If you’re one of the four others on the planet who liked Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, you should check out Shaad Ali’s follow-up Kill/Dil – not because of the film itself (it’s pretty much a disaster), but because of the film’s style, which basically does for the gangster movie what JBJ did to the romantic comedy. Allow me to reproduce a few lines from my JBJ review: The bold, brassy pitch that Ali maintained throughout Bunty Aur Babli is cranked up a couple of notches here, and it’s layered onto so many instances of self-referencing (and, yes, self-indulgence) that you’re no longer sure if you’re watching a film or winking at it or watching a film winking at itself… It isn’t just that Ali is unashamed of the whole song-and-dance routine; it’s that he positively revels in the glorious absurdities of the musical genre… What we’re seeing in these films is the Bollywood format taken to its most logical end: surrealism. All of this applies to Kill/Dil too, and as a purely academic exercise, the film is fascinating.
Why, then, did JBJ soar (at least for the five of us), while Kill/Dil stays steadfastly earthbound? I think it’s the genre. I think it’s easier to make a meta- musical out of a romance, where we really don’t expect all that much to happen, than from a masala-template gangster movie (Ranveer Singh and Ali Zafar play two hit men named Dev and Tutu), where we expect strong emotional beats if we are to invest in whatever’s happening. And Ali’s po-mo technique of disregarding the narrative in favour of the various “bits” he cooks up – the characters are, to the last one, abstractions – backfires badly. Take Disha (Parineeti Chopra; as her screen name suggests, she sets Dev in the right, you know, direction). It’s the kind of preposterous role Sonakshi Sinha would be called upon to play. Disha is a millionairess who rehabilitates criminals, but that’s tossed off in a line of dialogue and a scene with a “common man.” (Translation: the kind of weather-lined chap you wouldn’t expect to find in this kind of Yash Raj production.) Elsewhere, she’s seen in clubs, she drives a bike, she drinks, she swims, she flirts lazily with Dev… Nothing says that Disha should roam around in a khadi sari, given the kind of work she does. But absurdity is a toughie. Do it right, and it becomes a narrative technique. Otherwise, it’s just… absurd.
Or take Bhaiyaji (Govinda). The casting sounds fun, and the man still dances like a dream. But the character is the human equivalent of the (intentionally generic) props in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy adaptation (which was pretty faithful to the comic strip), where the daily paper is called… Daily Paper and the label on a bottle of ketchup says… Ketchup. Bhaiyaji could have been called Bad Man and it would have made no difference. Like everything (and everyone) in the film, he’s a stylised abstraction. (Govinda tries, and he’s fun to watch, but he has nothing to play.) But I did like the scene where he meets his end, at the hands of a character we’ve met just a minute earlier, and whom we know nothing about, other than the fact that he is another… Bad Man. It’s fitting that one abstraction is wiped out by another.
It’s a pity Ali doesn’t go all the way with this conceit. (I’m hoping it’s a conceit, and not just rotten writing.) Because we cannot have an “Indian movie” without emotion, the film, around the midway point, addresses the bifurcation in its title – the intermission is really the forward slash in the middle. Hereon, “kill” gives way to “dil”, and Dev begins to follow his heart – this killer wants to go straight, and from taking lives he begins to work in the business of… life insurance. And had this path been pursued with some conviction, the film might have still clicked, if in a half-cocked way. It would have been a film with a split personality, a cartoony action-musical in the first half and a relatively “real” romantic musical in the second. But that wouldn’t be cool – and cool is something Kill/Dil wants to be above all else. Conventional romantic scenes – one atop the Qutab Minar; another one at a roadside dhaba – wilt in this arch atmosphere. Gunday, which this film keeps reminding us of, took the masala route and pulled no punches, and so we were enveloped by all that noise and colour. Imagine the same kind of story accommodating a scene where a character digs out a gun he’s buried in the earth as Gulzar keeps reciting verses in the background. The difference, of course, is that Ali likes to push his films past the fourth wall (when Dev asks Tutu to relax, he sings chill, chill, to the tune of the title song), but this time, the approach defeats the material, which isn’t strong enough or fresh enough to withstand this treatment.
The leads don’t work at all. They seem to be amusing themselves. They seem to be having a good time on screen. But they don’t radiate this enjoyment to us. Ranveer Singh tries too hard. As he showed us with his marvellous “performance” in Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-Leela, he’s one of the few young actors today who can slip into a heightened zone of role-playing, but all he ends up doing here is mugging. (He’s made to enact tired routines like the one where he faces a stern interview panel and tries to manage with his pidgin English.) And Zafar cannot hide his basic affability – he swaggers so hard, it’s painful to watch. It’s like watching Sachin attempt to play Gabbar Singh.
Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music – the songs, but also the background score, which is part RD Burman, part Spaghetti Western – is the film’s only unqualified success. But the choreography doesn’t keep up. There’s none of the verve we saw in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Only Daiya maiya shows some invention, with a morose Dev, after failing to land a job, being cheered up by a happy Dev (a surreal second avatar) and Tutu – and the tables are turned in the repeat of the song, after Dev gets a job; now, sad Dev turns into happy Dev and turns on the other two. As for Sweeta, it’s the song that winks at us the most. It starts with Dev announcing the names of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Gulzar, like on the radio. It’s fun, but it’s hard not to recall that the same technique was used all the way back in 1978, in the Tamil film Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu.
At every point, you keep wanting Kill/Dil to be so much more – but this isn’t a lazy failure. If anything, Ali tries to do too much. Some of the dialogue is so tangy you can taste it. (“Poore sau gram ke garam goli daale hain body mein.”) And even the de rigueur Bollywood referencing is meticulous, miles removed from Farah Khan’s hefty nudges in the rib; few, if any, must have spent so much mental energy over a Nirupa Roy gag. She’s the founder of the company Dev works for, the one that sells life insurance (her picture hangs on a wall), and her Bollywood avatar stands for maternal love, aka mamta, and the slogan of the company is rahe na rahe hum, which is, of course, a song from a film named… Mamta. The film’s tragedy is that Ali works up such a sweat and ends up nowhere.
* Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu = see the beginning of this marvellous song
* Poore sau gram ke garam goli daale hain body meins = I’ve pumped a hundred grams of hot lead in him.
* rahe na rahe hum = see here
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