Can we anoint him the nawab of noir? After making Andhadhun, destined to be a cult classic for the discerning and perhaps the hit of the year with audiences, Sriram Raghavan has to be counted among the best of our directors. And that too, consistently, taking on a challenging genre like a noir thriller. I don’t particularly like the term neo-noir, because it will always be a reinvention of classic Hollywood noir which was for a particular time and ethos but bequeathed an aesthetic and grammar for later converts (coming from different filmmaking traditions) to adapt and make it their own. Sriram Raghavan has done it with an originality that is not show-offy and a casual panache that is almost audacious.

Along with Badlapur, Ek Haseena Thi and Johnny Gaddar, Andhadhun establishes Raghavan as an auteur with a signature style. Sometimes we take too long to recognize a distinctive voice and vision and wait for a big body of work to confer this status. ‘Quartet’ sits nicely on Raghavan, considering how integral music is to the plot and narrative of Andhadhun, a noir thriller recast for our times, where the auteur makes the genre his own with unexpected playfulness but without sacrificing its underlying serious intent. Deceit, betrayal and revenge are the themes that he explores in all his films, and brings variations on the recurring preoccupation with the artfulness of a serious cineaste who pays tribute to his chosen favourites, in ways that are easy to access, and also plays the spot-the-reference game. He turns the genre requirements on their head, so to speak. It is not a whodunit because we know who and how they did it. What engages and enthralls us is how the crime sets off a chain reaction that is unforeseen in small and big ways but hugely affects everyone concerned. He serves up deliciously wicked fare with dollops of wry humour, as the narrative shifts gears from unwitting witness to murder, to macabre organ harvesting cabal, to an almost – road – movie that connects with the beginning (it seems totally unconnected with what follows) with a neat flourish.

It’s yet another stylistic signature of the masterly storyteller who makes his latest film twist and turn (and yet there is an underlying fluidity) in the second half after the tightly controlled opening coda. It is a highly skilled art to make a well-plotted story veer off from a predictable structure to follow the unpredictability of human behaviour and of life itself. To conceal the skeleton of the plot with spontaneity is not easy. He weaves life’s random fickleness into the karmic inevitability of the crime – and – punishment theme with seamless ease. Andhadhun showcases Raghavan’s confidence in his own craft, of not conforming to genre norms. Unlike some Bollywood worthies who will not acknowledge source/ inspiration (call it by any name but blatant borrowing is intellectual theft), Raghavan credits the short French film L’Accordeur or The Piano Tuner (2010) by Olivier Treiner as the basis of a musician pretending to be blind to serve his own purposes. In the original, the pianist fails to win a prize and affects blindness.

It’s yet another stylistic signature of the masterly storyteller who makes his latest film twist and turn in the second half after the tightly controlled opening coda.

Here, Akash (Ayushman Khurrana) wants to focus on his music so he shuts out the world – or pretends to – as a blind pianist. He succeeds without rousing much suspicion – except for the annoying brat who haunts the compound of the old house. The boy is adept with a selfie stick, so typical of this generation that is born wired. Akash negotiates the streets of Pune easily until Sophie (Radhika Apte) runs into him – literally – with her scooter. We are introduced to Pune’s favourite watering hole, Franco’s – a nice blend of old world charm and underplayed elegance – patronized by the city’s elite. They take to Akash’s peppy songs and wizardry on the piano. The grand piano is ensconced in three locations: Akash’s home, Franco’s and the upmarket apartment of Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan), the ’70s star now dabbling in real estate when he is not watching his old films the hundredth time, as his bored second wife Simi (Tabu) prefers to read her book. She tells him she has watched enough to pamper his vanity.

Andhadhun

The faded star’s narcissism is validated by the director’s respectful nostalgia (a recurring narrative motif in his other films) and yet, there is a touch of cruel melancholy. A keen watcher is reminded of Dharmendra in Johnny Gaddar, where this rather cultured criminal fondly remembers his late wife and listens to her singing the subtly erotic mora gora ang laile le from Bandini – Gulzar’s first song as a lyricist. The old songs in the sound track are carefully chosen to fit the age of nostalgic characters. In the process, Raghavan pays tribute to mainstream cinema’s popular tropes with an affection that is palpable.

Music is a complementary strand of the textured narrative in Andhadhun. You want to see the film again just for the music – Amit Trivedi is brilliant in both the songs written for the film, the incomplete dramatic piece Akash is composing as he searched for the right finishing notes and the old ’70s songs played with delicate softness, as if they want to set us humming the words to the tune. And bang, right in the middle of this beguiling mood, comes Beethoven’s Fifth, the magnificently dramatic opening that always manages to mesmerize , never mind how many times you have heard it. The symphonic accompaniment to Simi’s spur of the moment murder of the old lady – she with the inconvenient memory of precisely who came when to the apartment where the first murder takes place – magnifies the irony of random death.

Ek Hasina Thi

A harmless old lady with a penchant for persistent emphasis on facts is casually thrown over the balcony of a high rise and the symphony often called Fate Knocking piles significance on this impulsive cruelty. There is hardly any dialogue as the music’s grandeur sweeps over us. It makes you wonder. Is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange Raghavan’s reference point? Not the disturbing dystopian world of Kubrick with a brilliantly witty psychopath holding us in thrall, but a Lady Macbeth (as the organ harvesting doctor calls the rampaging woman trussed up in the booth of the car) volatile, scheming, capable of violence and yet completely fascinating the way Tabu plays her.

The Lady Macbeth reference (Tabu played the Indian counterpart in Maqbool) is one example of Raghavan’s sardonic throwaway wit. Simi snootily asks her lover, Mai koyi serial kille hoon kya? when he doesn’t know what to do next in their sticky situation. At home, this rather inept man is a meek husband to his chatterbox wife forever dispensing advice (Ashwini Kalsekar, making her presence felt even in a cameo as she did in Badlapur) and a burly cop bullying his hapless assistants when he is on duty. Their affair is not born of grand passion but looks more like something entered into because of boredom. Adultery is not tawdry or sleazy here. There is more ennui than lust. That such a situation can end in the panic stricken shooting of the affable ex-star whom we have come to like sets the tone that reduces morality to selfish acts of convenience. It is something we can relate to.

In that sense, Andhadhun is more entertaining than Badlapur which is a disturbing exploration of the corroding nature of revenge. The wronged man Raghu (Varun Dhawan who has lost his wife and young son to a capricious act of cruelty by kidnappers) gradually turns into a misogynistic monster, as he incarcerates himself in a cell-like room in distant Badlapur. Liaq (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is cheerful, given to wisecracking and visually, his prison surrounded by open green fields looks much freer. The moral centre keeps shifting and Raghu becomes the cunning stalker-killer while the cancer-stricken Liaq finally takes the blame for the deaths caused by Raghu.

Johnny Gaddaar

Badlapur

Badlapur goes deeper into questions of moral responsibility, of how grief can fester and turn the act of revenge into one of premeditated murder. Who is really free in a world where the line between right and wrong gets increasingly blurred and perhaps erased at the end? With its tour de force opening, of a three minute long static shot where the camera captures the normality of a Pune street till the young woman and her child are abducted by a fleeing duo of bank robbers, the film takes an objective stance. The accidental nature of crime and innocent victimhood is established right at the start.

Johnny Gaddar was straight noir thriller, with nods to Vijay Anand and the Amitabh starrer Parwana. The rain-slicked dark streets, murky neon lights and the montage of card tables all evoke the classic noir look. Crime gone awry and mutual suspicion between the tight band of five running a gambling club makes for a taut narrative where again, the suspense is about how the anti-hero Vicky gets rid of his erstwhile friends who finally rumble on to the betrayer’s identity. Here too, it is the small details that trip up Vicky.

Khurrana has played the affable young man with natural, if practiced ease. Here, he makes Akash a man with unknowable depth, barely hinting at what makes him tick under the dark glasses

Raghavan’s forte is in creating characters who stick in the mind, however short their screen time. Varun Dhawan was the generic hero chasing his dulhania in his most successful rom coms till he was eased under the skin of Raghu who started as a sympathetic victim of violence and slowly grew into a bitter, rancid killing machine. Ayushman Khuranna has played the affable young man (even Vicky Donor was a regular Punjabi boy next door) with natural, if practiced ease. Here, he makes Akash a man with unknowable depth, barely hinting at what makes him tick under the dark glasses. He pulls off the blind man’s bluff with elan. Neil Nitin Mukesh’s debut as the innocentfaced ruthless schemer in Johnny Gaddar was impressive. Raghavan varies his leads but trusts his reliable ensemble of Ashwini Kalsekar, Zakir Hussain, Vinay Pathak et al to flesh out those supporting characters and contour the screenplay into a dramatic narrative. The noir world of hardboiled cynicism usually sees women as sexy dames, ready to play and betray – Badlapur parades a variety of them. When Raghavan writes a central woman character, he pulls out all the stops. Sarika (played by Urmila Matondkar) of Ek Haseena Thi is a study in how a straitlaced, middle class working girl can overcome her visceral fear ( of rats in this case) and make it the shocking instrument of just punishment for the man who betrayed her trust. You can see the steel entering her spine. As for Simi in Andhadhun, she is a first in Indian cinema. Her boredom, discontent, greed, and scheming, they are all facets of a woman who looks diamond hard but there lurks a strange vulnerability under that sheen. Tabu convinces you that no one but she could play this role so full of unexpected quirks and quicksilver mood swings. She is woman who makes even her culinary expertise an exercise of surreal imagination: she freezes crabs before dunking them in boiling water so that death is less of a shock. We can forget – and forgive – Agent Vinod. It still had amusing moments scattered over the high energy caper that doesn’t come off in the final count. But for that one mis-step, Raghavan has delivered on his promise. And exceeded expectations in Badlapur and now Andhadhun. What next? He has set the bar pretty high.

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