One of the people thanked in the opening credits of Judgementall Hai Kya is Sriram Raghavan. Whether or not he was involved with the film, this nod by director Prakash Kovelamudi and screenwriter Kanika Dhillon isn’t out of place. The film unfolds in Mumbai and London, but the real setting is Raghavan-land. There’s a death in the first few minutes. There are posters that read “Grand Guignol" (and actual Grand Guignol). And there’s that creeping doubt: should we be enjoying this?
Bobby (Kangana Ranaut) has acute psychosis, attributed to her inadvertently causing the death of her parents when she was a child. She’s paranoid, nervy, in and out of psychiatric institutions. She won’t take her medicines, so she hears voices in her head. Her work as a dubbing artist for pulpy south Indian films probably isn’t helping with her equilibrium: she’s a voice in someone’s head herself. She sees signs everywhere, literally – a man holding up a placard with fortune-cookie messages.
When a young couple moves into the apartment she’s letting out, Bobby quickly becomes obsessed with Keshav (Rajkummar Rao), who enters her dubbing-session fantasies and sets off RD Burman roars in her head. She’s clearly unstable – spying on the couple as they make love, hallucinating about cockroaches – and for a while that’s all this film is about. But then there’s a grisly accident, Bobby and Keshav are both suspects, and the tone switches from dark to pitch-black.
Ranaut’s willingness to inhabit different shades of instability has made her one of the most exciting Indian actors of the past decade. She’s always played women on the verge: Woh Lamhe, Fashion, Tanu Weds Manu and its sequel, Simran. So it’s somewhat surprising that when she now plays a character who's over the edge, it feels a little second-guessed. The hysterical laughter, the sudden rages – I felt I was watching Kangana imitating Kangana playing one of her characters.
This feeling of meta-ness isn’t accidental. In fact, Judgementall Hai Kya is at its most intriguing when seen as a commentary on Ranaut’s career. There are nods, not exactly subtle, to films like Revolver Rani and Manikarnika. Old co-stars turn up: Rao, Jimmy Sheirgill. Bobby is accused – as Ranaut has so often been – of lies and unstable behaviour, and she responds as Ranaut always does: head-on. “Character mein ghus jaati hai (she really inhabits the character)," someone says of Bobby – again, something that’s often been remarked about Ranaut.
When the action moves to London, the film simultaneously opens up and spins a little beyond reach. Here’s where the Raghavan comparisons end: Judgementall Hai Kya has a brilliant premise, but lacks the corrosive wit and discipline of Andhadhun and Badlapur. The icy glide of Raghavan’s stories is matched by his implacable control. Kovelamudi, on the other hand, tries to heat things up, pushing Rao and Ranaut – both capable of great subtle work – into awkward excess. The one person who benefits from this is cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, who gets to shoot Christopher Doyle shimmers, Emmanuel Lubezki jitters and classic Universal black-and-white.
The passage where Bobby is spying on Keshav got me thinking how often Ranaut plays sexually empowered women. In Revolver Rani, in Rangoon, she’s the initiator, the aggressor. Her objects of desire feel the intensity of her gaze; so does the audience. This is where the actor is in her element – inhabiting characters who invite judgement, then gleefully calling her critics judgemental. In a manicured industry, she remains a fascinating question mark.