Vishal Bhardwaj is Bollywood’s unlikeliest dark knight. He started his career in the 1990s composing mellifluous and memorable music scores that provided the only real alternative to A.R. Rahman’s synth-pop juggernaut. His self-declared guide into Hindi cinema was Gulzar, the lyricist and occasional maker of gentle, poetic films. But Bhardwaj’s own film tastes proved to be nothing like Gulzar’s. From Maqbool to 7 Khoon Maaf via Omkara and Kaminey, Bhardwaj is living proof that in Bollywood, you find cool in the unlikeliest of places.
Bhardwaj packs his films with twisted men and women who are unafraid to cross over to the dark side. In the way in which he embraces characters with more black than white in their souls, Bhardwaj is the closest thing Bollywood has to Mani Ratnam, the Tamil director whose love for lawless men has resulted in such films as Nayakan, Thalapathi and most recently Raavanan. Like Ratnam, he has managed to find a sweet spot between realism and make-believe.
Go West: Priyanka Chopra and Irrfan Khan in 7 Khoon Maaf
He extracts natural performances from his actors, but the gritty spell is broken ever so often by the insertion of songs. Increasingly, he has started running the songs in the background rather than getting his actors to lip-sync the words—a wise decision, given his poor song picturization skills. The term song picturization is unique to our film industry—and a dying art.
Bhardwaj has nostalgia by the spadefuls, but he isn’t interested in making 1970s-style films like Farah Khan or Farhan Akhtar. His gaze is turned westwards towards Hollywood and Europe. Maqbool, Omkara and Kaminey are all gangster films in one way or another—all of them are about people who inhabit the fringes of the law, follow rules of their own making, and kill at will. Bhardwaj manages to fuse the crime genre with uniquely Indian traits. In Kaminey, he localized the crime film and found Mumbai equivalents of the low-life who populate the movies of Martin Scorsese and Guy Ritchie. Kaminey flitted from one amoral thug to the next without caring much for sociology or criminal psychology, resulting in an immensely entertaining but ultimately empty movie. Compared with Kaminey’s strutting, Omkara, Bhardwaj’s version of William Shakespeare’s Othello, feels like a brooding epic about masculinity and caste, but that film too is little more than a pared down and simplistic version of a great text.
Bhardwaj shares with his fellow traveller Anurag Kashyap a love for deviance, but the similarity ends there. Kashyap’s decidedly off-kilter approach to cinema results in dark and often dire films. Bhardwaj has the gift of the feather touch. He is many notches above regular Bollywood fare, but not so deep as to alienate the average sophisticated viewer. That’s what early Ratnam used to be all about: slick, well-made genre films that smoothly melded together foreign and Indian sensibilities and never forgot to entertain viewers.
Ratnam’s brand of film-making has been undermined of late by recent developments in Tamil cinema. Young Tamil film-makers are increasingly making dark and violent films that experiment with camera techniques, untested actors and innovative locations. Bhardwaj, on the other hand, is only beginning.
7 Khoon Maaf will release on 18 February.
Nandini Ramnath is the film critic ofTime Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at email@example.com