“Blackmail”… Wicked, well-acted, well-made, but something gets lost along the way

Posted on April 17, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

A lot of us assumed that the writer Akshat Verma was responsible for the scatalogical strains in Delhi Belly — especially given that Verma’s directorial debut, Kaalakaandi, was filled with similar obsessions. But the Delhi Belly director, Abhinay Deo, appears to be similarly inclined. Dev (Irrfan Khan), the protagonist of Deo’s new film, Blackmail, works in a company that manufactures toilet paper. The brand name is My Handy, which could also describe what Dev does in the office bathroom, looking at pictures of his colleagues’ wives. (A dripping tap doubles as a phallic symbol.) More than a few scenes feature men in their underwear, and at one point, a security guard is asked to drop his pants and show his underwear. If Deo made a Disney movie, it’d be titled The Loin King.

I mean this as something of a compliment. So many multiplex films, these days, are so tasteful that it’s nice to watch a story where a man (Dev) steals flowers from a graveyard to give to his wife (Reena, played by Kirti Kulhari). If only he knew his marriage was six feet under too. Reena is having an affair with a married man named Ranjit (the beefy Arunoday Singh, who looks like an advertisement for a protein shake), whose domineering wife, the alcoholic Dolly (Divya Dutta), calls him Tommy and treats him like a canine. This is a movie where there are no good people. Dev is the nicest guy of the bunch, and even he ends up coolly betraying a friend. But don’t feel too sad. This friend thought that date rape was a perfectly acceptable way to sleep with someone.

Beneath the jet-black humour lies a domestic drama. Reena and Dev fell into an arranged marriage, and never figured out a way to make it work. So she spends time with Ranjit, while he plays video games at the office, late into the evening. “Dikhne main kaisa hai?” Ranjit asks Reena. (How does he look?) “Husband jaisa,” she says. (Like a husband.) Dev is that generic. But leave it to Irrfan Khan to imbue this generic man with such specificity. From the little ritual of tossing his tie around his neck, like a shawl, while masturbating (his deadpan face is hilarious; he could be typing out a sales report), or the way he freezes upon discovering Reena’s infidelity, and slowly steps out of his own house, carefully picking up his coat from the chair he’s draped it on — it’s a masterful study of a small man, rendered in miniature. Soon may he return to our screens.

The plot kicks in when Dev begins to blackmail Ranjit, and this kick-starts a circle of deceit — with practically everyone ending up both the blackmailer and the blackmailed. I’d call Blackmail a noir comedy. (It sounds like an offbeat genre; Amit Trivedi contributes an appropriately offbeat score.) The writing (Parveez Sheikh) is fiendishly clever. I practically gurgled with pleasure at how a water shutdown plays a part in Ranjit’s fall. I laughed at Dev’s manager’s (Omi Vaidya, who still seems to be playing Chatur from 3 Idiots) attempts to market toilet paper. (The word “cheeks”, unsurprisingly, gets to be the butt of a joke.) And the tension keeps building. I was really invested in how Dev would worm his way out of this mess.

But something gets lost from page to screen. Blackmail sounds way more fun than how it plays out. “Ranjit goes to meet a (cheap) private detective, who happens to be at a funeral, where everyone is dressed in white. But Ranjit is in a bright red tracksuit….” I might have laughed reading the screenplay, but the joke doesn’t explode on screen. Or take the blind seller of guns used by Bachchan in his films — I felt I should be laughing but I wasn’t. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The writing is good. The making is good. The performances are good. And yet… Maybe the combination of noose-tightening tension and nose-picking comedy — with an Urmila Matondkar item number thrown in for good measure — is an odd mix?

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi