By: Subhash K. Jha, IndiaFM
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Some films exude a cultivated cool. Others are born with it. Sriram Raghvan's second far more accomplished, film belongs to the category of naturally cool.
Simmering with an urbane discontent and exerting an anxious but never deliberate debate on the power of money to dominate morality, Johnny Gaddaar is a homage to many things. It's a tribute to R. K. Narayan (in her opening sequence Rimi Sen is caught reading Narayan's Guide), James Hadley Chase, Jyoti Swaroop's Parwana, Vijay Anand's Johnny Mera Naam, Sooraj Barjatya, and Ram Gopal Varma. You name hit!
And by the way Johnny Gaddaar is also a homage to Bimal Roy, Gulzar and Lata Mangeshkar. Dharmendra's dead wife sings Mora gora ang from Roy's Bandini on the tape even as life oozes out of his kind soul.
Blood finds its own level in an austere pool of tears in this relentlessly rigorous take on the wages of crime and the evil men do to their conscience for the sake of money. Hamletian in tone and utterly liberated from the artifice that often underlines noire films from Bollywood, Johnny Gaddaar is a feast of febrile fury harnessed to cleverly admit a kind of harsh light that falls on the soul under acquisitive pressure.
It's also a cunningly noire-ish homage to some of the most sizzling film songs of the 1970s including Rama rama ghazab hui gawa re (Jugnu) and Bachke kahan jaoge (Yakeen) all remixed by Vishal-Shekhar with sly synergy to denote the power of music as a purveyor of a cinematic liberation that comes naturally to a creator who isn't anxious about the box-office.
Sometimes a film goes way beyond its prescribed genre in search of a kind of cinematic nirvana that is as tough to achieve as it is for the audience to accept. Sriram Raghavan's tutorship in the Ram Gopal Varma school of filmmaking has served him well. He does away with all the surface humbug of the noire genre, and comes up with a work that's original in thought, super-original in execution and always a step ahead of the audiences' expectations.
As the masters of the noire-gangster genre like Quentin Tarantino and Coen Brothers have shown, visual appeal is as vital to the life and breadth of such films as the intricate plot manoeuverings that create the perfect synthesis of suspense and nemesis.
Sriram makes surprisingly sparse use of technical panache. Less is always more for this gloriously articulate filmmaker whose appetite for detailing is immense. Watch the sequence in the train just before Daya Shetty is murdered. The old lady sharing the compartment with the man who's about to die lends a crucial character-credence to the plot.
Yup, Hitchcock would approve. Though I'm not too sure of Ram Gopal Varma. The contours of the narration are flexible yet firm, as a young gangster Vikram (debutant Neil Mukesh Mathur) tries to break from a life of crime…but only one after one hectic hurrah of carefully-planned betrayal that leaves Vikram's guru (Dharmendra, sincere but getting the timing wrong) dead on the floor and his conscience writhing uneasily on the dance floor.
Neil Mukesh plays the amoral Romeo with icy steadfastness, going from betrayal to betrayal, his eyes not giving away anything. It's a brave and thoroughly unconventional debut for this engaging actor. Young Mukesh sinks his teeth into the complex character with the focused intensity of a spiritually secure carnivore.
The rest of the performances range from the extraordinary to the exceptional. Vinay Pathak's dexterity with the cards in the gambling scenes are matched by Zakir Hussain's power to create dilemma out of treachery. And falling quite comfortably in the extraordinary category is Ashwini Kalsekar as Vinay Pathak's wife. Though the character derives inspiration from Shefali Shah in Ram Gopal Varma's Satya, Kaswekar gives it her own interpretation.
Watch her closely when she tells her husband's murderer (not knowing it's he whodunit), "What will I tell Chikoo(their daughter) when I go home?"
The emotions are kept at a low premium. But when they occur they remind us of how far materialism has taken the humanism in the race to mortality. Johnny Gaddar isn"t outstanding in the context of how far it takes the gangster-noire genre. But in narrating the underbelly of betrayal in a language that's calm controlled and constantly compelling, Sriram Raghavan work is next to none.
Quite simply –or not so simply-- one of the most gripping tales of crime and retribution, Johnny Gaddaar, calls the bluff of Bluff Master and all the other recent 'cool' hip-hop crime-time capers that have hit Bollywood.