Monday, October 08, 2007


RUNTIME: 140 min. (citation needed)
RATING: *****

I have never ever touched a James Hadley Chase novel; the covers alone made me avoid them for they looked intellectually cheap and in an unflattering way, pulpy. A great degree of self awareness and the humor generated from that awareness, though, can create a masterpiece, and that was Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, probably the most influential Hollywood film of the 90s (The Usual Suspects, Memento, Snatch, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to name only the great ones). And why am I blabbering on with this trivial trivia? Probably because I sincerely believe Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar will attain the same influential status in years to come – a film that will be run unendingly in cinema schools all over the country to carefully peel over the brilliant clarity of its narrative and its almost uncanny knack of pulling off the Hitchcock-ian trick. And what exactly is Hitchcock-ian, many viewers un-exposed to the great master of thriller might wonder. Aside from the standard set of rules that one can search down on the internet (cool blonde, protagonists thrust in real-time tension situations) there is one pretty simple rule – turn left after giving the right indicator. Johnny Gaddaar achieves that brilliantly and a significant number of times. Of course, one could sit highbrowed and try to outguess following the indicator rule but that not only would be a disservice to a film but to the basic process of viewing a film. And yeah, Johnny Gaddaar lands a grip on the narrative so tight that will be pretty difficult for those to raise their brows and place their chin in between the thumb and index finger.
One of my great memories as a kid at the movies was Amitabh Bachchan’s Don and in particular the opening credits. I was in my first grade when I saw it and was naturally puzzled by something happening in red – there’s Amitabh Bachchan running to catch a train, Amitabh Bachchan running amongst a whole load of hung clothes. Something struck me when I saw those very same images, albeit in Technicolor. Of course my limited intellect didn’t exactly comprehend it. And why have I been caught blabbering again? Definitely because Johnny Gaddaar is a product of a vision that loves cinema, and I mean true love (Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino), not the fake kind that comes up with factory flicks. These are one of the safest pair of hands you will come across for it uses the opening credits rest-of-the-film image-flash like no other I have ever seen. In most thrillers, it is an interesting stylistic device (including Don). Here, there is more than one reason to safely assume that it just might be the final-flash-of-one’s-life they say a dying man experiences in those moments. Just in case one is wondering I’m talking a whole load of cockamamie, there is more than a bucketful of morality and guilt in this tale to back me.
The story is simple nut and bolt stuff about a huge chunk of money and a member’s, in this case Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh), plan to lighten his partners of that sum. Of course, the nuts and bolts assemble into a wonderful whodunit-whydunit-howdunit but that is not the lone specialty here. But it is the clarity of the narrative and the ability of the filmmaker to play with audiences’ that makes Johnny Gaddaar a supreme film. We do enjoy the breathtaking ride and at the same time are given the narrative clarity to make up our own theories. And that is when the Hitchcock-ian trick actually succeeds and blossoms. Films can ape all they want but an essential ingredient to pulling off the rug under is to help the audiences conjure up their own stories. A very interesting sequence happens in the opening forty minutes or so. Vikram, after having decided to go ahead with his scheme, buys chloroform from a drugstore citing the reason that his cat is unhealthy and has to be mercy-killed. All the elements until then – the manipulative ways of the protagonist as shown in his demeanor in front of the bus, his scheming ways, the technical aspects and most importantly the acting – take a cumulative effect in making the audiences believe that the perfectly healthy cat is a goner. And then he takes a left, testing the chloroform on himself. And yet again, this is not just a trick for the sake of being a trick. This establishes or rather dispels a very important notion we have about Vikram, and the script is so brilliant that it uses that knowledge to its own effect (Vikram blurting out everything under danger at various points during the film). There is that very clever use of fate intervening too, like one of those Coen brother films (I was reminded of Fargo), mocking the conventionally unimaginative helpful-to-the-plot twist used in pulp novels most notably in the Dan Brown bestseller The Da Vinci Code. Some sequences though, rather some developments are not handled as clinically as the rest of the film, most notably Inspector Kalyan’s (Govind Namdeo) sudden realization of Vikram’s guilt. A shot of him going into the airport and all would sure have been in the script, and would have been shot too, but I guess got scissored in the editing room. Though my version of the script would have opened all the cards beforehand, I respect and immensely admire what Raghavan has done here.
This is Raghavan’s film, through and through. He knows every nook and corner of his film and how that will be affecting the audience, a hallmark of a good narrator. He displays the same remarkable grasp over the medium and its language as some of the best in the business, finally a director who uses the various techniques not to show off but to further the viewing experience. He seems to know how to use the entire gamut of cinematic expressions; he knows exactly which sequences need a background score and which need the surroundings to take effect. He seems to have some sort of fondness for red for it crops a number of times, I haven’t comprehended the usage. His camera has a lot of love for its actors. There’s a remarkable sequence wherein Prakash reveals his suspicion to Vikram. The sequence could have been easily shot by using the normal two-by-two editing wherein alternate cuts are made to each actor. And that would have not only have been conventional, it would have done gross injustice to the great performance that Vinay Pathak delivers. Instead, Raghavan goes for a rear windshield shot showing Prakash in full view yet showing the scheming guilty eyes of Vikram in the rear-view mirror reminding one such sequence between Samuel Jackson and Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown. Now that is brilliance for that decision helps the audience enjoy the sequence no end. He elicits brilliant performances from everyone involved for he gives them immense clarity that is so evident in their work. The five fishes are all good and as for Neil Mukesh, this lad is good. He underplays the character allowing the sequence and his director to do the rest. One brilliant shock sequence right before the interval is as much due to his talent as much as Raghavan’s. And special mention for Vinay Pathak (Khosla ka Ghosla), he is a fantastic actor and comes up with the best performance of the film. There’s that street smartness in his overall demeanor, he always seems to be so natural just like a Pankaj Kapur. Raghavan’s ladies disappoint him, Rasika Joshi hams endlessly and Rimi Sen is probably the only person in the entire team who doesn’t have the remotest idea about acting.
He paces the film excellently. Many critics have said that the film loses pace in the second half, which is incorrect. Pacing a thriller doesn’t remotely mean that everything needs to happen quickly and with the same energy. The last thing a brilliantly constructed film needs is a pace that remains uniform throughout, if a sequence wherein he is executing his plan and on the run has the same pace as a sequence where in he is having moral conflicts god help the film. If asked what a finely paced film is, an obvious answer would be The Departed. Well, it is, but The Shawshank Redemption is just as brilliantly paced for what is pace but to find the right tone to narrate a tale. Johnny Gaddaar isn’t mere thrilling escapist fare, there is that moral struggle of a mole that doesn’t beat its chest and shout but remains where it belongs, internally. And I can’t remember even a single sequence out of place.
Quentin Tarantino once said that he wants to make movies for Friday nights, for audiences to have an absolute blast. This is one such film, a film that besides its central strength of the thrills and chills has plenty much to offer for the cinema lover, a hell of a lot of garnish. There’re hundreds of messages I have read that say Raghavan has done a Tarantino. As much as that is deservedly flattering, I’m not sure Tarantino is just that and the comparisons are a bit overdrawn. Let me put it this way – both share an immense love for cinema. There is more than the ten-film share of cinematic references here besides the obvious ones to Parwana and Johny Mera Naam. Prakash going for the kill under the impression that lady luck is on his side is an obvious reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler, 1955). Then much in the mould of the mysterious suitcase of Pulp Fiction, we never know about the “furniture” that is being dealt with. Inspector Kalyan is an obvious homage to Harvey Keitel’s ultra-professional Winston Wolfe. We’ve the watch too. And there’s substance too for the movie always manages to be rich in humor bordering on a black comedy. Neil Mukesh does a hilarious dead-on Sanjeev Kumar. I can’t help but wonder about the fatalistic effect a single sequence showing the killer get ready inserted before Vikram leaves at the end; the air of inevitability that had already been let out in the beginning would have taken full effect. But that is different and it is me (I was actually dishonest and taking a cue from Holmes eliminated my way through to the killer as soon as he wore the jacket.). And this is a brilliant film, probably the one Indian film that will grow a cult following down the years. A film that will probably be remade thirty years down the line, a film that could act as a wonderful export. And I hope to god it does business in a quantity that matches its quality. Asking too much? Okay, let us settle for half. Brilliant film.


bhags said...

Hi Satish,my first time here, i think u have done a brilliant work with the movies....way to go buddy, waiting for more hindi movie reviews.....c u around

Anonymous said...

Hi Satish,

Well it seems that you read my mind! I have been an admirer of your reviews (though the films you blast may be considered decent by many) and I hadn’t noticed you doing any Hindi Movies reviews (well obv coz most of them aren’t worth reviewing). But after watching Johnny Gaddar I was obviously blown away ( am a big fan of Guy Ritchie, Tarintino , Oliver stone among others) and one thing crossed my mind ill ask ya to post a review for this film. HA and then I see the BB and read your review and our ratings matchJ

This film will be a cult movie like Donnie Darko. But more commercial coz more ppl are embracing it. Frankly I don’t care what the public think about it. Bottom line I enjoyed, Period.

For a bollywood film its groundbreaking.. well not so coz this age I get to see a lot more decent Hindi movies than some 8-9 years ago.

I’m a major JHChase fan. Don’t go for the book by its cover. You might actually enjoy his books. And JHChase will be proud watching this film.

Forget the book, film-wise I liked the feel of the movie. Now this is a director who is inspired from Tarintino, Guy Ritchie and well I watched it with the same excitement as I had watched Lock Stock , Revolver. And I wasn’t surprised when I got to know his last film was Ek hasina thi.. which I liked.then J There’s something different. Attention of details is something I noticed. Remember the first scene, the Police Van speeds past a signal and you see a white car making a dash the other way. The last moments had the same scene… just a different angle.. that was beautiful. THe other movies shown during the film . Fantastic. The scene when the Inspector asks Johnny about his fave actor and whether he has watched all his films.. then Johnny realizing that he’s spoke too soon.. and said no to Parwana.. Pure Class!

This is one movie where ppl like me will have a blast on Friday evenings.

Happy that you liked it. gem of a movie. More so coming from an Indain Director. Brave Effort. And more so if you’re a JHChase fan.

-Aneesh Sanyal

saurabh said...

Great review man! But u should mention at the start that there are spoilers inside!! Absolutely loved the film..

avra said...

As usual it is a brilliant review by you and the movie itself is par excellence.Just saw the movie yesterday on DVD and was blown away by the sheer magnificence of the plot and the superb narration and direction of Ragahvan who goes several notches high from Ek Hasina Thi with this one.Some of the scenes really shook you like when Vikram shoots Sheshadri when you would least expect him to do that in that situation and of course the climax which connected with the 1st scene of the movie-Vikram succumbing to the least likely foe.
I am normally not a Hindi movie watcher but films like Gandhi:My Father and this one are going to show Hindi movies in a new light.I understand No Smoking is also good.