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In his latest release, Cuttputlli, Akshay Kumar – for a change – is not trying to play a hero.
An aspiring filmmaker in Chandigarh, Arjan Sethi (Kumar) who, has a preternatural interest in criminal psychology, wants to direct thrillers. Barring the regular temporal calisthenics – the 54-year-old actor playing a 36-year-old character who calls a 41-year-old actress (Hrishitaa Bhatt) “didi” – this everyman lunge seems comforting. The Punjabi film industry producers keep rejecting him, compelling him to become a junior cop in Kasauli, serving under his brother-in-law, Narinder (Chandrachur Singh). He’s so low in the ranks that he can only be a spectator in a high-profile case: the murder of two schoolgirls.
Such an approach makes even more sense because Cuttputlli – the remake of a 2018 Tamil movie, Ratsasan – is a thriller, where three things matter: the crime, the investigation, the criminal. But since this is a Bollywood production, we know that Kumar will play a major role in solving the case. Which is fine.
What isn’t fine is how he becomes a part of it. On the very first day of his job, Narinder tells him (twice) to just follow the orders and not be a hero. So does another cop. The SHO (Station House Officer), played by Sargun Mehta, known for her fiery temper, is hostile to him right from the start. Arjan is soon punished, relegated to buying groceries and cigarettes.
This manufactured sympathy for the ‘underdog’ is so predictable that it only elicits pity. Because here’s what I thought would happen (and everything did exactly happen): Arjan’s bosses keep snubbing him, refuting all his suggestions. Then, of course, it turns out that he was all right all along. This isn’t the mechanics of a whodunit but of hero worship.
But Cuttputlli is also a masala film (yeah, I didn’t get the memo, either). So, it needs to have a heroine, some comedy, and a romantic subplot. We get that through Divya (Rakul Preet Singh), a teacher in a school where Arjan’s niece has enrolled. Same old trope: she doesn’t like him at first, then likes him, then admires him because he’s a cop.
Thirty-two minutes have passed, and you’ve yawned so hard for so long that you don’t crave the next plot point but a mattress. Oh, and the thriller plot hasn’t moved an inch. Maybe somnolence is the only real tension in this movie. Seasoned Bollywood audiences call it ‘yawn sambandh’.
Cuttputlli embodies the attitude of an undergrad engineering student: long periods of inaction and then – a night before the exam – feverish anxiety. The makers suddenly realise that this is a thriller, so something needs to happen. We get another subplot, as a result, centred on a math teacher in Arjan’s niece’s school, who assaults a series of children. Arjan is convinced that he’s the killer. But you’re not. Two words: red herring.
What also makes Cuttputlli fundamentally weak and insipid is the lack of intriguing three-dimensional characters. There’s nothing more to Arjan except a crime thriller aficionado. The other characters don’t even merit a one-line description. Its lack of intellectual curiosity is laughable. It uses such terms as “serial killer” and “psychopath” as if they were invented yesterday – as if a 12-year-old has just watched Mindhunter.
The only real comic relief is Divya giving Arjan her number. (It has eight digits.)
At one point, when the serial killer has murdered Narinder’s daughter and Arjan’s niece, Kumar and Singh break down and collapse on the ground. It’s the most dramatic moment in the movie, and yet the two actors show no vulnerability, no sense of realism. The whole thing could have been shot through a drone in the sky, and it’d have had the same effect. That small scene captures everything that has been wrong with Bollywood for a very long time: actors who are so disconnected from real life and people, who are so afraid to be vulnerable, that it makes them even more pitiable than indifferent sad sacks enduring soulless nine-to-five jobs.