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A neo-noir that’s deep-fried rather than hard-boiled

Pune 52, which being touted as the first neo-noir in Marathi cinema, is more deep-fried than hardboiled.

Nikhil Mahajan’s debut feature is set in 1992, one year after the Union government linked India with global capital, and plays out mostly in Pune’s Karve Nagar neighbourhood in a shabby home that has seen better days. The time frame of 1992 is no more than an excuse to go retro with the scooters, telephones and cameras. And apart from providing a pin code to the title, Karve Nagar isn’t quite this movie’s Chinatown, even though the Roman Polanski classic casts a long and unshakeable shadow over Pune 52’s screenplay.

Mahajan doesn’t make much of the fact that the movie is set in a Brahmin-dominated locality and features a down-on-his-luck Brahmin detective whose caste is apparent from his surname (Apte) and his sacred thread, of which we know because of the number of shots featuring his bare, unsculpted torso. Girish Kulkarni, who plays Amar Apte, is a competent actor and a fine dialogue writer, but being a babe magnet isn’t one of his virtues.

He is brusque and appears incapable of cracking a smile, let alone firing up a woman’s desire, yet Amar Apte proves irresistible to his long-suffering, borderline shrewish wife (Sonali Kulkarni) and a mysterious and sultry woman (Sai Tamhankar) who hires him to follow her husband whom she suspects of having an affair. The wife, Prachi, constantly taunts Amar for being a loser at work and in the bedroom, which gives him an excuse to shed his inhibitions and pants for femme fatale Neha. Anybody who’s read Raymond Chandler (the author is name-checked in the movie) or watched half a Hollywood noir will know what comes next.

Pune 52 is a mystery in search of a good story, but it occasionally crackles with atmospherics. Majahan is adept at creating a sense of uncanny; at framing characters in such a way that you’re not quite sure what they will do next; at holding a shot to create a sense of foreboding. Amar Apte’s descent into confusion is bathed in washed-out colours (the cinematography is by Jeremy Reagan) and the jumpy, handheld camerawork is satisfyingly intriguing. The performances are spot-on, especially by the women.

Yet, Mahajan ruins his achievements by plastering nearly every scene with Girish Kulkarni’s wall-to-wall dialogue. After being rebuffed by her husband one night, Prachi doesn’t turn away and cry herself to sleep, but blathers on about her husband’s incompetence. Neha, whose one smouldering look speaks more than words, verbalises her love for Amar ever so often. Amar himself is quite the wordsmith. Yes, noir is as much about sharp-edged conversation as it is about shadowy visuals, but the balance isn’t quite right in Pune 52.

Pune 52 opens with English subtitles on 18 January all over Maharashtra. The movie will also be screened at PVR multiplexes under the Director’s Rare programming slot from 8 February in Delhi, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad.

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