“Table No.21.”… Reality bites

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.

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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.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

14 thoughts on ““Table No.21.”… Reality bites

  1. hehehe..and to think that this iss the first review of yours I am reading this year..well here’s to a devilish year!-By the way,how was the bengaluru experience.Lots of films to see-keep writing gods bless


  2. Quite a few other reviewers were of the opinion that the first few questions and tasks were rather boring and it’s only towards the end that the film packs whatever punch it does. I didn’t think so. I thought the buildup in terms of task unacceptability for the contestants and closeness to the unsavoury aspects of their life was pretty decent. What did you think?


  3. Eh, Panic Button 2011 anyone? A much better take on social media and social commentary methinks. But yes, this table wasn’t entirely bare…


  4. Nikhil R: I’ll put it this way. In the earlier parts, I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t terribly engaged either. Some of the flashbacks seemed quite lame, like the one where he slaps her. It was an emotionally charged moment for him, and she didn’t consult with him about what is surely a pretty major decision, so I felt his anger wasn’t unwarranted. (And we never get to see a later scene where he apologised and they made up, because they seem to have gotten over that incident now). It’s only towards the end that I felt something major was happening.

    Any idea how Khan knew so much about them? I wonder if I missed something…

    Shantesh Row: OMG, I read the plot outline on Wiki it was the exact same thing, except that there seemed to be more people there…


  5. BR, well the plotline of T21 seems heavily inspired by Panic Button. May be a coincidence, but IMHO doesn’t seem like it. A lot of people have felt that T21 is ‘fresh and original’. But having seen the 2011 film, and regardless of the fact that it had more characters and a different geography, I feel a slight sense of plaigiarism.


  6. I remember seeing a korean film called ‘a million’. Its about a game show posted on anyoutube like website. This movie was released in 2009.


  7. When I saw the trailer I figured it was a remake of something. When do our filmmakers make films with clever premises like this that AREN’T remakes???


  8. @brangan: I think the girl along with the Ahmad guy during the college must have told Khan about the way he was treated by Vivaan and co.


  9. hmm.. that we can only guess, as I don’t remember anything about that hinted in the movie… a decade of surveillance by Khan maybe…


    IMHO, it’s difficult to believe that Khan would have made the girl tell him abt the cruelties meted out. Surely, a grief-stricken father and a traumatized friend would not be bonding over the troubles of the person in common that they care about so much. So while Khan’s knowledge about the intimate details of Vivaan and Zia’s personal lives is a deeper mystery, his detailed knowledge of what his son had to go through is also puzzling to me.


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