Blackmail movie review: Irrfan and Co drive this engaging but flawed tragi-comedy of errors

Anna MM Vetticad

Apr,06 2018 11:00:25 IST

2/5

The seven-year itch is a tricky thing. Legend has it that it spurs seemingly regular folk on to highly irregular behaviour even when they are in happy relationships. Imagine then the fate of unhappy couples.

Irrfan Khan in a still from Blackmail. YouTube

Irrfan Khan in a still from Blackmail. YouTube

Dev Kaushal (Irrfan) and his pretty young wife Reena (Kirti Kulhari) are stuck in a loveless marriage and have found completely contrasting ways to scratch that itch. His moments of respite come when he masturbates in the office toilet, and when he peeps into his bedroom from a hole in the kitchen wall to gaze at the sleeping Reena. During one of those peering sessions he learns that she too has been seeking relief from him – in the arms of a man she had once wanted to marry.

The trailer has already told us that Dev blackmails the boyfriend, a beefy fellow called Ranjit Arora (Arunoday Singh). The reason: Ranjit is married, and financially dependent on his powerful father-in-law who keeps a tight hold on the purse strings and his damaad’s testicles.

As in director Abhinay Deo’s 2011 venture, the irresistibly maniacal Delhi Belly, here too one misdeed leads to another then another and another until everyone involved gets caught up in a vortex of deception and trickery.

Delhi Belly was a novelty on the Bollywoodscape for various reasons but primarily its chosen genre – black comedy – and its openness about sex and other bodily functions. Blackmail is not as thoroughly alien territory, perhaps because much water and experimentation have passed under the bridge in the seven years since Delhi Belly was released, but this film too is quite unusual for Bollywood.

(Spoiler alert for the ultra-picky reader) Blackmail is cleverly and self-deprecatingly misleading in its early moments. When Dev imagines multiple scenarios each time his head threatens to explode with suppressed anger, the repetition of the device is designed to lull viewers into assuming predictability on the part of the storyteller. Just as you think you have got Deo all figured out though … boom! … he stands the ploy on its head when you are least expecting it. (Spoiler alert ends)

That flip is Blackmail’s big turning point, the moment that urges viewers not to overestimate their own intelligence or underestimate the filmmaker. Surrender is the most sensible option left, and doing so yields considerable dividends.

The hero of Blackmail is not your regular bad guy. The worst thing Dev does before he resorts to blackmail is to steal photos of colleagues’ wives so he can pleasure himself while gazing at them. The believable casualness with which he and others in the film turn to crime is perhaps a commentary on the hidden villain in each of us, lying in wait below the surface, anxious for an excuse to tear through our skin.

(Possible spoiler in this paragraph) Blackmail’s characters are not repulsive, nor do they actively invite pity, but you sense the ennui in fleeting words and actions. Ranjit’s wife, played by Divya Dutta, addresses him as “Tommy”. When he protests, she asks if he would prefer “kutta. Ranjit wonders how Dev looks, and Reena replies, “like a husband.” You can almost hear the yawn in those three words. (Spoiler alert ends)

Parveez Shaikh’s screenplay is careful not to mock the lead characters although their exploits are deliberately exaggerated and caricaturish. The ridiculous rigmarole in which they ultimately lose themselves does not match the zip and zing of Delhi Belly, but is nevertheless mad and brisk enough to be exciting in large parts.

Without any overt intellectual intent, Blackmail also holds up a mirror to what unfolds when we allow life to happen to us instead of grabbing the steering wheel with both hands.

The film dips intermittently though. Among its weakest patches is the superficiality in the characterisation of Reena in comparison with the others, and the ordinariness of the writing of two cameos – if Ranjit’s mother-in-law had not been played by Neelima Azeem and if Urmila Matondkar was not featured in 'Bewafa Beauty', there might have been no expectations from either.

Not that 'Bewafa Beauty' is an absolute write off – it is, in fact, fairly danceable and hummable – but you do not resurrect the Rangeela girl on the big screen after so many years for a song that is anything short of electrifying in its music and choreography. Worse, the number is abruptly dumped into the narrative.

Urmila Matondkar in a still from Blackmail

Urmila Matondkar in a still from Blackmail

The scenes at Dev’s office are tepid, owing largely to the unfunnyness of the boss’ obsession with toilet paper that is clearly meant to tickle us.

The film is also strangely indifferent to its setting. Blackmail is located in a city in Maharashtra, but offers none of the detailing and cultural specificities that made Delhi Belly such a delight.

Irrfan seems to be enjoying himself here playing a husband and corporate slave who lacks the energy to lift himself out of his boredom. He falters in a scene in which he confides in his friend Anand (Pradhuman Singh Mall), although the motivation for that decision is in itself so unconvincing that Shaikh should be faulted just as well here.

Besides, Dev is the only one in the story prone to underplaying his emotions, yet with barely discernable touches, the actor conveys the hope with which he had entered into the relationship with Reena and the lethargy that frittered everything away.

Kirti Kulhari is handicapped by limited writing, but still embodies a certain vulnerability through her performance, making Reena a person who is hard to hate despite the affair. (Aside: considering his unconventional career path, it is disappointing to see Irrfan too choosing to star with women who are, on an average, 20 years his junior.)

Arunoday Singh as Ranjit and Divya Dutta as his drunken spouse get the benefit of more over-the-top and meaty roles – both immerse themselves in the action to amusing effect. Jay Oza’s wicked camerawork in their joint scenes and the lens’ menacing gaze at them in a scenario played out in a toilet make those passages particularly memorable.

The standout performance of the lot though comes from Anuja Sathe playing Dev’s co-worker who metamorphoses into an aggressive monster. Sathe is a firecracker who owns her every moment on screen, even managing to overshadow a veteran like Irrfan in their scenes together.

Despite its imperfections, what sustains Blackmail is its irreverence towards the issue of marital infidelity. In an earlier era, such a theme is likely to have been explored only in a grave, weepie feature.

You know times have changed when an adulterous wife is no longer seen as either an off-mainstream focus area or the target of compulsory, lengthy sermonising if she is featured in mainstream cinema. You know times have changed when a male star of Irrfan’s stature merrily plays a chap whose daily routine includes jerking off at the workplace.

You know times have not changed enough when the non-judgemental tone of the film suddenly, without a perceivable progression leading up to that point, turns selectively judgemental towards the woman and sympathetic towards the man with Amitabh Bhattacharya’s lyrics of 'Bewafa Beauty'. Sample this: Kul mila ke saiyyanji ke / Achchhe sanskaar thhe / Sajaniya ke lakshan lekin / Thhode tadipaar thhe... (Very roughly: He was, by and large, a nice guy with the right values / she was the sort to go astray.)

The messaging is oblique (Dev and Reena are not present when the song plays) but unmistakable.

Blackmail then is an engaging but flawed tragi-comedy of errors.

All images from YouTube.

(Also read — Blackmail: This promising Irrfan Khan-starrer kills its thrills with a linear, predictable narrative)

Updated Date: Apr 06, 2018 13:25 PM