Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Radhika Apte, Anil Dhawan, Tabu
Direction: Sriram Raghavan
A blind pianist is invited to play for an old-timey movie star and his trophy wife. There are secret lovers, snoopy neighbours and bad timing involved. There's also a loaded gun lying around, just so you know. This is exactly the sort of wishful, prototypical noir set-up you expect frisky film schoolers to make a mess out of — laying it on thick with plot turns, homages, MacGuffins, femme fatales and the customary house cat. Sriram Raghavan’s new film, AndhaDhun, has all of those elements — right down to a wily character being referred to as ‘The Third Man’ — but this is no work of a dormroom enthusiast. Set in Pune (also the town of Raghavan’s alma mater FTII), this is a film made with absolute dexterity and deftness of craft, even though in essence it remains a wide-eyed ode to movie magic.
The task of a good thriller is to make the vital look incidental. A man goes to report a murder and runs into the perpetrator. A lift door opens onto a crime scene. A CGI rabbit bounces off a windshield and turns the plot on its sardonic head. Structurally, AndhaDhun mirrors the cascading chaos of Johnny Gaddaar — full of curveballs, double-crosses and impish gambits — although the intention here is far more comical.
To that end, Ayushmann Khurrana is a perfect fit as the slippery protagonist. He sniffs out situational humour in every scene and renders it with a clipped precision, knowing, at each beat, just how much to give away. The actor has clearly trained hard at the piano, and also at adopting a blind man’s gait, but these are just flourishes to complement the crooked dubiousness he brings to the character. “I don't like invisible tension,” Sophie (Radhika Apte in a surprisingly sunny role) tells Ayushmann’s Akash in an early scene. “It gives me pimples.” This is not a plug for some underhand cosmetic endorsement, but considering the frequency of gasps this film manages to draw, some skincare might just go with the headshakes.
Also Read: Radhika Apte knows exactly what the audience will like, says 'AndhaDhun' director Sriram Raghavan
Raghavan creates a world interchangeably familiar and pulpy. Borrowing the bare bones from the 13-minute French short film L’accordeur (The Piano Turner), he strings together ingenious set-pieces and populates them with wryly-written characters. Veteran actor Anil Dhawan sets things off with a scrumptiously meta performance: his character, Pramod Sinha, is a washed-up ‘70s actor looking to have a crack at real estate. His apartment is decked up with movie-posters of Dhawan’s own films — Chetna, Honeymoon, Darwaza — and ever so often we cut to clippings of his hit songs, including a ticklish use of Tere Galiyon Mein Na Rakhenge Kadam from Hawaz. (Strangely, there’s also a reference to a fictional spin-off franchise called Nurse Radha, possibly inspired by Waheeda Rehman’s character in Khamoshi).
Tabu, playing the delusive Mrs. Sinha, glides and cruises through her performance, making the script cower and simper for daring to challenge her. In a kitchen scene, she details to her husband her exact approach with crabmeat: “I don't like shocking the wiggly animal by dipping it into boiling water,” she explains in a considerate, MasterChef-voice. “I first freeze it to sleep, and only after it is peacefully comatose, I dunk it into the pot.” The foreshadowing is lost on her husband, who continues to urge her to start her own cooking show, but we — the audience — are potently alerted about the wreckage to come. Danger in Raghavan's kitchen is a dish best cooked cold.
The editing of AndhaDhun is gripping and symphonic, rising and falling and trailing off into sudden interludes. The first half is breathless, while the second half slackens considerably. Amit Tridevi’s songs (barring the heartful Naina Da Kya Kasoor) sit awkwardly with the instrumental portions, played by Mumbai-based pianist Jarvis Menezes. The script is mapped out like a falling set of dominoes, and in portions where the pattern gets too tiring, there’s always a clever aside or new revelation to cheer things up. This is where Raghavan — at 55 and just 5 films old — gets to flaunt his real mastery. Nothing is what it seems under his watch. Is our protagonist really blind? Who is an accomplice and who isn't, and for how long? Where's the money? Where's the gun? Were they even there? The trailer had promised intrigue and duplicity, and the film delivers profusely on both fronts.
Towards the end — when all is resolved and yet nothing is — a scheming organ trafficker asserts acerbically, “What is life? It all depends on the liver”. With nerve-pinching thrills and bloodstained humour, AndhaDhun is a film for all organs — kidney, liver, and eye. Hold on dearly to as many you have left. Nurse Radha may still be afoot.