Ittefaq: Sidharth Malhotra, Akshaye Khanna and intrigue quotient make this whodunit work
The last Bollywood murder mystery I remember vividly is Manorama Six Feet Under. However, most people would categorise this Abhay Deol film as "indie" or in more polite terms, "offbeat". Aamir Khan's Talaash is probably the last mainstream whodunit to come out of Bollywood.
This is probably why interest in this Friday's release, Dharma Productions' Ittefaq, has reached new heights — we're starved of a good murder mystery.
Starring Sidharth Malhotra, Akshaye Khanna and Sonakshi Sinha — Ittefaq is a remake (I'm using this word loosely) of the 1969 film starring Rajesh Khanna and Nanda. Adopting a no-promotions and no-spoilers approach to the film ahead of its release (smart, if you ask me), the makers have been careful to not reveal anything related to Ittefaq's plot.
It's hard to have a spoiler-free opinion (and give spoiler-free updates) for a whodunit like Ittefaq. Right off the bat, Ittefaq kicks off with a car chase involving Sidharth Malhotra. During the first five minutes of the film, you get a sense of how the next two hours are going to play out. Ittefaq ticks all the boxes of a noir film — the dark undertones, mostly shot at night, sharp cuts of a wild goose chase between the police and Malhotra, deep-blue and crimson hues making up the frame, and an eerie, mysterious background score.
The opening credits of the film roll as the murder is finally introduced to us: we see Sonakshi Sinha signaling the police to her house where we find a bloodied Vikram Seth (Sidharth) a novelist, standing above a corpse. We then also meet Akshaye Khanna (Dev), the detective investigating the case (and his wife, played by Mandira Bedi).
This is a high profile case, we hear. Vikram is a UK-based novelist and is wanted by the police for two murders: his wife Catherine's, and that of lawyer Shekhar Sinha (the husband of Maya, the character played by Sonakshi). As most whodunits go, Dev's main role in the film is to debunk all the thoughts people have about the murders. The plot takes its time to unravel the small mysteries, letting you stew in your questions.
Why is Vikram not saying much? He's been kept inside a room with chai and idlis and it seems like he's traumatised. Why is Dev so suspicious about everyone? What is Maya's deal?
Akshaye as Dev has the tough cop act nailed: he sports a thick mustache, is funny at the wrong time — just to unnerve the person in front of him. Sidharth as Vikram, on the other hand, really demands your sympathy. He makes you feel right from the beginning, that he's been dragged into a mess. He claims innocence. And the first 15 minutes of the film are told to us from his point of view.
There's definitely something iffy about this case and you have your guard up. From Vikram's point of view, Maya's hiding something, and is equal parts reluctant and scared. With the advantage of having very expressive eyes, Sonakshi conveys this mystery well. Her performance is subdued and raises the right questions.
As expected, when she speaks to Dev about the eventful night of the double murders, she has a whole other point of view — one that incriminates Vikram. The confusion that Ittefaq is trying to build works on multiple levels. It thrills you, but leaves you with more questions than answers. And that's a good sign in a murder mystery. Ittefaq is deliciously aware that it is toying with your ability to pay attention.
The plot throws you hints when you least expect them and doesn't depend on tricks. All we have as an audience is the ability to put two and two together, and Ittefaq uses that to its advantage by giving us multiple points of view. As the story unravels, we are told there is a third murder charge against Vikram — by a girl who committed suicide a couple of years ago. All these loose ends dance around in front of your eyes as more details are revealed. In Dev's words: 'There are three side to this story. Vikram's, Maya's and the truth.'
Ittefaq's pursuit of the truth absorbs you and pulls you right in. I'm sold.
Each point of view is played out so convincingly by all the actors, that it's hard to come to conclusions. At this point I have my theories but I'm not going to reveal them just yet. This wait seems to be worth it.
By mid-point, the stakes have gotten higher, and the claims have gotten even more confusing. We see long, unwinding shots of both Maya and Vikram looking tense and confused. We see Dev watching them like a hawk.
The best thing about Ittefaq is that it doesn't take itself seriously. The tone of the film is light when the murder isn't being discussed. The cops joke amongst one another and the set design reveals a realistic side of the city — juxtaposing the plush homes where the murders happen with the seedy jails and underbelly of Mumbai.
One thing is certain, director Abhay Chopra knows this genre well. He makes us believe in every story, even though we know there's only one truth.
As the audience, you tend to follows Dev's trajectory because he's the suspecting eye, trying to get to the bottom of these murders — and so are you. The entire story unfolds over three days, but the film gives off a timeless vibe. It's in no hurry to unravel. I was expecting a more explosive build-up and one final mind-blowing reveal, so I guess the only flaw so to speak is an underwhelming second half.
It's not devoid of shockers but it's not unpredictable either. If you watch TV crime dramas, you'll guess this one within 45 minutes. But this is not to take away from the merit of Ittefaq. It's a tight, crisp debut by Abhay Chopra, and while Sonakshi and Siddharth both play their parts well, the real star of Ittefaq is Akshaye Khanna. Someone give this talented man more films.