'Cuttputlli' is, by some distance, the best Akshay Kumar film this year. That’s not a rave—though to some extent it is. The 54-year-old actor blustered through Bachchhan Paandey, fought off live lions in Samrat Prithviraj, and, for good measure, turned on the melodrama in 'Raksha Bandhan'. His new film boasts none of these excesses. Directed by Ranjit M Tiwari, it’s a small, sustained, suitably involving serial killer story set in a hill town. Akshay gets one-and-a-half action scenes (and that too feels like overkill). The one time his gun goes off, in a civilian environment, he’s promptly called in and suspended.
A remake of 'Ratsasan' (2018), 'Cuttputlli' opens with cops retrieving the mutilated body of a teenager. We then meet Arjan Sethi (Akshay), a struggling screenwriter obsessed with serial killers. He’s the sort of geek who lists off names like ‘Auto Shankar’ and ‘Cyanide Mohan’ (If this is a film about the early years of Sriram Raghavan and Anurag Kashyap, Akshay is not the man to play them). Arjan, we gather, has written a serial killer script and is shopping it around, unsuccessfully, in the Punjabi film industry. When nothing works out, he gives it up to become a police sub-inspector, joining his brother-in-law, Narinder (an affecting Chandrachur Singh), in the Kasauli department.
I mentioned the murdered teen. As Arjan correctly deduces, the killing at the start of the film is not a one-off. A second body turns up, then a third. The victims are all schoolgirls—their faces severely disfigured, one eye gouged out, teeth bashed. The killer not only kidnaps and mutilates them but, like any self-respecting ‘psychopath’, leaves behind severed doll heads for cops to find. “He wants to be famous through his crimes,” Arjan explains to his higher-ups. “We won’t let him.” Ha! There goes his million-dollar Netflix true-crime deal…
Barring a few annoyances—like the cringe flirtation that ensues between Akshay and Rakul Preet Singh’s kindly schoolteacher (“You look too young to be a father,” she tells him in their first meeting)—'Cuttputlli' moves along at a steady clip. Ranjit and writer Aseem Arora have fun teasing us with clues and red herrings (the original screenplay is by Ram Kumar). As in most good thrillers, information is doled out slowly, incrementally. The setbacks add up to the thrills (or defuse excitement before an emotional scene). The ride is helped along by Rajeev Ravi’s naturalistic cinematography—some lovely night shots—and Julius Packiam’s tense, easy-on-the-ears score.
Akshay, star of 'Kesari', 'Bell Bottom' and 'Sooryavanshi', looks out of place in a small-town mystery (another atypical casting is Gurpreet Ghuggi as a stern junior cop). Nevertheless, it’s fun to see him skip, hop and give chase in such everyday settings. Initially, Arjan is mild-mannered and opposed to violence, a stance he subsequently drops as the film progresses and the stakes rise. And while there’s enough righteous anger to justify this flip, I wish they hadn’t leaned into Akshay’s physical presence at all. The climax, which feels unduly rushed to accommodate an action scene, is all the weaker for it.
Early on, we glimpse a 'Raman Raghav 2.0' poster on Arjan’s bedroom wall. It’s an apt reference: the 2016 film is the last great Hindi serial killer flick of our times. It’s also a confession: Ranjit cannot fathom executing his at a comparable level. 'Cuttputlli' doesn’t elevate its genre of choice. It just makes the cut.
Director: Ranjith M Tiwari
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Rakut Preet Singh, Chandrachur Singh, Sargun Mehta, Gurpreet Ghuggi
(This story originally appeared on cinemaexpress.com)