Review: Johnny Gaddaar

Posted on September 29, 2007


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The trashy premise rubs uneasily against the higher aspirations, but there’s still lots to enjoy in this botched-crime saga.

SEPT 30, 2007 – AS HE DID WITH HIS earlier (and first) film, Ek Hasina Thi, Sriram Raghavan begins his thriller Johnny Gaddaar with the legend: “This is a work of fiction.â€? But that’s only the half of it, for these words seem simply a director’s declaration that the subsequent events aren’t drawn from real life. What Raghavan really means, if his output-so-far is anything to go by, is: “This is a work of pulp fiction.â€? Ek Hasina Thi owed a healthy part of its existence to Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes, and Johnny Gaddaar explicitly invokes the sublimely trashy oeuvre of James Hadley Chase (to whom this film is dedicated, along with the director Vijay Anand, him of Bollywood’s technicolour-noir capers like Teesri Manzil and Jewel Thief and Johny Mera Naam.)

The pulpy aspirations of Johnny Gaddaar reveal themselves right from the film’s title – which practically screams disreputability, in neon lights – and they extend to the superb credits sequence, scored to blaring trumpets that evoke as much the scores of RD Burman (in an era where pulp was king) as the James Bond soundtracks. You hear the sharp bursts of brass, and instantly, an invisible switch goes on in your head, priming you for a movie experience that probably isn’t very good for you, but great fun nevertheless.

That we are – stylistically, at least – in the sixties and the seventies is in no further doubt when Raghavan stages Dhoka (by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, who cut loose with this soundtrack as they haven’t in a while) in a way that reminds you of a dozen cabaret sequences in our films from that age. Though there isn’t any dancing, it’s impossible not to recall Bindu’s gyrations to Mera naam hai Shabnam as poor Asha Parekh squirmed in her seat. In Johnny Gaddaar, the one squirming in her seat – the one guilty of the song’s dhoka – is the much-married Mini (Rimi Sen), who’s having an affair with Vikram (newcomer Neil Nitin Mukesh).

Vikram is part of a gang, along with Mini’s husband Shardul (Zakir Hussain), Seshadri (Dharmendra), Prakash (Vinay Pathak) and Shiva (Daya Shetty) – and Johnny Gaddaar is about how their plan to get richer by Rs. 2.5 crore goes spectacularly awry due to the titular traitor. I remember reading something of this nature by Chase – I think the book was called Mallory – where a gang discovers that one of the members is a double-crosser, and the end is about who this double-crosser is. But Johnny Gaddaar isn’t a who-dunit or even a why-dunit. (Within the first ten minutes, you know who’s going to do it and why.) The surprise of the film is that it’s about the ever-spiralling consequences of this man’s actions. This is an existential what-happens-after-he-dunit.

And that welcome realisation puts the jolt back into a film that, after the initial reels of fun retro-hipness, was beginning to feel like not much else. Suddenly, it’s no longer just about the crime, it’s about the punishment – and not from a power as mundane as the law (the police are completely invisible in Johnny Gaddaar) but from a force as mysterious as destiny. The protagonist (or antagonist, depending on how you choose to see him) is pulled this way and that in the manner of a classic noir character-construct: the patsy – except that his strings aren’t yanked by a femme fatale so much as fate itself. Everything hinges on the outcome of a coin toss. It’s as if Crimes and Misdemeanors were recast as a noir-thriller, the way this film keeps you wondering whether the wrongdoer will pay the price for his flagrant disregard of the honour among thieves.

But this also creates a curious problem. On the one hand, Johnny Gaddaar is too showy, too sensational a film to not demand from it blatant entertainment. We want the tension to keep ratcheting skywards. We want the screws to be tightened. We want all the things that put the thrill in a thriller. But on the other hand, the film’s bordering-on-the-metaphysical concerns do not allow its pulpier conceits to entirely break free, and there are entire sections – of the second half especially, though the ending is a thing of beauty (it feels inevitable, yet I never saw it coming) – that feel like so much dead air. There were times I was torn between saluting Raghavan’s ambition and shaking him for not simply sticking to his initial manifesto of James Hadley Chase-by-way-of-Vijay Anand.

Had Johnny Gaddaar been just a thriller – and by my reckoning of the parts of the film that serve this end, it would have been a damn good one – it wouldn’t have mattered much that most of the characters are sketchily written, with heads that are near-impossible to get into. Because in this case, the plot mechanics would have scored over the personalities. But when things turn serious, you keep hoping that these people will give you something to hold on to – and they don’t.

Dharmendra contributes a touching turn as an aging (aged?) conman – I wouldn’t be surprised if the inspiration for Seshadri came from Bob le Flambeur, whose eponymous gambler enjoyed a relationship with his much-younger protégé not dissimilar to the almost-paternal one that Seshadri shares with Vikram – but his quirk of listening to his now-departed wife’s voice on tape doesn’t transcend the gimmickry behind its conception to evoke the empathy it should. It remains just that: a quirk. (I was, however, grateful that this Tamilian – that name; it makes him Tamilian, doesn’t it? – isn’t a stereotype. He simply is.)

But at least, Dharmendra comes off better than some of his costars. An annoying Rasika Joshi hits the same single-note she’s been hitting ever since she started to show up on screen (she plays Shiva’s Alzheimer’s-inflicted mother), and Govind Namdeo stumbles badly as a corrupt cop. There’s a scene where he launches into a level of sadistic torture just this side of the ear-slicing in Reservoir Dogs, and it comes out of nowhere. It’s not that the sadism is hard to watch so much as that it doesn’t make any sense.

And while it’s to Neil Nitin Mukesh’s credit that he didn’t just cash in on his good looks and make his debut as Hindi Film Lover Boy No. 7683, Vikram’s affair with Mini never really catches fire. I never got around to caring whether they got together by the end or not. (But they do begin promisingly, with a seriously sexy moment in bed where he runs a finger along the length of her sole, in a near-69ish position.) But Zakir Hussain treads very convincingly the fine line between cuckolded husband and crooked businessman, and Vinay Pathak – who, after Bheja Fry, can clearly do no wrong – has a high old time as someone who’s about fifty-percent different. He’s a crooked businessman too, but unlike Hussain, he has a great thing going at home. (As his wife, the terrific Ashwini Kalsekar is easily the most interesting female character in the film.)

I loved the scene where Pathak uses playing cards to decide the fate that will befall his captives. Inveterate gambler that he is, he holds out a deck of cards and asks the men to first pick two, and then a third. It’s like this: they are free to go if the last card they pull out lies between the first two – and Pathak’s doggerel dialogue (explaining this “ruleâ€?) is hilarious: “Beech ka patta aaya to tere ko chhoda, varna toda.â€? And that’s the thing with Johnny Gaddaar. Even if its parts don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole, several of these parts are worthy standalone sketches in themselves – with a ton of in-jokes and references for film buffs. Some of these, like the debt to the early-Amitabh Bachchan starrer Parwana, are in your face, but there are many others that make for fascinating guessing games.

Watching Pathak hum Ek do teen, aaja mausam hai rangeen, I thought at first that this song from Awara was chosen simply because it has numbers in its lyrics – as in, playing-card numbers – but later I wondered if this wasn’t some kind of nod to the lover-of-old-music character Pathak played in Bheja Fry. Later, when Shiva falls for the nurse Vyjayanthi, it appears that the girl was named after the heroine of Jewel Thief, which goes back to Vijay Anand. And when we first see Mini, the book she’s reading is RK Narayan’s The Guide, which, of course, became Vijay Anand’s most acclaimed film. But the reference that threw me for a loop was the sight of Mini spending her time piecing together jagged chunks of a picture. An unhappy wife resorting to jigsaw puzzles? Why, that’s from Citizen Kane.

But give Raghavan this much: once he grows up and gets over his I’ve-seen-all-these-cool-films glee, he’s going to become a great filmmaker. Even here, for all the rough edges, you sense the exciting instincts of someone who’s grown up with our cinema and has studied their cinema, and who’s now trying to figure out how to make it all fit together. You see this in the superb segment in a train where the double-crosser finishes off one of his colleagues. You brace yourself for a straightforward masala moment, for hyper-edited dishoom-dishoom – and there is a little of that, yes. But you also get the unremarkable sights of everyday life – dentures rattling around in a cup of water, an air pillow being inflated, the bathroom latch being jiggled from the outside by a man who can no longer hold it in. It’s a good sign when a director leaves his fingerprints all over a scene that could just as easily have been delegated to a stunt coordinator.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi