gave us that kind of confidence and pride.
There are so many love stories—and I wondered is there something more to this beast called love? The strong female character in Mirzya drew me close to the story. Somewhere I found that connection in Mirzya’s character as well. He is a Sufi man to the core, who lets his girlfriend be what she is and accepts her even at his death. I think he realizes that Sahiba had a tear in her eye when she broke the arrows. She was making the supreme sacrifice— she sacrificed the one she loved the most to avoid a bigger bloodbath. That’s how this myth of Mirza-Sahiba plays out in India today.
GPJ: I really want to congratulate you on taking on something that brings to contemporary times an ancient legend. Also, you seem to be grappling with the question—why did she do something which seems so counter-intuitive like breaking the arrows? Is that what the film hinges on—the answer to that central question— is that what you are seeking?
ROPM: It’s a parable. The question is why do we do what we do? Something within you that makes you do things—have we forgotten this silent voice inside us amidst the whole noise outside us? I’d like to leave you with a thought that when you see this movie, you should see it with a loved one and if you’re not seeing it with your loved one, then just go back home and hold his hand and share a moment because every moment that we’re together we are blessed. The loved one could be your father, brother, husband or it a boyfriend. It doesn’t matter. Love plays out in various ways—it can make you crazy, it can make you seek revenge. But the purest form, which I learned by telling this story, is giving in love. Our sacrifice is the purest emotion and I hope that comes through.
Geetika Pathania Jain is a frequent contributor to India Currents magazine. When she is not writing reviews or grading student papers, Geetika can be found enjoying the great outdoors.
Sex comedies work best when they refuse to take themselves seriously. In what is likely the lightest offering ever from the Ram Gopal Varma camp, Mali stakes her considerable talent behind this tongue-in-cheek man-trapped-in-a-woman’s-body romp. Before all the gender bending is sorted out, we are treated to an intentionally shallow comedy that bites off just a right-sized morsel.
Sanjay (Shivdasani), a womanizing ad executive, finds himself in more than hot water when the multiple women he is courting all converge to cause him bodily harm. Lest his sins go unpunished, certain divine powers intervene to perpetrate Sanjay back to his office existence—albeit in the form of a shapely gal. Quickly rechristening himself Sanjana (Mali), Sanjay sets off on a farcical journey to 1) get in touch with his inner woman and 2) (hopefully!) learn a thing or two about being on the receiving end of the sexual harassment many women encounter in their daily grind.
And did we forget that Sanjana’s gender-test-by-fire includes her best friend Shekhar (Deshmukh), who finds himself strangely attracted to the curvy femme who was once his best friend Sanjay? Although the central premise of androgyny is akin to the Rob Schneider comedy The Hot Chic, first-time directors Mali and Puranik branch off into new directions. Just when the silliness appears to have worn out, Sanjana find herself arrested for murder!
Since more screen time is devoted to Mali playing Sanjana, she must express the comic pain of a woman learning to pee standing up or being reminded that not crossing one’s legs when sitting down in public may unwittingly invite come-ons from lecherous bystanders. Mali and Deshmukh work up a gender-challenged chemistry that does not disappoint.
What is most refreshing here is the attitude towards sexuality in general. This same premise even 10 years ago would have been drowned by Mali’s character having to act coy. The low-watt battle-of-the-sexes that is the core of the Mr Ya Miss makes its point without resorting to any lascivious displays of affection; even the token girl-on-girl liplock is more clinical then erotic. The other item of note is just how far the directors allow Sanjana and Shekhar to go with their love-hate physical intimacy.
Finally, it’s surprising that the sexually charged interplay between Shekhar and Sanjana met no outcry from conservative groups in India. The same conservatives, who flexed their political muscles to keep Deepa Mehta’s magnificent Water, a story about widowhood, from filming in India, raised no objections to the overtly androgynous and covertly homoerotic Mr Ya Miss. To some, apparently, on-screen widowhood is scarier then on-screen androgyny. The former touched off a firestorm and the latter was dismissed. It’s true what they say: India still exists in several centuries at once.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.
The enigma of Mohenjo Daro, the largest site attributed to the Indus Valley civilization, continues to be one of the most beguiling mysteries for anthropologists and historians. To transfer to the big screen a title that instantly evokes nothing short of epic storytelling would be a stupendous task. Ashutosh Gowariker, a specialist in constructing large scale box office hits like Lagaan(2001) and Jodhaa Akbar(2008) steps up to this task, and he has his work cut out for him. Even though this expensive undertaking puts up gorgeous sets, spectacular city-scapes and a decent music score, Mohenjo Daro lags behind in the ratings for great cinema that Gowariker is best known for.
Combing through a trove of known historical Mohenjo Daro lore, Gowariker’s team has pieced together a film based on speculation of what life might have been at the time. Sarman (Roshan), an adventuring laborer along with his uncle Durjan (Bharadwaj) collects indigo, a precious trading commodity at the time. He is from the outlying regions and finds himself drawn to the capital Mohenjo Daro. There, a run-in with Moonja (Singh), the son of Mohenjo Daro’s strong man Maham (Bedi), sets Sarman on a collision course intertwined with nothing short of the future of the city-state. Sarman’s interest in Channi (Hegde), the enchanting daughter of the temple priest only complicates Sarman’s prospects further, as Moonja also professes interest in the same girl.
The tantalizing detail and care that has gone into bringing all of this together is remarkable. The sets, from a 25-acre model city built in Bhuj to represent the city’s central baths which are the same dimensions as the actual baths dug up at the Pakistan site are eye-popping and beautiful. The mythology that centers on an emblem featuring a unicorn, a two tier way of life–an “upper city” for the Indus Valley one-percenter power players and the “lower city” for folks of meager means also accentuates an outlook that taps into feudalism as an ancient practice.
To describe it in broad strokes, this movie is an action-adventure-love story. This means that Roshan and Hegde have to feature on the screen extensively. Roshan’s Sarman finds himself in harm’s way with man-eating crocodiles, giant-sized cannibals and hordes of Moonja’s goons and also possible flooding in the Indus River which Maham the usurper has sinister plans to exploit. Because the Indus Valley script remains undeciphered to this day, that language remains unknown. Gowariker uses an interesting ploy to have the dialog revert to (mostly) classical Hindustani. The sub-titles come in handy.
So where are the gaps? The staggering budget, for one. Covered by one of the largest budgets ever for a Hindi movie, the “making of” was talked about for months before. Then, we heard about cost overruns and also about Roshan’s payday for this movie, reported to be equivalent to the full budgets of most A-list Hindi movies. Ouch! The shooting schedule was further delayed by Roshan having to recover from injuries suffered during the extensive action shoots. Ouch again!
A. R. Rahman’s score has one or two stops that make those pieces good listening. Javed Akhtar’s lyrics also toss in bits of an imaginary lingo ascribed to that period. The title track here is from the same school as Rahman’s celebratory “Azeem O Shaan Shahenshah” from Jodhaa Akbar and here also it sounds moderately pleasing. There are ample tribal chimes and wood instruments that form an alternate sound. The “alternate” however, could be Rahman in an experimental mood rather than the score being an out-of-this-world salute to an era that slipped unknown into antiquity. Still, “Tu Hai” and “Sindu Ma” sung by Rahman and Sanah Moidutty are love tracks—the latter is an ode to the Indus River and lingers on.
Released on the same day as Rustom, the other recent box office contender, Mohenjo Daro underperformed at the Box Office on a one to one count with Rustom. We need to wait and see if the tepid box office returns can help recover the massive outlay for the movie. The story of the rise and relatively sudden disappearance of the Indus Valley civilization, a culture that thrived in what is now primarily Pakistan and India about 4,000 years ago is shrouded in the mists of history. If nothing else, Gowariker deserves kudos for imaginatively recreating bits of that history.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
It’s 1959 all over again! In Hollywood, the 1959 classic Ben Hur remake got a wide release at about the same time as Rustom, which is based on a sensational true life high society murder case set in what was then Bombay. While Ben Hur recreates Roman era chariot racing, Rustom opts for slightly more sedate pacing. And what pace it is! Served up as a polished period piece thriller mindful of socio-economic realities and sensibilities of that era, Rustom is a sumptuous reenactment of a tangled murder mystery.
A decade after Independence, India had fully come of age and a free press was thriving. A murder that would normally go unnoticed captures the popular imagination because the principal figures involved are very wealthy, belonging to the upper crust of society. The accused is Commander Rustom Pavri, (Kumar) a highly decorated officer with the Indian navy. Returning home from an extended stint out at sea, Rustom discovers an affair between his wife Cynthia Pavri (D’Cruz) and the couple’s long-time friend Vikram Makhija (Bajwa). What exactly happened before, during and after three famed gunshots that killed Makhija at his palatial home might as well have been three shots heard around the world.
This entire framework would fall flat on its face if not for Santosh Thundiyil’s excellent cinematography that places Rustom and Cynthia smack in the middle of society ball rooms or Rustom at shipside on the high seas. Color filters create a mood of intrigue in the navy parlors where a behind-the-scenes high stakes arms race to acquire India’s first aircraft carrier is played out as a tangent to the main narrative. The sets come alive to inject a dose of realistic make-believe. Just don’t look too far into the distance or a computer-generated period auto rickshaw may pop up out of thin air.
The real life 1959 case had massive implications for India’s legal system. Amazingly, the original case became the very last Indian court case tried by a jury. After this case played out, India did away with jury trials in favor of a sole judge or a small group of judges deciding all cases, including capital murder. And small wonder. The sensation created by the case and its hold on the popular press at a time when the jury had full access to all media while the trial was ongoing, effectively meant that the verdict was issued by the tabloids long before the case went to the jury.
The pudgy paparazzi Billimoria (Mishra) prints anything and everything to create a line of “reasoning” that will sell more papers. His playbook includes baiting ethnicity into the case. The Pavris like Billimoria and his media barons are from the Parsi community, while the murder victim is from the Sindhi community. There is also the maid Jamnabai (Nadkarni) whose loose lips could just about sink ships. Preeti Makhija (Gupta), the murder victim’s conniving sister, meanwhile, is up to no good at all. It is up to the chief police investigator Vincent Lobo (Malhotra) to read through the tarot cards of evidence that don’t seem to add up.
As a cuckold decorated navy officer in sailor whites, Kumar comes across as a wronged man numbed by court proceedings—in other words, a victim. Strangely, the empathy factor swings away from him, and we feel more for D’Cruz who plays the anguished wife fending loneliness. In roles where the social stigma of adultery burns heavier on her than murder does on him, D’Cruz manages to keep tears to a minimum, and she is restrained in her portrayal.
Desai’s Rustom is not the first feature based on the famed original case. R.K. Nayyar’s Yeh Raste Hai Pyar Ke (1963) with Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu and Gulzar’s Achanak (1973) with Vinod Khanna and Lily Chakravarty both touched on this story. As a time capsule with critical and box office validation however,Rustom breaks refreshing new ground. Three gun shots, three figures and a two and a half hour big screen joyride. We are guilty as charged, my Lord!
A brutal serial killer on the loose, a city on edge, and a cop who will leave no stone unturned to find the killer can be nicely folded into a made-for-TV movie. Give the same devices to respected filmmaker Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur, That Girl in Yellow Boots) and the results could take one of two opposite outcomes. The end product could well be an imprecise and yet pricey salute to bygone era, say, Bombay Velvet (2014), or something else. Raman Raghav 2.0 has Kashyap drawing up an incredibly captivating, small-budget and chilling entry fueled by adrenaline and a dose of heebie-jeebies.
In the late 1960s a real life serial killer, eventually known as Raman Raghav, terrorized what was then Bombay. In addition to gaining notoriety as India’s most infamous serial killer, Raman Raghav also became a celebrated and morbid case study into a psychopathic mind operating in pretty much an alternate reality. Taking loose, major departures from that real life outline, Raman Ragav 2.0 provides a modern update with a twist of two tossed in.
As far as killers go, the main suspect in the brutal bludgeoning killings appears to be a certain Raman (Siddique), a down and out, shadowy figure who lives in the night (or does he stalk the night?) and could be schizophrenic. Cold on his trail lurks Inspector Raghavan (Kaushal), who finds himself both drawn to the killer’s brilliant persona as much as he is repulsed by the brutality of the killings. The killer, whoever he is—for there is circumstantial evidence placing Raman with loose alibis from time to time—likes to taunt the police by leaving behind, often bloody and horrific clues.
Perhaps Kashyap is most in command working with limited budgets where he can micro-manage to a greater degree than when he can wield large budgets. For Raman Raghav 2.0, a story Kashyap co-wrote with Vasan Bala, Kashyap resorts to what can only be described as guerilla filmmaking, which calls for shooting in actual, often off-street, settings and, sometimes, even without permission. Gone are the plush studio interiors where even grime can look polished. Here, the grime will not cleanse easily and the tenement sounds and traffic noises are real. Unlike larger budget entries that may have dozens of mostly-pricey takes most of which end up on the editor’s floor, Kashyap shot hundreds of scenes, over days and not months. The amazing result is an expanded span of controlled settings that give a larger impact to the story then its limited purse would otherwise signal.
Like with Navdeep Singh’s brilliant NH10 (2015), the fear lurks (mostly) in a subterranean maze that is Raman’s reality. In NH10, an ominous and symbolic revenge is delivered in a scene involving a wronged woman deliberately dragging a thick metal rod against the pavement. The dragging metal screech is angry, cantankerous and promises violence to a brutal finish. Twisted logic is intertwined with guilty satisfaction in the means to that end.
That scene was an antithesis to what Raman Raghav 2.0 lashes out with. Here, a metal rod grinding on pavement, in an apartment lobby or in a dark alley, raises both fears and anticipation of mayhem. Surely, whoever swings this rod can’t be all that bad, can they? And yet, no rays of sun, no birds chirping or the break of dawn await the ritual. There is only more darkness.
The other side of the coin to Raman’s seedy world is Inspector Raghavan’s parcel. Even though slightly more disciplined under the guise of law, Inspector Raghavan is not beyond resorting to full-fledged torture to extract the truth, whatever it may be, from Raman. Well played by Kaushal, Inspector Raghavan wants to, no, needs to, solve the perplexing serial killer case. His broken moral compass points to a man who strayed beyond his mission some time ago. What is lacking is two strong characters engaging with each other. Instead they mostly engage with their environment.
Siddique’s application to the role is stunning. His Raman effectively views himself as an animal that is settling a warped cosmic “score” where he is judge, jury, and executioner. His psychopathic outbursts are harmonized with a narrative where he is both a victim and the perpetrator. His most chilling legacy, in addition to an especially creepy ghoul-pose in the publicity poster, is the built in anxiety that subtly taps into the imagery of masked contemporary terrorists. Bravo!