Synopsis – When Dev finds out his wife is cheating on him, he secretly blackmails his wife and her lover as a form of revenge.
My Take – Revenge is one emotion which Indian filmmakers have been exploiting for decades, whether in the form of an action film or a musical thriller or in some form of a horrid supernatural take. However, infusing comedy in such a situation sounds something risky, right? After all I too believe infidelity is not funny. Yet, in the hands of director Abhinay Deo, who returns to the black comedy genre seven years after his path breaking, Delhi Belly, who offers yet another dark and unique look into a regular man’s life, we sure can expect some hilarity and when the cast is headlined by the always brilliant Irrfan Khan you know you’re in for a treat. And guess what I wasn’t wrong, as watching this film is like riding a roller-coaster – you don’t know as to what will happen next but the mere thrill of it is enough to make you hop on, and with so much amusement, it is no wonder that you don’t want the ride to end. Sure, it does get unrealistic in places and maybe too dark for some viewers, along with being a bit repetitive, there is a lot to appreciate here, right from some smart exposition to smart gags to the claustrophobic feel of the narrow walls these characters abide in, making this an experience worth checking out at least once.
The story follows Dev Kaushal (Irrfan Khan), an everyman middle-class office going guy, who works in a company which sells toilet paper in a country which doesn’t believe in using them. With several EMI deadlines looming over him, and over-enthusiastic boss dancing over his head, Dev prefers staying late at work to lose some steam by playing Pac Man on his officer computer and by masturbating to the photograph of his colleague’s wife, rather than going home to his sad monotonous marriage to Reena (Kriti Kulhari), who doesn’t seem to care about his existence.
After being suggested by his peer at work, Dev decides to take an effort to re-ignite his sour relationship, by surprising Reena by reaching home earlier than his usual time with a bunch of roses in his hand. To his dismay, he finds in his absence she has been conducting an illicit affair with her former boyfriend Ranjit Arora (Arunoday Singh), who is now married to Dolly Verma (Divya Dutta), a drunk, brazen and spoilt daughter of a local big shot. However, instead of succumbing to his instinct for violence, Dev opts for turning this gutting situation into an opportunity for himself to get rid of his loans, all by blackmailing Ranjit for a sum of Rupees 1 lakh.
Things obviously don’t go quite as planned as other players keep joining in the blackmailing game and you’re left wondering who is trying to con whom, as one misdeed leads to another then another and another until everyone involved gets caught up in a vortex of deception and trickery. What works well here is that there are no innocent victims and everyone deserves a slap on the wrist for something making this a fun watch. The other characters in this colorful world include Dev’s US-returned boss (Omi Vaidya) and an ambitious, avaricious new colleague (Anuja Sathe Gokhale) and a Tarantino-esque private detective called Chawla (Gajraj Rao), who refers to himself in the third person.
Designed as an edgy, noir drama, this film uses relentless ingenuity to dig its hero into deeper and deeper holes – until finally, when he seems defeated by the weight of his problems, it’s equally ingenious in digging him out again. The story and screenplay by Parveez Sheikh is the heart of this edge-of-the-seat comedy and the dialogues by Pradhuman are bang on. This film is a tightly weaved tale, though not as crude as Delhi Belly, thanks to the reduced toilet humor mostly confined to Dev’s boss—Boss DK, who is so obsessed with his new line of toilet paper that he is hell-bent that all his employees feel its softness. Here, director Deo and writer Parveez Sheikh are merciless in creating one difficulty after another for his characters who are eventually shown as mercenaries, as they go a step ahead and does not limit the film by just husband blackmailing his wife.
They create situations where there is a series of blackmailers involved and everyone wants to grab a piece of cake. While the first half has its share of moments, second half gets meatier when more characters gets involved and it becomes a series of blackmailing. Now the best part of watching the film is its earnest comic scenes and timings which owes much of its wicked comedy, sudden bursts of violence, and general air of amorality to the films from the Coen brothers, like Fargo (1996), especially in Dev’s attempt to dream up the perfect crime and the assortment of characters who do not deserve the grace of redemption.
Yet, to reach a wider audience the film does throw in the occasional laugh out moments in the form of various scenes such as the blind woman selling guns, which seem to have been used in popular Amitabh Bachchan films, Ranjeet’s father-in-law threatening to take back his money at the dinner table, Dev stealing the photos of wives from his office colleague and even from his boss for pleasure every night when nobody is at office. The most hilarious scene was when he could not find anything and ends up taking the poster of a Russian model to the rest room. The film is also cleverly and self-deprecatingly misleading in its early moments.
When Dev imagines multiple scenarios each time his head threatens to explode with suppressed anger, the repetition of the device is designed to lull viewers into assuming predictability on the part of the storyteller. Just as you think you have got director Deo all figured out though, he stands the ploy on its head when you are least expecting it and despite its heartless subject matter, the film needs a hero, and director Deo finds it in Dev, whose mounting misdemeanors are ignored in the interests of keeping empathy on his side. You want to know Dev, not because he is interesting, but simply because he is not. His flaws, quirks, insecurities and tricks – all make him a very well-etched character and you can see Irrfan sinking his teeth, breathing life into him.
The makers clearly have no intention of preaching, though there are subtle digs at the advertising industry, or providing a neatly tied-up morality lesson, and just want us to enjoy seeing how each successive character reveals their grey nature, but in the end, the only person you root for is Dev. But like the characters the screenplay is far from perfect. Despite the efforts taken to ensure that the labyrinthine turns through the 138-minute film are never confusing, the filmmakers are unable to avoid the twin curse of repetition and redundancy. It’s visible how director Deo is aiming for conversational humor that evolves organically from the moment, but the film is also far too long and should’ve been edited for a more impactful viewing. Also the song featuring Urmila Matondkar seemed a bit forced.
However, the film remains completely engaging all thanks to a relatively unknown cast who provide ample support to Irrfan Khan, as every character is given their personal screen-time thus reducing the dependency on Khan who is as always fantastic. The brilliant actor who till date succeeding in all forms of genre, uses his craft to quietly draw you into Dev’s frustration, with his eyes and body language conveying a multitude of emotions. Arunoday Singh too is hugely entertaining as the slow-witted lump of flesh who is so easily distracted that it is perhaps fitting that his wife gives him a dog’s name, Tommy. There is a scene where he secretly meets Reena in a theater and instead of focusing on the situation, he checks out a girl sitting in the front row who he remembered was there with some other guy previously. While, Kirti Kulhari, though handicapped by limited writing, manages to embodies a certain vulnerability through her performance, hereby making Reena a person who is hard to hate despite the affair. Divya Dutta too is immense fun to watch as Ranjit’s permanently drunk wife, who keeps a bleary eye on her wayward husband. Omi Vaidya as Dev’s boss marketing toilet paper in India, is stereotyped and though he does offer some seriously funny moments. In smaller roles, Gajraj Rao, Anuja Sathe and Pradhuman Singh Mall too pitch in the proceedings. On the whole, ‘Blackmail‘ is a well written and acted dark comedy, which despite its flaws manages to be a good entertainer.
Directed – Abhinay Deo
Starring – Irrfan Khan, Kirti Kulhari, Arunoday Singh
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 138 minutes