SAAT KHOON MAAF. Director: Vishal Bharadwaj.  Players: Priyanka Chopra, Naseerudin Shah, John Abraham, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Irfaan Khan, Vivaan Shah, Aleksandr Dyachenko, Annu Kapoor. Theatrical release (UTV Spotboy)

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Vishal Bharadwaj set a pretty high standard for himself with his brilliantly minimal 2007 entryOmkara, ensuring that everything Bharadwaj serves up in the future will be held up against that framework. With Saat Khoon Maaf, Bharadwaj turns to a would-be crime thriller with a promising plot. In all fairness, Saat Khoon Maaf stylishly trumpets a salaciously epic character study of a seriously unhinged personality. As a memorable entertainer, alas, Saat Khoon Maaf falls short of anything that registers seismically.

Thickly atmospheric, Saat Khoon Maaf floats Chopra as Susanna Johannes, a well-off upscale matron with questionable scruples.  Susanna has terrible luck picking potential life partners. Susanna marries often, and each successive husband, poor fellows all, meet untimely deaths soon after revealing flaws that don’t mesh well with Susanna. Are the deaths accidental or is Susanna resorting to a primal, black widow spider syndrome and herself killing off her mates?

Narrated by a young male household member (V. Shah) for whom the rich Susanna is a benefactor and who harbors a crush her, the movie successfully time shifts over several decades to connect the dots in Susanna’s storied life. While Samir Chanda’s production designs suffer from occasional poor lighting, what is visible falls into place gracefully. There are good performances—especially Chopra, Khan, and Konkona Sen Sharma in a small role—and a wonderful background score, courtesy Bharadwaj himself.

The unease, however, sets in about the time when Susanna meets Husband No. 3 and the deaths slowly become killings—a sport, rather than a life and death drama played out a-la Agatha Christie. Instead of a reflection at the passing of each husband, Susanna appears completely at ease with getting away with killing and intent on starting a new life. As good a performer as Chopra is, and even with the help of heavy make-up, the limits to her range of facial expressions is continuously put to test. Also, there is little in the way of justification as what is motivating Susanna in her rush to jump into these marriages.

Matthew Robbins’ screenplay, based on a Ruskin Bond short story, touches on mortal reflections in a primarily Christian milieu and is structured very well. The setting, however, sparks déjà vu in the afterglow of a similar cultural space created only recently and oh-so-well by Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Guzaarish. The most nagging take-away from Saat Khoon Maaf may be this: Through no fault of her own, Chopra’s underrated performance in What’s Your Rashee? (2009) had her getting into a dozen characters, all of whom vie to become the chosen bride-to-be for an arranged marriage.  Given the novelty of that storyline, Chopra’s delivery in Rashee came across as vivacious and fresh. Two years later, Chopra is a bigger star and earns bigger bucks. And yet, Saat Khoon Maafstrangely reverberates as if What’s Your Rashee? Part 2 had been unspooled and Chopra was taking on the roles of seven additional lovelorn women still trying out for the same part.

EQ: C+

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