In an ancient, colossal mansion Susanna (Priyanka Chopra) lives with three butlers. Her backyard has a deep pit reachable by a ladder, where her pet snakes crawl in abandon. She falls in love with men with tragic flaws and when they harm her, she kills them. Murder is her only way out of misery. What a set-up!
Ruskin Bond’s short story Susanna’s Seven Husbands, on which Vishal Bhardwaj’s new film 7 Khoon Maaf is set, is the kind of material that can take flight only with a very skilled director and scriptwriter. Bhardwaj has shown audacity in his earlier films, but in adapting Susanna’s story to cinema, he is woefully short of genius.
7 Khoon Maaf is not a thriller. There is no police trail behind Susanna (the only official investigator who takes interest is enthralled by her and becomes one of her victims); the world outside her haunting estate is invisible and silent. We know from the start that she is going on a husband-killing spree, so the only mystery is: Why and how will she kill each of them? It is neither magic-realist cinema nor an absurd black comedy. Quite tragically, although there are elements of all these genres in the film, Bhardwaj doesn’t quite manage a skilful and consummate genre-bender. From one murder to another, aided by her three butlers, the film prods along until it becomes asinine and predictable.
Bhardwaj seems to have been blown by the idea of a woman such as Susanna but eventually overreaches his material. She is a woman who is unpredictable, foolish, vulnerable and evil, all at once, and the writing by Bhardwaj and Matthew Robbins manages to bring out some of that complexity. The script also has some humour—the kind of black humour you associate with Bhardwaj’s films. But the director, obviously besotted by Susanna’s innate amorality and edge, makes her scream. Susanna has none of the stealth or mystique worthy of a serial killer—she is blatantly, not chillingly, dark. She is larger than life and, therefore, boring.
But all is not lost. There is some redemption because of Bhardwaj’s astute visual idiom—it never disappoints. Almost every scene is eloquent, with imaginative shot-taking and framing. Nothing in a frame is redundant. Some of the shots seem heavily inspired by the economy and power of Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Sadly, the visual flourishes can’t finally keep afloat the film, thrown asunder by unnecessary histrionics and situations.
We first meet Susanna when she is a strong-willed and adored heiress married to a handicapped military general (Neil Nitin Mukesh). The husband is “boring and possessive”, in the words of the film’s narrator, a forensic scientist (Vivan Shah) who was brought up, nurtured and educated by Susanna. He was an orphan when Susanna became his godmother and the boy grew up worshipping and fetishizing her. After the marriage with the general falls apart, Susanna meets a rockstar (John Abraham) who bleeds her wealth. There are four more doomed marriages in succession—with an abusive Muslim poet (Irrfan Khan), a bumbling police officer (Annu Kapoor), a Russian spy (Aleksandr Dyachenko) and an apothecary (Naseeruddin Shah). The seventh is a masterstroke in writing, but made silly by the way it’s executed.
The film spans about two decades, from the 1980s to now. Since the world outside is meant to be inconsequential to Susanna’s universe, Bhardwaj has found a convenient way of projecting the transitions— television news of monumental events such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the terrorist attack on Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel plays out in the background of some scenes. The lip service is glaring.
A reason 7 Khoon Maaf is worth a watch is its actors. Chopra immerses herself in the role, her appearance, voice and size changing as the film progresses. Robbins and Bhardwaj make it easy for Susanna to go about the killings; she need not repent or hesitate. Yet, even in the single-pitched histrionics she gets, Chopra is stellar in some scenes, devouring the dramatic moments. Most of Bhardwaj’s women protagonists are fierce-willed, uninhibited and ruled by their hearts, and Susanna epitomizes these qualities. We have a film with such a strong woman undiluted by popular culture’s stereotypes at the centre after a really long time. It is a triumph.
The supporting cast delivers some impressive performances too. Khan and Kapoor make memorable husbands. Usha Uthup as Susanna’s housemaid and loyal friend Maggie is a bit out of place, but earnest. Harish Khanna plays her butler Ghalib with amazing conviction and ease, and Shashi Malviya as Gunga, a puny and deaf man, is impressive.
There are long boring minutes as Susanna blusters through the murders. The guessing game—of what each husband’s undoing will be—is not fun. It is a disappointing film from Bhardwaj. Still,7 Khoon Maaf is worth a watch, just to see a character sounabashedly out of moral bounds, performed with supreme confidence.
7 Khoon Maaf released in theatres on Friday.