In an industry dominated by romcoms, family dramas and action films, it’s refreshing to find yourself at the edge of your seat. When you think of suspense thrillers, some of the classics that immediately come to mind are Woh Kaun Thi, Madhumati, Teesri Manzil and Ittefaq. But two just-out films would vie to be on that list: Navdeep Singh’s Manorama-Six Feet Under (starring Abhay Deol, Gul Panag, Raima Sen) and Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar (starring Neil Nitin Mukesh, Dharmendra, Vinay Pathak). While the first pays homage to film noir, the second is a caper thriller that occasionally doffs its hat to Alfred Hitchcock.
Opener: Raghavan reveals the gaddaar to audiences early on in the film
Recent flicks such as Ram Gopal Varma’s Darling and Darna Zaroori Hai have failed to get pulses racing; the Bhatt camp specializes in sleazy thrillers, which have benefited largely from their chartbusting music (think Murder and Raaz).
So what does it take to make an effective suspense thriller? Writer-director Raghavan (of Ek Hasina Thi fame) says: “Suspense does not mean whodunnit. It’s about tension and anticipation. The classic Hitchcock definition is the story about the bomb in a bus. If we see people on a bus and suddenly a bomb goes off, that’s surprise. But, if we see the bomb under a seat and then a young couple sits on the seat, we go, ‘oh my God, they don’t know there’s a bomb’. Each time the bus brakes, our hearts are in our mouths.”
Don’t confuse the Agatha Christie brand of whodunnit with suspense. As Raghavan adds, “Johnny Gaddaar is a caper thriller with an element of suspense with the viewer knowing very early on who the gaddaar is.”
Singh made his debut with last week’s release, Manorama, a suspense film with elements of dark comedy, for which financial support was hard to come by: “It took two years to find a producer and we eventually got Shemaroo through Abhay (Deol).” Co-writer Devika Bhagat took the one-line brief—a PWD engineer who writes pulp fiction novels gets into way too much trouble—and developed the script, keeping the rules of film noir in mind. “First, we had to have a femme fatale to get the ball rolling and a somewhat down-and-out guy looking for a way out, but who gets swept away by her,” she says. The risk of making a film in this genre appealed to actor Deol. “A noir style film set in small-town India was unusual,” he says.
Manorama magic: Singh had each frame on a storyboard before filming
Both directors agree that there is a space and need for suspense thrillers. Singh says, “There is a primal human need for thrills and chills.” Raghavan adds: “Since we don’t make too many, there’s always excitement about a thriller. I would love to see Mani Ratnam and Sanjay Leela Bhansali do a pure thriller.”
Trade analyst Komal Nahata feels the lack of interest from big stars in the genre is a deterrent. “When Saif Ali Khan did Ek Hasina Thi, he was not on the A-list, but the film proved that he was capable of acting and catapulted him to the top,” says Nahata. “Suspense thrillers with good music guarantee a good opening. Today, as big banners make 10 to 12 films a year, thrillers are a part of their agenda as they want to cater to all kinds of audiences.”
Suspense thrillers are by nature cinematic and require various departments of film-making to rise to the challenge; primarily story, camera, sound and editing. Arvind Kannabiran, Manorama’s director of photography, braved the challenge of using small-town Rajasthan to create a noir feel. “The houses there have just one bulb or one tubelight and shafts of sunlight pour in during the mornings. We had to keep these lighting issues in mind while shooting,” he says.
Daniel B. George, who has composed the already-acclaimed background score for Johnny Gaddaar, dug out musicians who had played with R.D. Burman and Kalyanji-Anandji to recreate a retro 1970s sound. “We worked for 45 days to create a score that was Quentin Tarantino film music-meets-Kalyanji-Anandji,” says George. The score almost turns the pages of the film and takes over the story.
And finally, editing. Award-winning film editor Apurva Asrani, who earlier edited Satya, Chhal and Mukhbir, says: “Plot is king and a good set-up should hook you in the first 10 or 15 minutes. Thereafter, the film must move at a pace that doesn’t allow viewers much time to look for clues. I try to stay loyal to the plot rather than the characters. The cut must shock and surprise the viewer.”
When everything works, there’s shock, surprise, goosebumps—and the desire to watch the film again to look for the crucial clues peppered throughout, leading you straight to the whodunnit.
Manorama-Six Feet Under released last week; Johnny Gaddaar released yesterday.
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