Dhamaka movie review: A sincere Kartik Aaryan in Ram Madhvani thriller that isn't explosive, but not exploitative either
Director Ram Madhvani masterfully blends the unrehearsed tension that arises from his natural way of filming with a promising premise on paper to create a taut thriller.
Ram Madhvani is an interesting choice to direct Dhamaka, the Hindi remake of 2013 Korean film The Terror Live because of the subject it broaches. Designed as a comment on the apathetic state of primetime broadcast media, it allows Madhavani to further narrow down the stretch between reality and orchestration, the grey area that has come to be known as his signature style of filmmaking.
While Madhvani insists that he cannot call his modus operandi ‘organic,’ he does allow an atmosphere on set where there is no ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ and the actors are provided enough room to seep into the emotion their characters are undergoing. They are lent a free hand to make the performance, the story, the situation their own, instead of being instructed to adhere wholly to the script.
That is exactly how TV news media should be — and is not. Scripts are furnished, look is designed, tone is outlined, and expressions are manufactured. Of course, there is improv, but even those words are fed into the teleprompter diagonally staring at the news anchor. “Going live in…” is shot as a cue to ‘perform,’ and constant instructions are barked at the anchor through the earpiece that makes it seem like a voice emanating from one’s head.
Madhvani’s style of functioning stands at loggerheads with the area his film is traversing. The chemical reaction should have been either an explosion or a fizzle. But it is somewhere in between, tilting more towards explosion, but not because that is the title of the film.
There’s nothing caps lock about Dhamaka, and there’s certainly no exclamation point at the end. But like his past couple of works, the Sonam Kapoor-starrer hostage thriller Neerja (2016) and Sushmita Sen-starrer Disney+ Hotstar show Aarya (2020), Madhavni excels in drumming up tension, and sustaining it with minor bursts of follow-ups in quick succession.
Aaryan plans Arjun Pathak, a curiously styled news anchor (no, not Arnab Goswami) who works at a media company curiously called TRTV (no, not Republic TV). He has been demoted from the primetime face of the news channel Bharosa 24*7 to just another voice of a radio show called Aaj Ka Topic. His personal life is also in shambles, as his wife and reporter for the same news channel, Saumya (Mrunal Thakur) has sent him a divorce notice.
He gets a chance to scale back the corporate ladder when he receives an anonymous phone call that leads to an explosion on the neighbouring Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai. He scribbles down ‘Exclusive’ in all caps, and double-underlines it, rather than reporting the suspicious call to the police. He calls his former boss Ankita (Amruta Subhash), who promises to get him back his primetime show in lieu of the explosive breaking news. But the caller is a step ahead as he begins to blackmail Pathak into going against the channel, and closer to the conscience he long abandoned for commercial gains.
The barebones of the plot is dope enough, and co-writers Madhvani and Puneet Sharma do a fair job of adapting it to the Indian context. Besides visual reference, the hierarchy of an Indian newsroom — the class difference between the producers and anchors and the technical aid or ‘IT team,’ is well established. But despite Bharosa 24*7 being a Hindi news channel, the treatment feels more like that of an English one, translated into Hindi.
Irrespective of the language, what remains intact is the lust for drama. To quote the boss who makes the anchor parrot “the three rules” of their company in the film, “An anchor is an actor. An actor wants an audience. The audience wants drama.” The show (or the drama) must go on. And it does go on in Dhamaka, where the script keeps injecting twists and turns — some on point, some unnecessary, some with loopholes — into the proceedings.
But the show goes on. The focus is never on explaining the events. The tone is expository because of the subject, but never the details. It is a relief because that is where the film separates itself from the news media it is critiquing. But there is always a latent expectation from the audience to not ask too many questions about plausibility. Or maybe the makers do not consider them the ‘right’ questions. But for a film that deep dives into drama from the get go, and also swears by it, it’s unable to dissuade the audience from not caring about the various loose ends.
There are bound to be raised eyebrows because even if it’s a metaphorical film, the world seems very real. Once the suspension of disbelief in one compartment is achieved, there is lots to savour.
Madhvani masterfully blends the unrehearsed tension that arises from his natural way of filming with a promising premise on paper to create a taut thriller.
His army of technicians, including Monisha Baldawa with her razor-sharp editing, Manu Anand with his chaotic cinematography, and Manas Choudhury’s piercing sound design, work in tandem with the compact production design to amplify the sights and sounds inside a buzzing newsroom.
Besides Madhvani’s filmmaking and primetime news channels, another pair of unlikely bedfellows is the director and the lead actor. Aaryan is introduced as a romantic hero, with a snapshot showreel of intimate moments with Thakur’s character, set to Prateek Kuhad’s ‘Kasoor,’ in sync with his perception as the face of rom-coms like Luka Chuppi and Love Aaj Kal. But as the film progresses, the walls of the newsroom close in on Aaryan, who is then thrown into the deep recesses of Arjun Pathak’s charcoal grey personality. While Madhvani’s filmmaking style is purported as actor-friendly, it ends up cornering actors to perform. Sonam in Neerja and Sushmita in Aarya, while it’s too soon to claim, have not given better performances since. Aaryan should be applauded for subscribing to Madhvani’s methodical madness despite his stature as an A-list star. But only his subsequent films will tell whether more credit is due Madhvani or Aaryan himself.
But Dhamaka is clearly restricted to a one-man show. All the other characters are deliberately cut into cardboard copies of what they represent. Amruta Subhash is delightfully unrelenting as the news producer obsessed with TRPs; outrageous remarks just drop out of her mouth like casual, verbal hand grenades. Mrunal Thakur is the moral centre of the film but we see her through the rather coloured lens of the protagonist so there is very little to chew on.
There are no faces attributed to the ministers and TV news audience despite their presence looming large over the entire plot. Lack of personification is used as a tool here. “Mantri ji aa rahe hain,” is a recurring remark, veiled as constant bouts of false reassurance that politicians dish out. The echoes of the news anchor are reflected by aerial shots of concrete buildings. There are no shots of audience watching TV, which almost suggests primetime newsrooms are creating and peddling salacious stuff in vacuum.
It pinches to see seasoned actors like Vikas Kumar and Vishwajeet Pradhan being given the short end of the stick. They had such meaty parts in Aarya that it feels criminal to see them play to a fraction of their potentials. Yes, blame the economy of screen time in a feature as opposed to a 10-part show. But what Dhamaka could have massively benefited from was to have more poise in its proceedings.
However, as Arjun Pathak puts it in the film, “Logon ke pas sach dhoondhne, samajhne ka time nahi hai.” That does not ring entirely true for Dhamaka as it does try to probe what it set out for, despite the pace of a thriller. It hits home the hardest in the climax where it reveals itself to be a true-blue cautionary tale more than the glorified story of a fallen hero.
Yes, Dhamaka is hurried, dramatic, and loud, and ends up being like the monster it is trying to kill. But then it is a film, and is supposed to be all that. News, on the other hand, is not.
Dhamaka is streaming on Netflix India.
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