The first encounter between a cop and a gangster has a quality of romance. The person in your head is finally flesh and gun. There is curiosity. You’ve been obsessed but you barely know them. There is hesitation – should you talk or shoot?
Adi (Vijay Varma) meets Shiva (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) for the first time in a rundown alley. It’s late in the night, and the Mumbai clouds have opened their ducts. Adi points his gun at Shiva who is on the run, trying to climb a wall. “Stop! Police!” Adi says. Shiva stops and raises his hands. He’s unarmed.
Amit Kumar, Monsoon Shootout’s director, films the next portion in slow motion. As the two shoot blank stares at each other, Adi remembers his mother’s (Pravina Deshpande) advice, “There are three paths in life: good, bad and middle.” Good: don’t shoot; arrest the guy. Bad: murder him and dress it as a shoot-out. Middle: injure and arrest him.
Adi doesn’t shoot. Shiva jumps the wall and hides under trash. The next morning, he finds the boy who tipped off the cops and hacks him with an axe. Adi’s senior, Khan (Neeraj Kabi), relegates him to clerical work. Adi starts investigating the case alone, but Kumar is not interested in its outcome. Soon we’re back in the alley. “Stop! Police!” Adi says. Shiva stops and raises his hands. Slow motion, his mother’s words and a frozen Adi. This time he shoots. Shiva dies.
These aren’t spoilers. The film reveals these plot points early. Most dramas materialise through the decisions taken by their characters. In Kumar’s debut, the decision is the film. Monsoon Shootout changes, unspooling three different stories, based on Adi’s choices. Its structure could have been gimmicky, but Kumar’s exploration of moral crossroads elevates this noir beyond the mélange of black, white and grey. Any story falls into one of the following categories (or their combinations): man versus man, man versus society, man versus himself. In Monsoon Shootout, man versus himself interrupts man versus man. What should Adi choose: becoming a good cop or a good man? Is it possible to be both?
An ex-cop’s son, Adi has recently joined the force. Like a blind person crossing a busy road, Adi finds constant roadblocks by virtue of who he is: an idealist. The incoming traffic is relentless. It comprises his boss and subordinate, prone to murdering and molesting; the higher-ups in the force, corrupt players ready to be bought; the minister, changing the game’s rules at will – arm-twisting the department – to suit his ends. In Monsoon Shootout, the society is always crushing the man, trivialising his battle with self and others.
An honest cop can be a film cliché. But Varma (who excelled in his first major role in Pink last year) aids Kumar’s writing and direction, portraying Adi’s anguish and helplessness with considerable nuance. Adi is not a type. He obeys his boss but also cusses back when pushed enough. To play by the rules, he’s ready to break some of them. Different versions of the film show his distinct sides – obedient, manipulative, stubborn – prompting us to wonder, “Can our decisions change our selves? Given that our upbringing and conditioning control us in subtle ways, is free will an oxymoron?”
Kumar’s aware that his film can’t piggyback on motifs alone. So he makes the individual stories compelling, replete with mini three-act structures, that are satisfying journeys in themselves. Varma is accompanied by reliable acting talents: Kabi, Siddiqui and Tannishtha Chatterjee. Siddiqui, in a small role as a slumlord’s hired killer, blends the eloquence of a street poet with the bestiality of a serial killer. This conflation of idioms – Siddiqui’s strength – helps him create his own language in yet another role, making you laugh and gasp. Chatterjee (Shiva’s wife) and Kabi are crucial hinges, effective foils that set their counterparts free. But equally important, this film belongs to a debutant, child actor Farhan Mohammad Hanif Shaikh. As Shiva’s son, Chhotu, Shaikh occasionally bungles his lines, but when he faces Adi, his eyes – small balls of fire – emit the rage his character hasn’t learnt to subdue or express.
But Monsoon Shootout could have been more effective if Kumar had shown confidence in a few vital scenes. When Adi confronts Shiva for the second and third time, we don’t need the same voiceover explaining his dilemma. If a scene underpinned by a worldview offering three choices is filmed thrice, its implications are evident. Kumar insists on words, when visuals are enough. Besides, the climactic twist bookending the three stories clings to a trite observation, undercutting the film’s ingenuity.
In all the segments, two dialogues – “truth is far simple” and “do you think the end justifies the means” – recur. The first is framed as a sentence, the second as a question. The difference is crucial when viewed through the film’s checkered journey. Shot in 2011, premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2013 and waited since to find a theatrical release, Monsoon Shootout, like its story, has lived three distinct lives, using interminable means to find its end. Kumar has controlled the film over the years, conceptualising, writing and directing it. At last, it’s out of his control and in the world to meet its own mysterious outcome.