In his first scene of Why Cheat India, Rakesh (Emraan Hashmi) does the worst thing an Indian moviegoer in 1997 could possibly do: tell someone watching Gupt for the first time that Kajol is the killer. Granted, he’s revealing this to someone who isn’t very nice, but there is such a thing as basic human decency.

That introduction is also a warning that the film may not know how to deal with its central character. The scene begins with a group of friends – including Satyendra (Snigdhadeep Chatterjee), who’s just qualified for a top-flight engineering college – being bullied out of their seats at the cinema hall. The same toughs then try to move Rakesh, who single-handedly beats them up even though one is carrying a gun. This is the only physical violence on Rakesh’s part in the film. The scene isn’t there because it’s in his character; director Soumik Sen probably just wanted a “hero entry" and settled for the easiest one.

The confusion about what Rakesh is supposed to stand for continues through the film. He’s revealed to be an examination fixer, someone who arranges for entrance tests to be taken by brilliant students on behalf of rich, weak ones. Satyendra becomes one such exam-writer, his father’s debt on his behalf making him easy prey. Rakesh is consistently terrible through the film; yet, Sen won’t allow him to become unsympathetic. Instead, he’s given speech after speech in which he paints himself as some sort of Robin Hood, redistributing wealth to poor, smart students.

There were no such delusions in the man on whom Rakesh is clearly modelled. Gordon Gekko (Wall Street, 1987) is one of the great antagonists in movie history because he’s gleefully, wholeheartedly amoral. He exploits young Bud Fox but is also fond of him, much like Rakesh both uses and feels responsible for Satyendra, shepherding him through the early days of college while also putting him on a punishing schedule of proxy exams. Like Gordon, Rakesh is married and involved with another woman. And sure enough, he ends up using Gekko’s famous phrase: greed is good.

There’s another reference, this time from an Indian film. In the scene where Satyendra is on the phone with Rakesh in Jhansi, there’s a poster for Satyajit Ray’s Jana Aranya (1975) on the wall behind him. It’s an apt comparison: Jana Aranya begins with a scene of cheating in an examination hall, and is a story of middle-class dreams and corruption. It’s also a reference for the sake of it. There’s no good reason why there’d be poster of a Bengali art film on a wall in Uttar Pradesh in the late ‘90s (it’s different in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, whose satirical universe allowed for the use of Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul film posters).

Satyendra fades from the second half of the film, and the narrative – already guilty of repetition – starts to meander. Rakesh attempts a scam similar to the engineering tests, with MBA entrance exams, but with Satyendra out of the picture, there’s less at stake emotionally. I was glad for the return of Nupur, Satyendra’s supportive sister, and the one searching character in the film. She falls for Rakesh, not because he’s particularly charming but because he’s played by Hashmi and it’d be bad for the actor’s image if the female lead wasn’t throwing herself at him. Even with this dispiriting arc, Shreya Dhanwanthary has an affecting low-key presence, and her reading of the line “Bahut meherbani hai" is beautifully bitter.

There are some nice touches. Before starting to write their engineering entrance papers, many of the students place flowers and small figurines on their desks for good luck (Satyendra actually takes his flowers – marigold, auspicious – back home). And there’s Rakesh’s habit of offering prasad to everyone he meets, a constant cleansing of the soul even as he tempts them into sin. Hashmi seems to enjoy himself; if the writing was brighter and the other characters had more agency, the film might have played differently. The best moments are early on, when we’re amongst the dreams of hungry toppers and desperate parents. Once that passes, Why Cheat India becomes just another Hindi film unwilling to admit that its hero is a villain.

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