It’s easy to fall for Naseeruddin Shah’s performance in Ahishor Solomon’s John Day. He plays the eponymous common man, an everyman (no accident that his name sounds like John Doe). It’s the kind of part we identify with and root for at once, and our sympathies are abetted by Shah’s looks. He’s jowly. A little paunchy. He looks like the frumpy bank employee he plays. He’s us. Randeep Hooda, on the other hand, looks like a rakish movie star. He’s young, fit. He has to work harder to make us care for him, especially given that he’s playing a bad cop (named Gautam). He walks away with the movie. It probably helps that, unlike Shah, he’s still at a stage of his career when a performance from him can surprise us. Just watch his cocky demeanour crumple when he learns that the man he’s interrogating is a child molester – sadness falls on his face like a cloud covering the sun. Even the smaller things he does beautifully, like the feral look he throws at a man he may be about to kill.
It’s rare enough that we get two excellent performances in the same movie – but John Day has a third. Vipin Sharma plays Shinde, a cop who got into the line because he saw Zanjeer as a kid. He wanted to be an honest policeman, he tells Gautam, but somewhere along the way, without realising it, he turned corrupt. The revelation isn’t sentimental – it’s matter-of-fact. All these years later, Shinde is not going to get teary-eyed about things that cannot be undone, and it’s right that Sharma holds back. And when he attempts a double cross, he makes us laugh. The audacity of the situation and the eventual hopelessness are so tragic that the only response is to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all.
The actors make John Day worthwhile. The film is reportedly ripped off from the Spanish thriller Box 507, but from the looks of it, that was, in turn, inspired by the convolutions of Chinatown. Like the latter, we have here a crooked real-estate deal that morphs into a deadly affair, and this film too could probably benefit from a second viewing, where, knowing the plot, we can see how everything comes together. Then there’s Tabassum (Elena Kazan), who’s as much damaged goods as the Faye Dunaway character (though she also brings to mind Parveen Babi in Deewaar). John Day travels a well-trodden path, but the mood is tense, ominous. The director knows how to build and sustain atmosphere. A chase involving lots of shadows and set to Silent Night – it’s Christmas-time – is beautifully done. We’re constantly invested in what happens next.
The problem arises when John Day turns vigilante. Shah is good enough an actor to make us see that his hand shakes when he fires a gun, or that he’s winded after a long chase, but it’s a little hard to swallow this ordinary man, a senior citizen, overcoming a number of thugs almost single-handedly, with just a smattering of help from well-connected people. The director wants us to see that there’s as much Gautam in John Day as there is John Day in Gautam – he keeps paralleling their lives; for instance, a tender scene between John Day and his wife (Shernaz Patel) follows one between Gautam and his girlfriend Tabassum – but it’s far easier to accept the human aspects of Gautam than the animalistic facets of John Day. We can see Gautam knee-deep in brutalities, but when John Day does something similar (and bloody) it looks far-fetched and silly.
This violence is to put out the point that man is the most dangerous animal, and there are other philosophies at play, most of them espoused by the gangster played by Sharat Saxena. He’s as touched by tragedy as John Day is, as Gautam is, as Tabassum is – and these swirling undercurrents add resonances to a story that, on the surface, is just a crime drama, a police procedural enacted by an ordinary man. There’s a lot of sadness in this film. Not the superficial kind, where we see actors weep, but the kind that suggests deep wounds left behind by life. The story is set in motion by events surrounding John Day’s daughter, and she seems a normal, well-adjusted kid who adores her father, but later – almost casually – we’re made aware of the dysfunction in this relationship, and it’s hard not to think the about inadvertent cruelties parents inflict on children. That’s harder to take, sometimes, than outright bloodletting.
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