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Spooky 5 a.m. calls perk up a wallflower-loser in an eerie urban-nightmare that’s terrific for the most part.
FEB 28, 2010 – THE EPONYMOUS UNDERACHIEVER in Karthik Calling Karthik (superbly portrayed by Farhan Akhtar) lives in a washed-up apartment whose walls are as bare as his life. The only people in his sad little existence are the landlord who bullies him, the boss who berates him, and the girl of his dreams (Deepika Padukone’s Shonali) who doesn’t know his name despite four years of inhabiting the same office. The film’s prime metaphor is the Rubik’s Cube that Karthik keeps shuffling between his twitchy fingers – despite endless tries, the coloured squares are all awry. He is alone, even on his birthday, and what better instrument to aid his pathetic attempts at connection than the telephone? If no one else will talk to him, if no else will be friends with him, he will speak to himself, he will befriend himself. That appears to be the subconsciously surreal conceit behind the occurrence of Karthik beginning to receive calls from a voice that sounds like his, and belonging to someone with a name like his. It’s Karthik calling Karthik.
The Karthik at the other end of the line is Tyler Durden to our meek corporate-drone protagonist — part motivational speaker, part messiah– and he delivers the Karthik at this end from the soul-crushing banality of his existence. Under his empathetic urging, Karthik transforms into something of a rock-star rebel. He subdues his landlord, squashes his boss, and he sweeps Shonali off the feet that cap her never-ending legs. Most importantly, he solves that pesky Rubik’s Cube – the pieces of his life are finally in place. The first-time director Vijay Lalwani gets a real rhythm going in these early scenes, aided by the deadpan charms of his peerless leading man (is there an actor who can put over a quip with a better sense of self-deprecation?) and Padukone’s pitch-perfect embodiment of the ice-goddess object of Karthik’s geeky affections. Lalwani is not a showy filmmaker. Like the siblings Farhan and Zoya Akhtar, he achieves his emotional effects by observing from a discreet distance – the first time we sense Karthik and Shonali are in love is not through express demonstrations but rather through the camera that rises up behind them and lingers on the golden sunset in front. The mood sets up the meaning.
And yet, you know things aren’t quite right, thanks to the low-key dread conjured up right from the opening credits, over Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s appropriately alienated score – layers upon layers of eerily disorienting machine-music. And sure enough, the placid surfaces of the story begin to ripple with quasi-existential urban nightmares, reminiscent of No Smoking. (There’s an offhand moment, early on, where Shonali lights up in her office while ignoring a sign that clearly states there’s no smoking allowed, and I wonder if that’s some sort of nod to Anurag Kashyap’s now-notorious trawl through Kafka-land.) The voice at the other end takes possessive control over Karthik – who becomes increasingly addicted to this form of self-help, delivered, seemingly, through his own self; after all, it beats listening to his brutally practical shrink (whom Shefali Shah imbues with a characteristic blend of softness and steel) – and the film crawls into a fascinating zone that’s both disarming and disturbing. Karthik’s situation leaves you at once charmed and creeped-out.
The final stretch, though, is underwhelming. The subdued scenario called for a more abstract resolution, and the big reveal is too literal. While it isn’t difficult to understand the commercial logic behind the overly explanatory deconstruction of the mysterious goings-on – who, really, wants another befuddling bomb like No Smoking on their hands? – it’s hard to shake off the sense of dismay that this is all there is to it. Lalwani is too classy a filmmaker to stoop to simplistic Freudian fixes (despite hints at a childhood trauma) and schlocky gotcha! effects – even when Karthik awakens from a sweaty nightmare, he merely opens his eyes; there’s no sitting up with a jolt to the accompaniment of soundtrack hysteria – so we’re denied the thrills that would normally accompany such a premise. It’s easier, therefore, to view Karthik Calling Karthik as a love story between two damaged souls – she’s been in too many bad relationships; he’s been in none – in an age where we’re all slave to too much technology. How are our lives impacted by the remote control studded with endless rows of buttons when all we need is the power-on and mute and channel up/down? That’s the question that may hover in a thought bubble over your head while walking out of this absorbing anti-thriller.
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