A Sriram Raghavan film is a house of cards. Its twists, subplots and, more importantly, character motivations are so delicately linked that one slip-up and the whole thing falls. Deceit is central to his movies, altering their nature and our perception of them in crucial ways. But the result of such an intricate set-up can also mean something else: that if you aren’t paying close attention, you end up giving his film more credit than it merits.
Which is nothing but a compliment, as his films are so formally stylish, often funny and engaging, that assessing your true response to them – both cerebral and emotional – can be a task in itself: you’ve to be both inside and outside them, be on the guard, be ready to examine what looks obvious but isn’t (and, say, emerges from lazy execution). Ultimately, in a Raghavan film, it is not his characters, but you are the one getting tested, and the one doing all the villainy – the small acts of deceit – is the filmmaker himself. It is a terrific feeling, where you see a film with all the complications and the sophisticated artistry of a physics problem.
Raghavan’s latest, Andhadhun, like Ek Hasina Thi (2004) and Johnny Gaddaar (2007), is built on a palace of deceits. The first of many comes in the first ten minutes. With that twist, he unfolds a series of surprises – and in the way you least expect them. If you’ve seen its trailer, and have seen enough films in general, you get the set-up: there’s a murder; there’s a suspect; and then, there’s a blind pianist. We’ve the same questions: Who is the murderer? Is that pianist, Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana – a wonderful actor who hardly disappoints), really blind? These are valid questions, but Raghavan satiates all your curiosities early, as if saying, “You came here wanting a bunch of things: here you go. Now give me all your attention and see the story I want you to see.” Attention: that’s what Andhadhun demands from us.
It’s not an unreasonable expectation, because Raghavan holds himself to the same standards. And he does so, to begin with, in the unlikeliest of places: Andhadhun is very attentive to the use of language. It makes thematic sense, too. Akash – an obsessive, ambitious man – can’t see, so what should he (and in turn, the film) care about the most? Things he can listen to. Raghavan takes that thought and runs a marathon with it.
For instance, Sophie (Radhika Apte) befriends Akash because she crashed her scooter into him. Later, her father, the owner of a bar where Akash has begun performing, asks her about their first encounter. To which she says, “Erm, we met by accident.” In another meeting, she tells Akash, “See you”, soon correcting herself to, “Or… I’ll see you.” When a man (Anil Dhawan) enters his house on the day of his anniversary, exclaiming, “Surprise!” he ends up getting one. When Akash and Priya enter his house on a rainy night, when their bond isn’t what it seems, he says, before flicking the switch, “Sorry, you can’t see.” Such examples are numerous, quietly sprinkled throughout, hinting that Andhadhun is assured of its telling – and that you can trust this film, one of the sly tricks Raghavan employs to both delight and (possibly) trick us.
This isn’t the only high point of Andhadhun. For a thriller centred on multiple murders, the film is unexpectedly funny. One long sequence, in particular, plays out with calculated theatrical thrills, which is disturbing yet hilarious. In fact, that strain enlivens the entire film – there’s constant humour amid horror, making you laugh and gasp in the same breath. Andhadhun is constantly jumping around, like an already excited teenager on MDMA, doing multiple things at once: introducing plot twists, tossing funny throwaway lines, unpeeling the characters’ fronts, escalating the stakes, showing the extent of threat, lacing the film with appropriate themes.
In a film where people are constantly deceiving each other – or, more appropriately, performing – Andhadhun is essentially an ode to acting. At the start of the film, we’re introduced to Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan), a famous actor of the ’70s whose stardom has gone but his narcissism hasn’t. The walls of his living room are lined up with his films’ posters (Chetna, Honeymoon, Darwaza – films that starred Dhawan himself, a meta parallel narrative unfolding on its own); his bedroom has his framed photo; he re-watches his own films late in the night, remembering scenes and dialogues and, presumably, feelings that have been defeated by time. His wife, Simi (Tabu), a once failed actress, still aspires to act. Then there are other characters acting in crucial, fundamental ways.
Raghavan, a movie nerd, has a lot of fondness for old Hindi cinema. Johnny Gaddaar’s opening credits doffed its hat to Vijay Anand; it had an inventive plot turn, thanks to Jyoti Swaroop’s Parwana. Andhadhun, too, opens by paying homage to ‘Chhaya Geet’ and ‘Chitrahaar’. So it doesn’t feel like a coincidence when, in its first few minutes, Akash talks about the sacrifices people make for art: that art does give you a lot, but it also takes away so much. In a film, where people are narcissistic in various unsettling ways, who is the first one to die? The biggest narcissist of all: the actor.
Even otherwise, Raghavan blends his story and themes with a lot of finesse. His main concerns as a filmmaker, evident in such movies as Johnny Gaddaar and Badlapur, remain the same, examining the evil lurking in ordinary, asking a fundamental question that needs to be asked more often: Should the worst be done to the worst? Besides, the film’s technical proficiency is impressive – the wonderful use of music (comfortably swaying between the vibe of old Bollywood and a more contemporary sound), acting (Tabu and Khurrana, an ingenious casting choice, collide with ferocious intensity), cinematography (Raghavan’s frame compositions are intriguing, withholding just the right amount of information or one longish take near the end, captured by a vertically accelerating, slowly rotating camera, mimicking the headiness of a chase, reminding you of Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo). And yet, you wonder: Did Raghavan get me?
An important scene towards the end, involving Simi, makes you want to say, “Hang on: I need more information.” Tabu’s Simi gets involved in a series of complications and resorts to bizarre methods to extricate herself. While she’s at it, you don’t mind – everything feels natural, makes sense. Yet towards the end, you wonder: Could it have been that simple? That was one of the main reasons Badlapur, an ambitious, morally complex piece, didn’t add up for me, for, I felt, the film didn’t care enough to make its most pivotal transition credible. Here too, that doubt persists. Was Simi really convincing, I want to ask myself now, or did I allow myself to get distracted and conned? There’s no way to tell – at least as of now. I left the theatre with a mild confusion and a lot of delight. The house of cards was still standing.