While interviewing Bejoy Nambiar, I asked him, “Why a film like Shaitan? Why not a love story or masala action fare for your first attempt at cinema?”, to which he replied, “Let me ask you, why not a movie like Shaitan? Because this is what I strongly feel I as a person would love to see in the cinema halls when I go to watch a film.” This very statement of his shot my curiosity level to watch this film way up there, right in the upper rungs, reserved mainly for a Mani Ratnam, Anurag Kashyap or Aamir Khan film, which is where this film qualifies, being a Kashyap production, but instead helmed by a Ratnam protégé.
Now let me get back to the type of films made in cinema in today’s times. There are films that are character-centric, and which may or may not have a story, and mostly focus on the journey of each character. And then there are story-centric films, which mostly focuses on a track, without paying much attention to the character development in the course of the film’s narrative, thus either making the characters decent enough to watch, or maybe not. And then there are films that are a beautiful merger of the character-centric and story-centric, thus paying explicit detail to each and every part of the film, thereby making it a fulfilling cinematic experience. Each character has his or her own backstory, emotions, nuances, vices, virtues, vulnerabilities and inner demons, but despite the zany lifestyles forming a part of the sub-plots in the film, the story remains of central focus.
Set in modern Mumbai (named after the goddess Mumbadevi, who, according to one of the main protagonists, Amrita “Amy” Jaishankar, looks “so pretty”), the movie talks about the lives of seven people – Amy (Kalki Koechlin), with a traumatic childhood, Dushyant “Dash” Sahu (Shiv Pandit) who has a penchant for drugs and bigger penchant for living life on the edge, Zubin (Neil Bhoopalam), a tech geek with issues of sexual frustration, Tanya Sharma (Kirti Kulhari), a disturbed and irritated woman who’s trying to find her own individual voice in the midst of all the noise in her personal life, and Karan “KC” Chaudhary (Gulshan Devaiah), who lives in the moment, and doesn’t have any control over his emotions, be it sex or anger, Inspector Arvind Mathur (Rajeev Khandelwal), whose tumultuous personal life has driven him to suspension due to anger management issues, and police officer Malwankar (Raj Kumar Yadav), who is torn between his duty and the temptation of money – and their journey down the road of no rules, where one incident changes everyone’s lives, putting everyone of them in a wild, wild frenzy to get back to safer shores, by hook or by crook.
From its very core you can see that Nambiar has worked very hard on each aspect of the movie’s concept and characters. Right from Amy’s intensely written and researched on character to Malwankar’s vulnerable side to Mathur’s angry side, to Dash’s venomous inner demon he keeps as pet, you get so absorbed in the storyline so much so that it’s difficult for you not to feel any of the inner emotions each character’s mind is swirling through. Each character has been paid equal attention onto, so that none of them give you any sort of question mark in your head for any moment in the film where the character reacts in a certain way. It’s in their nuances, in their habits, their swagger. And you just cannot complain with their highly erratic behavior they’ve got seeped inside of them like salt in saltwater. The movie is, in its soul, an international film, with each emotion acting like an intense Nolan scene, each frame reaching up there to David Fincher’s standards, and each part of the character’s psychedelia overdrive bringing out the Tarantino in Nambiar. On its own vague surface it acts out a thriller, but deep inside, you know the movie’s not just that, and classifying it’s genre as thriller will be an outright insult to the film, which is more about the deranged demon inside everyone: you, me, the person sitting beside you in the cinema hall you’re in, the person you might be talking to – anyone. And you can relate to the howsoever-delinquent stuff they do; drugs, sex, theft and robbery, bunking classes, and the fast life; no holds barred.
Sometimes, whenever you’re treated to films with brilliantly executed concepts, you might just not get that technical, visual satisfaction that you’d want from it (consider the choppy editing in an otherwise terrific Yeh Saali Zindagi). And then there are times when you’ve got the style, the technical brilliance, the locations and the likes, but you just don’t get why the people haven’t paid much attention to the storyline (which is what has happened to films like the deranged Hindi action flick Cash, or the recent Hollywood hogwash Priest, as examples). But this film, while being absolutely high up there in content, doesn’t compromise even one bit in the technical department. Camerawork is brilliant! Never before do you see the camera moving in circles, making the whole frame look topsy-turvy (a brilliant connect to the film’s moral element). Exceptional lighting and terrific color grading in the post stages make each and every second look beautiful, and heart stopping. The fact that the makers have chosen to shoot every frame in high frame-rate with a suitable shutter speed for smooth movement, has given the editors immense freedom to make slow motion shots with absolutely punchy colors, thereby giving the viewers that dark, delectable flavor, with that jaw-dropping impact. And the best part is these shots aren’t for gimmickry, they blend in beautifully within the narrative, thereby opening the doors of visual splendor in such a high-concept film like this. And it’s not just the camerawork, it’s the terrific framing of shots, with each shot very well visualized by the DOP R. Madhi, in collaboration with their storyboard artist. Right from the extreme close-ups to the absolutely crazy angles in some shots, you just know that each shot holds a very different sub textual value that might change by the number of times you watch the film. Music is so well-placed that no single track sounds out of place!
The background score by Ranjit Barot is mind-blowing, energetic, and (I’d like to use the word here) phaadu! Check out the usage of Bhayanak Maut’s Unleashed for the street-race sequence, and Ranjit Barot’s brilliantly executed Pintya for the chase sequence between Khandelwal and Yadav. Masterstroke. Motion graphics are simple, yet elegant, and visual effects wherever required, were brilliant. Color grading, right from the bright blues to the warm yellows, all the way to the semi-saturated scenes describing Amy’s trauma still reeling through her mind, adds for a brilliant finish. As a result, the movie becomes technically so strong you just know you’re in for a complete experience.
Considering the movie can’t work without the intricately proper rendition of its characters, you need performers, and they may or may not have star power, but here, star power isn’t even required, as with such brilliant performers the makers have put on display, all your doubts on their banking on new-to-relatively-new actors are vanished at the end of the film. Let me first state, the film belongs to Kalki Koechlin, who delivers a powerhouse performance! This being her only second release, she has managed to please the audience with aplomb. Right from the body language all the way up to the way she speaks and the eyes, those blank, pain-stricken eyes that boil of anger at the slightest of events not happening to her accord, she’s perfected it all. This is what I call an award-winning performance. Rajeev Khandelwal is yet another mention here. Right from playing the vulnerable title role in Aamir all the way till this suspended cop who can himself not control his anger by giving in to the demons, he has come a long way, and has managed to impress, and how! He has a scorching screen presence, and that to happen for a relatively new entrant in Bollywood is mind-blowing stuff.
Shiv Pandit as the cold, calculating Dash is a talent to watch out for! Nikhil Chinappa in his short role is confident, and lends that raw charm, even though as a person he’s pretty sophisticated. Pawan Malhotra is efficient. Raj Kumar Yadav, fresh off the success of Ragini MMS, continues to impress with his absolute confidence in each character, and here too, playing Malwankar, he doesn’t squirm one bit. He’s a performer to watch out for. Rajit Kapoor as Amy’s father is commendable. The actress playing Sairah Jaishankar manages to chill the audiences’ spines by being creepy as hell. The actress playing Mathur’s wife also does efficiently in her short role – as her eyes and silent tears nail it in your head.
It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen something so brilliantly shot and executed, but having a terrific story and screenplay at hand too. Most high-concept films usually compromise a bit too much on the quality of its technical department, but not this one – this film’s a stunning product; a brilliant marriage of style and substance that successfully manages to portray the dirty, demonic, dark side of an individual, but in seven different hues, through seven different characters. And while the movie is important because of its characters, I personally feel each and every character contributes to the wonderfully narrated storyline. Nambiar has managed to impress each and everyone of the discerning film viewer and movie buff. This is Hindi cinema finally coming of age! Recommended for more than one watch, as to absorb the totality of the film’s context and subtext! Outstanding stuff!