Synopsis – A series of mysterious events take place in the life of a blind pianist. Now, he must report a crime that he never actually witnessed.
My Take – When it comes to understanding the genre of crime thrillers in Bollywood and delivering it right, the only other name which pops into mind, other than filmmaker Anurag Kashayap, is director Sriram Raghavan. While he has helmed only four films in the last 15 years, which include the fabulous Ek Haseena Thi, Johnny Gaddar, Badlapur and the ill-conceived Agent Vinod, he has managed to leave behind a trail of awe and inspiration despite authentically borrowing stylistic elements from Alfred Hitchcock and the Coen brothers.
Here in his latest venture, an official adaptation of Oliver Trennier’s 2010 French short film The Piano Tuner, director Raghavan once again delves into themes previously explored in his films, by giving us yet another brilliant slick mystery that lets the audience in on all the secrets and still keeps them at the edge of their seats. Delivering on the promises held by its teasers, the tone is without a doubt wacky and wicked, the pace hectic and the characters immoral filled with secrets and traits that drive them towards their actions. As the film peels the layers of these actions, the story comes alive in true fashion. Boasting of a brilliant screenplay and masterfully crafted narrative, the story’s constant twists, successfully manages to keep you riveted till the end credits roll in.
Set in the city of Pune, the story follows Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana), an aspiring blind piano player who despite losing his sight as a teenager, doesn’t let his handicap hinder his talent. But a chance meeting with Sophie (Radhika Apte), who runs a local bar/restaurant named Franco’s with her father leads to a gig of playing the piano for her patrons. Deeply satisfied with his new situation including a growing romantic liaison with Sophie, Akash’s life seems to be on a right path to achieve his goal of qualifying for a music competition in London.
However, life takes a turn when Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan) a yesteryear Bollywood star who now runs a real estate business, walks up to him showering praises in the restaurant. Impressed by Akash’s skill with the piano, Sinha invites the musician to his residence for a private concert as a surprise for his much younger wife Simi (Tabu), for their upcoming wedding anniversary. With a deposit in hand, Akash agrees and shows up as promised, but nothing is what it seems to be. As the initially reluctant Simi lets him in, Akash is shocked to find Pramod murdered in the house. Complicating matters is the fact that Akash was never visually impaired, and has been pretending his handicap in order to gain an artistic edge, but now he can’t say anything because for the world, he is a blind person.
What follows are chase sequences, double crosses, organ transplants and a rabbit eating cabbages – all of which form part of the story. From these unconnected strands is born a black comedy that is breathless in its pace and breathtaking in the scope of its imagination, linking seemingly random occurrences in the cosmos, and with all its entertainment value, arriving at an unexpectedly thoughtful study of both destiny and human nature. While it might sound all complicated, but it sure is great fun. Yes, the premise is completely wacko, a what-if to beat all what-ifs. It is also familiar terrain for director Raghavan whose films are a testament to his fixation on evil crackpots and cold-hearted criminality. Everything here is there for a reason, even the opening scene of a rabbit being chased through cabbage fields by a hunter – crafted like the Coen brothers would. Every character has so much to offer. While the protagonist Akash is the center of this mad universe, the mad planets orbiting him are equally crazy.
There isn’t a single moment in the film that falls flat or feels lazy. The story by Hemanth Rao and Raghavan himself has been expanded into a multi-layered screenplay by the latter with Arijit Biswas, Pooja Ladha Surti (also the film’s editor) and Yogesh Chandekar. At one level, the result of their collaboration is a hugely enjoyable, fast-paced thriller, but at another it is a quietly observant tale reminding us that however convinced we may be that we have outsmarted fate, the universe is always the boss of our lives. The film builds anticipation and tension without relying on clichéd tropes like a loud background score or frenzied camerawork. Take for instance this particular scene where a blind man plays the piano. The lilting tune hangs heavy in an air of disquiet. The camera pans just enough to nudge us into immediate attentiveness. We wake up to an unnerving sight and plenty of possibilities. Someone has died? How? When? Why? And even before we begin to process these questions we are taken in by the absurdity of the situation. The music never stops and the entire scene is mimed, no words used.
The actions reveal the sinister motives and we give out a long sigh only to realize we had been holding on to our breath for that long. It’s a brilliant scene and the best part is that this isn’t the only one. The twists that follow are revealed with minimum fuss, through simple camera movements or editing transitions, and they last all the way till the end reel. Every moment, expression, prop, and gesture feels indispensable to the (almost wordless) proceedings, including a hilarious gag about a dead man’s watch. And the murder is hardly the big reveal – it’s the window to bigger deceits. The entire sequence – easily the film’s best – throbs with urgent details: There’s a clean-up, a breakdown, a near-confrontation in a cramped bathroom space, a widow playacting conversations with her dead actor husband, and some wine-infused blood. At the risk of doing injustice to the film’s overall brilliance, it’s this wicked, comic, and existential scene that could probably redefine genre tropes in Hindi cinema. It also neatly encapsulates the film’s intent – to force the audience into heightening their senses for a film about blindness.
Yes, terrible things happen in this film, yet it manages to tread lightly throughout. Director Raghavan’s talent for imagining ordinary people as proficient criminals in the right conditions and his use of locations and sharply etched characters to advance his plot is also put to great use here. As much as the film examines the greed and criminal bent of mind in ordinary people, it’s also a meditation on whether justice can exist at a time where revenge is the preferred currency. The film begs a pertinent question: Is justice the same as punishment or fate? And if the justice meted out isn’t uniform for everyone, is it justice at all?
Director Raghavan explores these subjective interpretations of justice by painting the offender as a victim and makes us wonder if humans, who are default con men, can ever be trusted to do the right thing. He brings alive this predicament in the film through an explosion of genres: It’s at once a comedy, a suspense thriller, and an existential tragedy. I especially guffawed when the film insinuated that Aakash’s blindness is an intrinsic part of his “artistic process”. Trust a director Raghavan film about crime and justice to make you ponder on whether a good artist is mandated to be a good human being. It’s an apt theme for a film where nothing can be taken for granted. A thriller is no thriller if it is not able to play mind games with the audience, letting the element of unpredictability stick till the end to keep the viewers glued to their seats. This film is an amalgamation of all this, and director Raghavan has definitely raised the bar for thrillers films as far as Bollywood is concerned.
With the Indian audience finally evolving, and directors deciding the fate of their films with their work, it’s a cinch that this film will get the success that director Raghavan‘s films never did in the cinema halls. Sure, with a trimmer running length, the film would have been more than flawless, but even at its current run-time of 139 minutes, the film slides into place as smoothly as one of Akash’s piano pieces.
Thankfully the actors are also well synchronized. Tabu seems to play the femme fatale better than anyone else in this industry – she is at once coy, then vulnerable and then ruthless, making this one of her most memorable roles. The manner in which she switches from one emotion to the next to the next, at one point her face and voice conveying completely different feelings, is a sight to behold. While Ayushmann Khurrana may initially seems to be an odd fit for the role, he manages to take center-stage by effortlessly melting into his role. He mostly seems in control till the proceedings totally overwhelm him and through all the crests and troughs, his hold on his character never slips. In a smaller role, Radhika Apte exemplifies guilelessness and innocence that are a refreshing contrast to the treachery all around her.
Like all director Raghavan films here too the supporting cast is impeccable, in minor roles that are beautifully deployed to spring major surprises. Zakir Hussain, a regular, is hilarious, while Manav Vij, a tough cop who fumbles around his overbearing wife played by Ashwini Kalsekar are equally delightful to watch. Chhaya Kadam as the woman trying to make a quick buck selling lottery tickets also puts up a solid act. A surprising home run comes in the form of Anil Dhawan‘s lovable performance. Having shone majorly on the small screen until the last decade, the inclusion of scenes from his actual films of his younger days, lends an air of poignancy to his character’s journey and nostalgia to the film. On the whole, ‘AndhaDhun’ is a fascinating and hilarious suspense thriller uplifted by its clever writing, top-notch execution, and top-notch performances
Directed – Sriram Raghavan
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 139 minutes