Cast: Irrfan Khan, Arunoday Singh, Kriti Kulhari, Divya Dutta, Omi Vaidya, Anuja Sathe, Gajraj Rao
Director: Abhinay Deo
Late at night in a dark, empty office, one computer screen is lit, its glow shining on the tired face of Dev Kaushal (Irrfan Khan) who sits there killing time, quite literally, by playing Packman. Dev’s view of married life in cities is dim, courtesy his own experience of it. Every work night, before he drags his listless body and soul to his car and thence to his dingy, silent apartment where a lonesome plate — on which some rice, daal, sabzi have been thrown, and a taunting spoon shoved in between — awaits him, he sends his wife Reena (Kriti Kulhari) a text to say that he is leaving. It’s a gesture spiked with anxiety and hope — that she may stay up for him. Reena, however, receives it like a warning. As Dev waits by the microwave, his plate of food rotating inside, he shifts some achar bottles that hide a hole in the wall to stare in secret at his pretty wife. He feels affection that he knows is not reciprocated.
This dejection, frustration has, over time, morphed into a fetish that makes Dev risk his reputation by attacking photo frames resting on the desks of colleagues and emptying them of their smiling, inviting inhabitants to do gandi baat. This is the kind of sexual undertaking — bold, delicious and rare in Bollywood — we should now expect of director Abhinay Deo who made Imran Khan go down on Shenaz Treasurywala in Delhi Belly (2011). One night, on the drunken coaxing of a colleague, Dev goes to great lengths to procure a bouquet of red roses to surprise Reena. But what he sees that evening, through the little hole in the wall, shocks him. Angry and upset, various reactions and the ensuing scenarios play out in his mind. In the end he simply waits and then follows a Mercedes to a mansion. Sukh Niwas belongs to Dolly Verma (Divya Dutta) and her husband Ranjit Arora (Arunoday Singh).
Dev has huge EMIs, payments to make for cable TV, and now he has a plan to settle scores.
It goes something like this: A loves B, but B loves C. A figures that there’s also a D who lives with and loves C. This makes A angry, but also very excited. He puts his plan in action, almost immediately unleashing a zany, karmic circle of blackmails. A blackmails C. C gets the money from D to pay A. But D’s daddy wants the money back. So C asks B for help. B takes money from A to give to C to pay A. A again blackmails C. But C has no money, so C again asks B for money… It’s like that shell game played on streets with three cups and a stone. Only here, the cups keep growing in number. Enter E, who blackmails A for blackmailing C. So A again blackmails C, who now engages F to investigate A and to procure a gun. Instead, F blackmails A and, on A’s say-so, turns the spotlight on G… In all of this a sweet, stiff penguin with its mouth perennially open plays a stellar role, and two members of the cast are left cold, bloody and inert.
Though I didn’t do the math, by the end the original blackmailer had definitely paid off more to his sundry blackmailers. That’s funny and a great premise for a crime-never-pays kind of comic moral tale. And Blackmail is quite interesting and wicked till it ties itself in so many knots that the only way out is to off a few people. Like Delhi Belly, which was inspired by Snatch, Blackmail is in the same vein, but it’s not half as much fun. Initially its plot — crafty, confident and mildly risqué — is accompanied by the dazzle of quirky shots set to hip music and cool crooning. The moody tilt of the camera, the whimsy of cuts give the rather mundane proceedings on screen a deliberate zing and the suggestion, with a wink, that lots of fun is in store for us. But, as Dev’s plan goes awry, so does the film.
Sameness and staleness creeps in all too soon and the build up to the big climax dies whimpering. In fact so contrived is the film’s long middle that it took effort to recall it. It’s blah and a big blur. It’s strange that Blackmail, which pays so much attention to small details initially, glazes over massive glitches towards the end. The problem is with the screenplay and plot, of course, but also the characters. Apart from Dev, and Ranjit to some extent, the film isn’t really interested in any other character. All of Deo’s female characters are empowered, and either wicked or mean. Yet they get very little screen time. Though most of them are packaged and presented with much drama and promise, they amount to little. Time has been spent on what they will look like, how that look will be shot, but then they are given nothing.
The detective, the blind gunrunner, Dolly’s mummy, Prabha… All suffer the same fate — all except Dev’s boss. DK (Omi Vaidya) is an America-obsessed businessman who sells pink and blue toilet rolls as the ultimate weapon to fight water scarcity. His war on jet sprays, that he wages with the help of Russian babes and the municipality, takes up a lot of time despite the fact that it is terribly tedious and cloying. DK’s character, and sadly the actor inhabiting him, are like a poor joke that just don’t take off. Pretty much everyone recalls the silly skit from 3 Idiots, and every time Omi is wheeled out on screen, he instantly ignites that memory where we think we died laughing despite the politically incorrectness of it all. So expectations are high. But here we are expected to laugh every time “potty”, or “potty dhona” is mentioned — as if we were all kids in short-pants and panelled skirts, going delirious with excitement as we scream, “Haaw! Usne potty bola! Potty! Haaw! hehehehe”. Please.
Director Abhinay Deo, the son of Ramesh Deo and Seema Deo, the doctor couple in Anand (1971), likes certain things. Boys, for sure. But more so, boys in toilets. Also toilet flushes. But more than that, the lack of water after doing the deed. And, of course, shit. Shit made a special appearance on a red carpet in his Delhi Belly and here it’s discussed a lot — including in terms of humans’ needs to touch it while cleaning it. I belabour the point, of course. But that’s my wont. Shit, however, isn’t the binding force of Blackmail. Blackmail is really held together by Irrfan and Arunoday. Irrfan Khan, of course, is the king of sardonic humour, with snarky lines delivered straight-faced. He gets to do that a lot here, and he gets to run around naked. Arunoday Singh’s dumb expressions and slow, idiotic reactions, framed inside the bulging muscles of a bodybuilder, are a priceless foil to Irrfan’s wily smarts. His comic timing is superb. And I would love to see the two of them together again.