“Andhadhun”… Despite questionable second-half detours, Sriram Raghavan’s new film is a most entertaining ride

Posted on October 10, 2018


Spoilers ahead…

Sriram Raghavan’s new movie wastes very little time in letting you know it’s a… Sriram Raghavan movie. A rabbit bounces across the screen. A hunter with a shotgun gives chase. An overhead shot shows what looks like a cabbage patch, but also seems like a maze. Shots are fired. And we cut to the title, in blood red: ANDHADHUN. The pulp vitality of this stretch can erupt only from this filmmaker — but before getting into the film that logically follows this episode about the hunted and the hunter, let’s look at the other Sriram Raghavan film here, the parallel narrative this director gives us in his lighter work like Agent Vinod. (Yes, this film, too, is definitely a lighter work.) Andhadhun opens with a dedication to Chhayageet and Chitrahaar, but where another nostalgic filmmaker would have stopped there, Sriram gives us the year these programmes began to air and the year they went off the air. It looks like an obit notice a fond son would publish in the papers, every year. This deep-rooted fondness — as opposed to, say, Farah Khan’s merely affectionate winking — is what sets this filmmaker apart.

For instance, in the role of a yesteryear star, we get a yesteryear star. Anil Dhawan, the hero of films like Chetna and Darwaza, plays Pramod Sinha. (I hope you’ve seen the spoiler alert above? Yes? Good.) When he discovers that his wife — Simi (played by Tabu, and perhaps named after Simi Garewal, who played the femme fatale in Karz) – is having an affair, the song we hear is Yeh jo mohabbat hai. And when Pramod Sinha dies, we hear Yeh jeevan hai during his prayer meet. Yeh jo mohabbat hai is a dejected man’s song about the negation of love (which fits Pramod Kumar’s situation exactly), and Yeh jeevan hai — a musing on life, from Anil Dhawan’s Piya Ka Ghar — plays after the Anil Dhawan character’s (in this movie) death. These are extraordinary choices that form a meta-narrative of sorts, a parallel “story” if you will, shaped from our Hindi-film memories. Or take Mud mud ke na dekh, which is found inscribed on the back of an auto-rickshaw. It’s a song about looking, and Andhadhun is the story of a man who cannot see (Akash, played by Ayushmann Khurrana). It’s also a song from Shri 420, a title that would sit perfectly on Akash.

There are more casual associations, too, of the Farah Khan flavour: like Akash’s echo of a line spoken by the blind Imam of Sholay (“Itna sannata kyon hai, bhai!”), or Simi being called Lady Macbeth (the character Tabu played in Maqbool). This ensures constant entertainment. When the main narrative flags, there’s always something else to… see. From non-Indian cinema, too. At the end, the name of Akash’s band is an homage to Charles Aznavour, who played the pianist in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. A cop’s wife who makes experimental (and bad-tasting food) may be a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy. A sustained set piece where Akash plays the piano as signs of a murder are being wiped out is pure Hitchcock. Think of the first robbery in Marnie, with the wide screen split by the panelling in the office. Here, the split is horizontal, due to the angle of the piano’s housing and its lid.

I would gladly pay to sit through an entire meta-narrative made by Sriram Raghavan, but we must return to the main story, so here it is: Akash becomes friends with Sophie (Radhika Apte), and finds a job playing the piano at her father’s restaurant. The Anglo-Indian vibe here may also be a throwback, as are the Amit Trivedi tunes, harking back to an era when no self-respecting leading man would sign a film unless he got a piano solo. At the restaurant, Akash meets Pramod, who invites him to play at his home and… le shit hits le fan. This far, the material hews close to L’Accordeur, Oliver Trennier’s French short film from 2010, and it’s right up Sriram Raghavan’s alley. He makes us squirm with tension and squeal with delight, beginning with one of the most monumental acts of rug-pulling I’ve experienced in a movie. We see a black glasses-wearing Akash at the temple, being mistaken for a beggar. We hear lines, about the advantages of being blind. (Better focus, apparently.) And bam! It happens. It’s the kind of twist you expect in the last few minutes of a thriller, and it made me wonder where Andhadhun would go from there.

The brilliant script (Sriram Raghavan, Arijit Biswas, Yogesh Chandekar, Hemanth Rao, and Pooja Ladha Surti, who’s also the editor) keeps toying with us. After all the “he’s back” interviews, you expect Anil Dhawan to play a major role. But what happens to his character is what happens to the Janet Leigh character in Psycho. The screen time is… slashed. It’s sheer perversity! I thought the video recorded by a boy who lives in Akash’s building would end up helping Akash, but its fate made me belly-laugh like I haven’t in a while. A stretch with Simi’s lover – a burly cop named Manohar (Manav Vij) — in Akash’s apartment, and a subsequent stretch where Simi herself is in Akash’s apartment: it’s like dark chocolate laced with arsenic. I only wished KU Mohanan, the cinematographer, had cut loose a little, shown off a little more. He opts for clean competence. This is the kind of movie where showboating would be a virtue.

But after the pure genre pleasures of the first half, the post-interval portions veer into absurd black comedy. Instead of developing characters from earlier (the neighbour boy, Pramod’s daughter who prefers to call Simi “Aunty”, or even Sophie), we move to a mix of minor characters who turn into major players. A tongue-in-cheek statement at the film’s start goes, “What is life? It depends on the liver!” But it’s a kidney-harvesting racket that Andhadhun lands on. We lose some of the blistering momentum. The ending is clever — very clever — but I admired it more than I liked it. Looking back, I think I enjoy Sriram Raghavan’s “serious” films more. Ek Hasina Thi. Badlapur. Johnny Gaddar. These may not have as much of the filmic meta-narrative that Andhadhun and Agent Vinod have, but there’s a writerly integrity that takes the plot through from start to finish. The jokes fit. And we care about the characters.

Of course, we aren’t meant to care about anyone in Andhadhun, and the second half’s cartoon mayhem is both a plus and a minus. It undermines the first half, but is outrageous on its own terms. The few missteps include the death of a small-time criminal, which is painted in existential shades that clash with the gaudy pop sensibility around. But the actors are in fine form. Zakir Hussain and Ashwini Kalsekar play hysteria beautifully, dialling it up and down in turns. Anil Dhawan retains the dopiness from his heydays; his earnestness is still charming. It’s fun to see Radhika Apte in a role where she isn’t asked to carry the weight of womanhood. But Andhadhun, finally belongs to Tabu and Ayushmann Khurrana. She’s sensationally cool, he’s twitchy as a tadpole on a stove — their deadly duet is one for the ages.

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