Vivaan (Rajeev Khandelwal) and Siya (Tena Desae) aren’t really poor, in the sense that you could make some kind of 1980s parallel cinema out of their lives, but they aren’t rich either. On a flight to Fiji – all expenses paid, the result of a lucky draw – Siya delights in raising and lowering the backrest of her seat, to the embarrassment of her husband, who says it’s not like they haven’t flown before. She agrees, but then points out that they’re never flown business class before. Vivaan and Siya are like many of us who don’t lack in life’s comforts, but always have a corner of the eye on a bigger flat, a better car, a bulkier bank balance. They are, in other words, just the kind of people who’d be tempted to participate in a reality-TV-type game show that’s broadcast over the Internet to eight million viewers and assures its winner 10 million Fijian dollars.
Aditya Datt’s Table No.21 appears, at first, a comment on middle-class people who want an upgrade to a business-class life. The game show consists of tasks where, for instance, Vivaan has to kiss his wife in public – and he’s not someone who’s comfortable being affectionate outside of home. What would we do for (apparently) easy money? Vivaan, of course, kisses Siya in the middle of a street – he’s just lost his job, after all. But even without that rider, he’d have probably done this, like the many others who do things they wouldn’t usually do in full view of the public, on reality shows on TV or on YouTube videos. In a sense, these undertakings are more revelatory than porn, because these are people who live around us – they are like us. And looking at them baring themselves before an audience of millions, we have to wonder if, given this kind of opportunity, this kind of money, we wouldn’t do the same.
But as the film unravels, this superficially satirical tone gives way to a horror show, as Vivaan and Siya find themselves in the grip of a host who, in his purple shirts and with a crescent-like slash of hair bisecting a bald head, looks like the villain from another era of Hindi cinema. (There’s even a henchman, a bearded man who doesn’t utter a word.) He calls himself Khan (and he’s played by Paresh Rawal), and he is something of a villain, the devil even, for this story is just the latest variation on the Faustian bargain. I was reminded of Indecent Proposal, where a similar middle-class couple was tempted by an offer of riches if the wife would spend a night with a millionaire. Strike a deal with the devil, and your life becomes hell. Soon, Vivaan is being asked to extract blood from his body – he’s squeamish about it, naturally – and Siya is instructed to shave off her hair. This is clearly not how they expected to spend their fifth wedding anniversary.
The surprise in Table No.21 is in how it, as it goes along, changes the way we feel about Vivaan and Siya and Khan. As drama, the film isn’t very good – we don’t care too much about the couple, and when the noose tightens, we aren’t all that invested in their survival. Datt keeps cutting between scenes of the game show and scenes from the lives of Vivaan and Siya – how they met, what they fought about – but these flashbacks are dull, their content too convenient. It’s as a rug-pulling stunt that the film scores, especially towards the end, as a series of revelations turns the tables on both actors and audience. (Who knew this kind of movie could contain a message?) Datt doesn’t convince us that this plot had to be played out through a game show or that Khan had to be such a character, and we’re left wondering how he knows so much about the contestants – but it isn’t everyday that you get a B-movie that makes a convincing case for karma.
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