This fine specimen of cinema is weighed down by a mass of confused negativity that it carries at its core
Director: R. Balki
Writers: R. Balki, Raja Sen, and Rishi Virmani
Cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Sunny Deol, Shreya Dhanwanthary, Pooja Bhatt, and Saranya Ponvannan
A serial killer is targeting movie reviewers and gruesomely mutilated bodies are piling up. Arjun Mathur (Sunny Deol) is the cop in charge to find the culprit before the case goes to the CBI. To help him out, criminal psychologist Zenobia (Pooja Bhatt) steps in. Then there is this cute lonesome florist, known as Danny (Dulquer Salmaan) and his blooming romance with Nila (Shreya Dhanwanthary), a cub journalist who lives with her blind but saucy mother (Saranya Ponvannan). It is quite obvious who the killer is but the big reveal is the motive. More than a whodunit it is a ‘whydunit’.
This is one of the most personal films that the last decade has seen. Also, it is one of those rare films where you can’t fault any actor. Sunny Deol makes a stunning (and less verbose than usual) comeback. Although known for playing cops, his Arjun is restrained. One might be reminded of his Darr act (interestingly, his character in the movie was also pitted against a psychopath). Pooja Bhatt is effective as Zenobia, but one wishes she had more to do than just making sly comments and randomly body-shaming a corpse. Saranya Ponvannan is the rock star mother we all need. She imbues all her scenes with a certain sass and wit. The scene where she imagines the scenes from a movie, while her daughter reads out a review might also be a commentary on how Balki feels the audience processes film reviews. Shreya Dhanwanthary (with the kind of experience she already has of playing journalists, she might just apply for a press card) is the breath of fresh air, as well as the Mumbai rain that adds a sense of romance to everything around her. However, her character doesn’t have much to do but to look pretty, play the love interest, and then double up as the bait. It is usually what heroines in Hindi movies do, and she does it well.
But, this is a Dulquer Salmaan movie. The actor channels Norman Bates into his psycho act. He oscillates between the creepy and the cute with casual ease, never indulging in even a shred of melodrama. The South star proves his mettle as an actor with his pitch-perfect performance as ‘Danny’. One can’t write more about his character in the movie to elaborate on the nuances as that might involve spoilers. But DQ is LOVE.
His chemistry with Shreya, coupled with the atmospheric visuals that Balki creates, makes you really wish that this was a poetic tale of love and longing, of a monsoon romance drenched in rain and the lilting melodies of Guru Dutt movies, an ode Hindi cinema, a nostalgia trip down old Bombay, and all things warm and fuzzy. And not the hate-fuelled slasher movie that it is.
But to call it just that is being dismissive of what Balki achieves in this movie. He takes the story of a psycho killer into totally uncharted territory—a bold attempt that deserves all the applause for just thinking out of the box. Also, there is no denying the fact that the movie is his labor of love. The lighting, the production design, the editing, the music, and the camera work are exceptional and together they give the movie an exquisite look and feel. Balki, along with cinematographer Vishal Sinha, creates some achingly beautiful frames. The scenes where they recreate some of the iconic moments from Pyaasa and Kagaz Ke Phool as homages to Guru Dutt and equally legendary cinematographer V.K. Murthy are brilliantly executed weaving in poetry with pathos. What deserves a special mention is also Sneha Khanwalkar, first for not ruining Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye, and second, for coming up with such a haunting take of the Pyaasa song. The original songs of the movie, penned by Swanand Kirkire and put to music by Amit Trivedi, are good but they of course can’t match the joint brilliance of Sahir Ludhianvi and SD Burman. The film also uses another of their Pyaasa masterpiece as the leitmotif to the love story. Chup, apart from being a homage to Guru Dutt is also an ode to cinema and will touch a chord with movie buffs.
The dialogues are also poetic but at times become a bit stilted. Also, it is written somewhat as an inside joke among the film fraternity. The mass audience might find some bits tedious to follow. A fan of the macabre, I loved the gruesome killings and the idea of using often-used lines from film reviews as the modus operandi for mutilation is devilishly delicious and adequately dark. And also makes the movie absolutely out of bounds for children (ensuring that you can actually enjoy the original soundscape of the movie).
However, Balki’s choice to revisit each murder to show a more elaborate version of the mutilation processes makes one wonder if the filmmaker is actually relishing the grotesque end he has penned for the film reviewers.
Balki’s homage to cinema and Hindi cinema’s original agent provocateur, Guru Dutt, works brilliantly when he celebrates Guru Dutt’s works through his, but not when he uses Guru Dutt’s story to suit his purpose and justify his loathing. To portray Guru Dutt as just a man who couldn’t take the failure of one movie and disappeared from the scene is blasphemous. In fact, his next film as an actor, Chaudhvin Ka Chand was a huge hit. Maybe the failure of Kagaz ke Phool broke him in more ways than one, but his legacy is far beyond that.
Whether Kagaz ke Phool’s box office disaster was the result of negative reviews (he was not new to getting bad reviews, but then, it was his most personal piece), or it was due to the audience’s disconnect with the angst and melancholia of its privileged hero, as pointed out by Abrar Alvi, the dialogue and screenplay writer of the movie, is however open to debate.
Chup is a fine specimen of good cinema, replete with dazzling performances. But its brilliance gets overshadowed by the darkness and confused negativity that emanates from its core.
At one point he says reviewers aren’t important and the audience is king, but then the movie is about killing reviewers for spoiling the prospects of a brilliant filmmaker. If you discount the killer’s perspective as that of a mentally deranged person, then also you have Zenobia, accusing reviewers of killing films (‘You critics are killers’ is HER dialogue). Indeed, the job of the reviewer is to dissect a movie, but to call them killers and blame them for snubbing off its box office prospects introduces a grave logical flaw and factual error to the core of this drama. Also, it confuses one about what the filmmaker is actually trying to say.
Then there is an attempt to justify the act by claiming that the killer only targets reviewers who don’t give honest reviews. If my viewpoint clashes with yours, do you get to decide that I am ‘dishonest’? The gruesome killing of reviewers seems to be a magnified version of intolerance that society is facing today. It is the same as conveniently marking someone as a troll for sharing a contradicting viewpoint in the comments section of your post.
Balki seems to be trying really hard to justify it, especially by pulling Raja Sen (a film critic turned filmmaker) into his team. There are dialogues here and there, and a speech by none other than Amitabh Bachchan, that tries to bring in a balance by suggesting the importance of having movie reviewers, but the title itself gives away the intention. If a person’s unhindered freedom comes by silencing another—be it through physical power or political clout—then a better word for that is ‘oppression’.
The best way to silence the critics is to make good cinema. More often than not, good cinema fails at the box office because the filmmaker becomes too self-indulgent and self-obsessed while making the movie and the result is too high-brow to create a connection with the masses. But, the audiences, the masses, whom Balki showed the film first, are totally taken out of the equation of the box office numbers.
Ask a reviewer how it feels to sit through a cringefest of a movie and then have to write about it. Yes, some movies make you want to go on a killing spree.
Thankfully, Chup, is not one of those movies. Balki writes his story mostly from a filmmaker’s perspective and gives his filmmaker protagonist the license to kill reviewers. Yes, it makes you fume in some scenes. But strangely enough, you can also relate to the frustration–the frustration that comes from an intense love for cinema.
This is not a single-watch movie. Although it has a thriller at its core, catching the killer is not its only focus. It is a deliciously layered movie—one that needs to be watched and re-watched to be understood and appreciated in its full glory. One just hopes it was less caustic. It is not easy to love something that throws so much hate at you (also, the poster screaming ‘Woody Allen is Innocent’ works wonderfully in riling up film critics, cinema lovers, women, and one hopes, the regular audience in general).