At what point does resilience begin to resemble compliance? That’s the question Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday asks of its audience.
Part thriller, part revenge drama painted with a shade of patriotism, this is the kind of movie that one seldom sees in Bollywood but is always being assured is right around the corner now that the times are a-changing. Clocking in at a tight 100 minutes without paying obeisance to any of the usual Hindi movie customs that infiltrate even the most dedicated of our message movies like an item song or two, it features some of the best performances you’re likely to see all year. This is perhaps because it is not a message movie, as much as it is a watercooler movie – the kind that makes you think rather than handing you an instruction manual.
What makes A Wednesday truly rare, however, is that it’s a movie that refuses to look at the present through the filter of nostalgia or wrap its choices up in an acceptable bow of any kind. There is no grandstanding about Indian tradition, or how wonderful we are as a people or speeches about heroes and their heroism; the characters, when pressed to explain their rationale, refuse to present any. When faced with circumstances that demanded action, each takes it in his or her own way and they don’t expect anyone to appreciate or sympathize with them. In fact, the only person who tries to provide any kind of justification is the Bad Guy, for all the good it does him. There is a certain sense of irony in that.
A Wednesday also connects to a simmering rage that I suspect more than a few Indians (and other people who’ve had to live under terrorist threats for prolonged periods of time) harbor inside themselves. Certainly, it spoke to the angry little person who lives inside of me.
Perhaps this is why none of the characters are able to dredge up any outrage towards the protagonist at the end, even if some of them vehemently protest that his choices are wrong. If conviction were a matter of decibels, they might have had a chance but in this instance, listening to them repeat “It’s wrong!” over and over in ever louder tones makes you wonder if they’re trying to convince themselves that they shouldn’t cheer the man’s choices. In the interests of not spoiling the movie for you, I’ll leave it at that.
Of the actors, perhaps the biggest chuckle, for me at least, came via Deepal Shaw (Kalyug) whom we first glimpse as she stalks out in grand style for a TV interview. And then she opens her mouth and the most incredible sound comes out. Those of you who remember listening to news reports on All India Radio will immediately understand what I’m talking about, those of you who don’t: well, maybe you’ll find the Electric Baba funny instead. I was too busy laughing to care.
Aamir Bashir (Split Wide Open, Pyaar ke Side Effects) is his usual goodlooking, capable self. As the one character who’s given a bit of context outside of the main plot, he provides a nice little red herring all through the movie, at least to these jaded eyes which kept waiting for the script to provide me with the expected jolt-for-jolt’s-sake.
And what a pleasure it is to see Jimmy Shergill out of his Bollywood B-movie (or is it C-movie?) persona and back in his skin. Arif Khan is perhaps the movie’s second most interesting character right from the moment we’re introduced to his ideas of “help”. There’s an undercurrent of uneasiness that surrounds him, especially when he is amongst his colleagues, beautifully set up by one anonymous policeman heralding his arrival on scene with the immortal words “Here comes the psycho”. And unlike his turn in Eklavya, where he came across as a bonafide poseur whilst trying hard to emanate some kind of threat, there is a genuine sense of something being out of whack here. That he’s a loose cannon is quickly obvious, but the tension that cloaks him is so thick, you keep waiting for the other penny to drop.
But the crux of the movie rests on two old warhorses: Anupam Kher and Naseeruddin Shah, especially the latter who eats up his monologues with a simple earnestness that very few actors anywhere can match. If Kher is the kind of police Commissioner that I’ve never seen in an Hindi movie before (which is to say one that tallies most with my knowledge of what it’s like in the real world for high ranking police officials even if the army footing under which he apparently runs his force was a bit much to swallow), Naseer is the most opaque and subtly sinister of characters.
And at the end, when he’s having his gotcha-moment with Kher, right when the audience is teetering between “Hey, I suspected that was coming” and “What? That’s it?”, he steps in with his “I know what you’re thinking now, you douchebags” speech and makes it all awesome once more. How terrible for all of us that at the end of the year he’s going to be swept aside as a “character actor” while some half-naked pretty boy will be adjudged “Best Actor” because he managed to cry in that one pivotal scene after he sang a song with a pretty girl.
This isn’t to say A Wednesday is flawless – missteps have been made, chief amongst them the characters’ repeated insistence on calling Wednesday, “Wednesday” so that now I’ve almost forgotten how pronounce the damn word, but even with all its quirks, it’s easily one of the best movies of the year.
And, mind you, movies that talk to my inner rage aren’t even my favorite kind of movie.