Bullet-point Report: “Shaitan”

Posted on June 23, 2011


  • Good movie, but bad title. Shaitan! At least to my mind that promises one of two things, a pulpy schlockiness tending towards Ramsay horror or a drama about the evolution of one’s inner Gabbar Singh. This is neither, and that tagline about unleashing your inner shaitan makes no sense.
  • My heart sank, early on, when the camera started doing those 180-degree loop-de-loops. Oh no, not another young filmmaker in love with the latest and the greatest in technology! But then, we see that this helter-skelter style is in sync with kids who are running amok, and that once the cops and other normal people come into the picture, the camera isn’t as interested in acrobatics anymore. This, then, is a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing…
  • … Even if, at times, the sheer high of making a film seems to have gotten the better of him. What, for instance, was the need for the subjective-camera tracking shot as a man is pushed off the first floor? Why not introduce us to the man who does the pushing? And that “Flashback Mein Flashback” (which, I admit, is unbelievably funny, especially that needle vacillating between Acting and Overacting) in the middle of a serious crisis? Really?
  • Speaking of very funny, this is a film with a great sense of humour. Yes, a lot of it, like the one about Kala Khatta-flavoured condoms or a completely hilarious riff on a Yash Chopra song, is outrageous in an audience-pandering way. As in, come to my movie and I’ll titillate you with things you won’t find elsewhere. But you know the sense of humour is genuine when it seeps into even the ultra-rooted situations. My favourite: the tone of the divorce lawyer, speeding through reams of formalities as if racing through a laundry list with the dhobi when you hear, from the kitchen, the pressure cooker’s third whistle.
  • For some reason, as the aimlessness of privileged youngsters came to be the narrative mainstay of the early portions, I thought of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. I wish someone would make that movie, without the sex of course. We, in India, don’t have sex at all, as our Censor Board will have you know.
  • The relationship between Rajeev Khandelwal and his wife, I felt, was the best part of the film. And she doesn’t say a word. Their scene at the doorstep, the contentious Van Gogh by her feet as she leans on his shoulder – that was a powerfully emotional moment in a film that doesn’t easily wear its emotions on its sleeve.
  • Speaking of painters and visions of night, here’s an Indian equivalent: the most beautiful frame of the film, for me, was when Rajeev Khandelwal sinks into the steps across the road from Dolly Wines. Between them and beyond, there’s only darkness.
  • And speaking of wearing emotions on sleeves, here’s another beautiful moment. The stepmother of a missing girl is asked by the police if there were any family problems. Her irritated response: “Kaun se family mein problems nahin hote?”
  • How nice to hear someone say arse. There’s a vital vulgarity about the word – the rumbling r, the sibilant s, already offering a hint of the bodily functions associated with the part – that’s completely absent in the effetely Americanised ass. Since when did we start saying ass? Bloody McDonaldisation!
  • I’m not sure about the arty Kalki bits. The other four “gang members” are introduced to us quite normally, even with a bit of empathy. A girl forced by a sister into doing things she doesn’t want to do (which tells us that she’s a follower, and even in the gang, she does little but “follow”). A self-obsessed boy jerking off to a videogame (who could also be a metaphor for a young filmmaker getting off on his own look-how-cool-this-shot-is technology). A soul-dead man whipping himself with his belt opposite one of those roadside self-flaggelators. The boy who doesn’t fit in and therefore mocks others at a function as they try to fit in. And in contrast, Kalki’s lost-little-girl is defined through gauzy artiness, as if the choreographer of a ballet were making a suicide video. You could, I suppose, read a layer (or three) into this, that these otherwordly visuals are one of a piece with a mother from the other world refusing to let go of her daughter, or some such thing – but somehow it doesn’t stick.
  • I thought Kalki’s character was far better defined when she asks a friend about his girlfriend and he says, “Mar gayi,” and she, instead of taking a second to absorb this shocking revelation, shoots backs instantly with a slow-spreading grin, “Tumne maara?” This, you see, is a girl who wouldn’t hesitate to do to her loving father what she ends up doing to him.
  • “Video games khelte khelte main apne saath bhi khelta hoon.” Thinking in English, writing in Hindi? Does the phrase “playing with oneself” work in Hindi too?
  • Usually, in noir-inflected films like these, we see characters who start off at an arm’s length and then begin to gnaw away at our hearts, as we discover motives and extenuating circumstances. The best thing about Shaitan is its staunch refusal to make its quintet cuddly-wuddly. (Oh look, my mama and my papa never cared for me, and that is why I’m reduced to a feeling-free zombie clicking mobile-phone pictures of household servants wrongly accused and beaten up for stealing jewellery.) We begin having fun with these five, but they soon turn out to be obnoxious jerks, and we can’t wait for them to get caught.
  • But I did feel for the guy who was slapped by the corrupt cop. Stung by this unexpected humiliation, he shrugs off a friend’s consoling hand, eyes brimming with tears. Yes, sometimes you can be made to feel for an obnoxious jerk.
  • I’m not a fan of remixes in general, but the Khoya khoya chand redo here is a beauty, revisionist on the surface and yet reverential towards the original creation, and the sequence it underscores – the slo-mo cross-cutting between a fight and a flight – is a tour de force, one of the most exciting pieces of cinema I’ve seen in a long time. A close second is the second great chase, set against a second song.
  • After the accident, after which you could say Shaitan begins to vaguely resemble an existential riff on I Know What You Did Last Summer, the film turns somewhat conventional. Now you know where the story is headed. Earlier, you didn’t, and there was an exhilaration in that. What does it say of brash young filmmakers when even they realise they have a gooey moral centre in the midst of their nipple-ringed and tattooed beings? In the latter portions, after witnessing breakdown after breakdown, you almost feel you’re watching a finger-wagging PSA on what living like this can do to the people around you who love you so much.
  • I hope the couples who brought their little children along were able to sleep at night.

Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.