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At the start of a new Hindi thriller, Chehre, the CEO of an ad firm, Sameer Mehra (Emraan Hashmi), gets stuck in a snowy desolate north Indian village. Delhi is more than 200 kilometres away, and his car has stopped working.
He meets an amiable local, Bhuller (Annu Kapoor), who invites him to his friend’s place. That bungalow has three more people: an old man (Raghubir Yadav) who sits in a corner, playing the flute and eyeing Sameer with suspicion; a housekeeper who sometimes slips into exaggerated smiles, Anna (Rhea Chakraborty); and the only reasonable person among the lot, Acharya (Dhritiman Chatterjee).
We don’t know anything about these men, except that they’re related to “law and judiciary”.
The initial conversations are commonplace and friendly, but the film keeps giving the impression that something is about to happen, something ominous. The tension promises to intensify, when the fourth character enters the picture, Lateef Zaidi (Amitabh Bachchan).
More chit chat, more banality, more indications of the imminent ominousness, but more than half an hour has passed, and we get…nothing – except some backstory. In their past professional lives, Lateef was a fabled prosecutor, Bhuller a defence attorney, and Acharya a judge. The house then resembles a mini-court, and they’re about to play a routine game, one that requires a visitor.
Here’s the crux of it: Sameer will be accused of a crime. Bhuller will defend him; Lateef will try to prosecute him; and Acharya will give the final judgement. None of these people know Sameer. If the prospect of the game – centred on picking a random stranger, accusing him of a crime, and turning the house into a courtroom – sounds far-fetched then, well, it is.
Sameer acts as a proxy-audience for a while, protesting and firing some common sense – but we know where this is headed – and everything is annulled anyway when Lateef says, “I don’t know anyone who has not committed a crime.” This line, too, is a true embodiment of a ‘long stretch’, but you plod along, hoping the film will eventually start.
That’s when the real problem starts, too. Sameer, you see, has a Dark Past.
He doesn’t reveal it to those men but Lateef, carrying a Sherlock Holmes vibe, digs it out and starts grilling him. (We find out later how he reached that conclusion – it’s terribly trite and thoroughly unconvincing.) After large parts of indifferent filmmaking, Sameer’s backstory is Chehre’s last chance to redeem itself.
But his past life – involving an abusive boss (Samir Soni), his tormented wife (Krystle D’Souza), and a murder – stretches all limits of credence. An even bigger problem is that, for a thriller, the movie fails to whip up intrigue: the dialogues are pedestrian, the performances are just competent (not compelling), and the story a sorry excuse for one convenient plot point after the other.
Some bits, not even central to the mystery, are plain baffling – even insulting. Take Sameer’s interactions with Anna for instance: they transition from amicable to awkward to creepy (for no good reason).
Or just look at Anna in isolation: Her strange mannerism – heightened by the unsettling smile – gets a probable explanation towards the end: that her mental condition isn’t normal. This stereotype is so old and infuriating that it exhibits a total lack of filmmaking nuance – and general awareness.
The word that best describes this film is ‘silly’.
Right from the opening credits – where Bachchan is posing and strutting and staring while lip-syncing a stale philosophical song often marked by the words “Chehre! Chehre!” – to the contrived ‘game’ to Sameer’s backstory (which could have been sorted by one pragmatic decision) to its simplistic resolution (no, Lateefsaab, people don’t keep incriminating evidence on their phones) to the group’s fundamental motivation: It all reeks of an overexcited school play.
Besides, the film sets up the expectation of a face-off between Bhullar and Lateef, but Bachchan gets all the lines, reducing Kapoor to a mere footnote.
But the thriller’s main undoing is its painful self-righteousness – and a ludicrous lack of self-awareness.
Bachchan launches into a sudden long monologue in the climax. It starts off with a sanctimonious spiel on the definition of justice, referring to the Nirbhaya case (an incredibly manipulative example), and then drones on and on like an insecure schoolteacher: “The decadence of human values and humanity must stop!” “[The pervasive mentality among criminals is that] if the whole world is doing it, why shouldn’t I?”
Bachchan’s unending verbal squash even compelled a tired audience member to comment, “Aadhe ghanta se bol raha hai [he’s been talking for the last half an hour].”
If you scratch the surface, however, a few disturbing things stand out. Even after all the moral posturing and his appeals to “humanity,” Lateef still advocates capital punishment. The film delivers endless sermons on “law and justice”, but its ultimate end materialising via an ‘accident’ makes the whole thing resemble a bloody kangaroo court.
What’s more, the best plot twist is not in the thriller, but outside it. Now the least you can expect of such a ‘pure’ piece is to practice what it preaches, right? Come on (this is a Bollywood film — whom are you kidding?).
Turns out, the plot of Chehre is lifted from a 1956 German novel, Die Panne. There’s no mention of this anywhere. I mean, the irony is breathtaking in its brazenness. What do you call such blatant dishonesty even? Well, for the time being, I’ll settle with “the decadence of filmmaking values”.