There are two distinctly opposing tracks in Bijoy Nambiar’s debut film Shaitan.
One, involving four brazen, unsuspecting post-teen libertines and their new manic, trauma-ridden friend. They are from wealthy, dysfunctional families and each has a distinct quirk, like a TV actor with bulimia. While in a post-narcotic haze, spinning around Mumbai in a yellow Hummer, sucking on lollipops and assigning a new nomenclature to “crazy vibrators” (Dil do paagal hai), they are involved in an accident. To save themselves from imprisonment for having run over two men, they fake a kidnapping. A wicked jamboree is set in motion. Morality is out of bounds and there is no obvious caricaturing. This is one kind of youth you want to see in Indian movies.
The travails of the twisted, solipsistic souls are captured by a breathless camera in warm and neon hues and an arresting background score. Puritans will hear Khoya khoya chand in a remixed avatar and not be able to resist its thudding groove when it is set to unspool the visuals in slow motion. The “shaitan” track of the film is a tribute to Danny Boyle-Quentin Tarantino-Guy Ritchie kind of cinema—and a very efficient one at that.
The second track is about a tough, badass policeman who kicks Mumbai autorickshaw drivers into taking him wherever he wants. Worthy of applause. His means are ruthless but he is a good, upright man right in the middle of a bitter divorce. His boss, the city’s police commissioner, is a man saddled with political pressures and pleasing the Page 3 set. There’s also the media on this side of the story, treated in a mocking way, de rigueur in Hindi films these days. This track is staid and moral, and is visually the flip side to the “shaitan” universe—there is no inspired eye here.
The first problem with Shaitan arises out of this forced opposition. Nambiar, who has written the film along with Megha Ramaswamy, makes an interesting debut as director.
Nambiar’s premise is often explored in fiction—the pseudo philosophical idea that evil is latent in all humans. It’s a good set-up, at least for characterization. But the idea of confronting one’s inner demons, which has been the film’s promotional tag line, remains half-baked because of the opposing worlds it deals with.
Nambiar must have had a reason to justify the “shaitan”-ness by contrasting it with a boring, normal order of things. The policeman, played efficiently by Rajeev Khandelwal, and his marriage are redundant except to act as a foil to the doomed universe of the five dark central characters. The moralizing in some of the situations jars. Why create a sexy ode to evil and not go all the way? It couldn’t be the banal “Indian audience” argument, considering producer Anurag Kashyap is brave by any Indian standard.
With this film, Kashyap’s desire and intention to nurture and promote a certain school of film-making that challenges the Bollywood norm are obvious—and admirable.
I won’t go into the story. The less said the better, because it has a thriller quality to it and is savoured best for the first time. Suffice it to say that the film has only one developed, central character, that of Amy, played by Kalki Koechlin. It is the story’s only engaging and hefty role.
There are some crazy action and chase sequences shot by cinematographer R. Madhi with irreverence and obvious, wanton delight. Bhendi Bazaar appears in yet another Hindi film and is seedy, busy and overloaded as ever. The music by Ranjit Barot and Amar Mohile, among others, is hip and eclectic.
But despite all the technical flourish, it is difficult to be enraged or stirred by anyone or anything in Shaitan. Characters remain in limbo throughout—some traits which define them in the first half vanish as the film progresses; mean becomes timid and Barbie becomes tear-tap without justification.
Performances by actors Neil Bhoopalam, Kirti Kulhari, Shiv Pandit, Gulshan Devaiya, Raj Kumar Yadav and Khandelwal stand out even without fleshed characters to work with. Koechlin is inconsistent, but brings out the trauma of being harangued by dark memories of a mentally unstable mother with some degree of conviction. Kashyap’s winning knack of casting lesser-known, talented actors in the films he puts his name on is evident in Shaitan.
This could have been a superb piece of cinema with more control, a more interwoven script and an unflinching engagement with evil. Ultimately, it seems like a lukewarm follow-up to Kashyap’s Paanch and Dev.D. Even so, Nambiar is one of the brightest debuts in Hindi cinema in recent times. Watch Shaitan only for Nambiar’s imagination and pluck for visual orchestration.
Shaitan released in theatres on Friday.
West is West | Identity crisis
A boring and cliché-ridden follow-up to ‘East is East’
Om Puri and Linda Basset star again as a couple on the throes of managing their children’s identity issues in the sequel to East is East.
The Khan family travels to the patriarch’s native place in Pakistan where he has another wife (Ila Arun) and two daughters. What ensues is bereft of humour and wit and West is West becomes a tedious, sentimental film with too many stereotypes. Puri’s histrionics are awkward and loud.
West is West released in theatres on Friday