The night has just begun, and the dolphins are dancing on Mumbai streets. A two-seater plane surfaces out of nowhere, flying close to the road. The streetlights have merged into each other, appearing like a continuous stream of sodium-vapour liquid. The man watching these sights, Rileen (Saif Ali Khan), has dropped acid for the first time, and he’s about to die in a few months. If this sounds a lot, there’s more. Rileen, driving a car, is sitting beside his brother, Angad (Akshay Oberoi), who is going to meet his ex-girlfriend. Angad is also getting married in a few hours. Then there are two mafia henchmen, played by Vijay Raaz and Deepak Dobriyal, planning to get rich by stealing their boss’s loot. Then there’s a girl (Sobhita Dhulipala) about to catch a flight to the US to pursue her PhD, leaving her boyfriend (Kunaal Roy Kapur) behind. But the two are stuck in a bar raided by cops.
Akshat Verma’s Kaalakaandi takes off in the fifth gear and doesn’t seem to stop. Verma, who wrote the highly enjoyable Delhi Belly, has a thing for profanity. His characters don’t censor themselves; they crack inappropriate jokes and swear often. Like Delhi Belly, Kaalakaandi has cuss words aplenty and, in a minor miracle, none of them are beeped out. But whether it’s Delhi Belly or his directorial debut Kaalakaandi, Verma doesn’t use profanity as a crutch to elicit laughs or spice up indifferent scenes and dialogues. Profanity just suits Verma’s characters – ordinary people trying to punch above their weight and constantly falling short.
Rileen, for instance, is compensating for lost time. Earlier in the day, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The doctor told him to, “Get your affairs in order.” Rileen feels betrayed; he never drank, smoked or did drugs. What’s worse, he even ate healthy. But in Verma’s world, people get run over for no fault of their own. How does anyone make up for lost time? Rileen has no clue. So he goes down the rabbit hole, searching for answers. The mafia henchmen, similarly, are running in an endless tunnel. If they double-cross their boss, they’ll die. But of what use is a life devoid of dignity and fraught with risks? Kapur’s character, nearly always nervous and hesitant, wants to stop his girlfriend from leaving. But he lacks the confidence that braces many men in love.
Verma doesn’t need to underscore his characters’ wants because his writing is focused and sharp, always committed to making each scene a cohesive whole, getting small details right, never interrupting or disrupting the film’s rhythm. His dialogues are natural and funny. They aren’t written to impress but to make you inch closer to the characters – even if you don’t talk or think like them. There’s a good chance that you may not remember even a single dialogue from the film, but when delivered in the most tense situations, where patience is running low and danger looming large, you’d fail to find a better substitute. That’s the thing about Kaalakaandi: no one seems to be performing; everyone is busy being.
Amid whimsical and absurd scenes, rippling with humour, the film throws some unexpected moments of tenderness, slowly rising above its material. Consider the sequence where Rileen bumps into a transgender sex worker on street. It begins in a funny vein, with Rileen saying he’s not interested in sex but just wants to see her “southern hemisphere”, for he’s always been curious. As they evade cops, drink at a hotel, rush into a women’s restroom – one of Rileen’s cherished desires – and eventually part ways, their transactional relationship evolves into something gentle, even though it is momentary. It is for the first time that Kaalaakandi opens its heart to us, and it’s a quiet wonderful moment.
If Kaalakaandi’s first half darts from one scene to the next, almost breathless in the pursuit of a climax, then its second half is relatively contemplative. At times, Verma even pauses the story and allows his characters to stare at their existential abyss – scenes that proffer no answers, instead inviting more questions. One of them again involves Rileen, still tripping, looking at his car hood that has transformed into a sea of stars. A comet falls from that sky and he cups it in his hand, then looks towards Angad, who is unsure about calling off the marriage, and tells him that he should, that he isn’t as unique as he’d like to believe; none of us are. This scene doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things, for Angad doesn’t take his advice, but it gives Rileen a luxury often denied to many Hindi film characters: he’s allowed to be. Verma also withholds key information about some characters, causing us to see them in a new light in the climax, prodding us to consider the chasm between person and projection.
Juggling three stories, Verma resists the temptation to forge forceful connections among them, letting them find their own paths. In its final few minutes, Kaalakaandi seems to saunter towards a satisfying climax, one that is sufficiently complex and has different shades: some characters have found solace; some have not. But right at the end, Verma conjures up a bizarre connection between the two stories, needlessly tying them with karmic philosophy. But this feels like a minor annoyance, for the rest of the film, just like its characters, is content to float, trying to find shreds of sanity amid the mind-numbing chaos.