The most common question I’ve encountered when introducing fresh blood to the wonders of Bollywood or Hindi cinema in general (it’s usually Bollywood – for some reason, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai works best as an introduction to Indian film) is not, “What’s with the singing and dancing?” or “Why do Indians love knitwear so much?”
It is: “When was this movie made?” Followed by: “The (insert decade here)s? Really?”
It’s not just the content, which tends to be a couple decades behind the current Indian mainstream in a bid to speak to the “real India” (i.e. The Poors who will in all likelihood never want to see said movie even if they could afford it – the 70s are dead and gone, buddy, the heyday of the single screen isn’t coming back. Get used to it); it’s the visuals. They’re dated and tired and look like they were made a decade earlier thanks to the cumulative effects of outdated costumes, garish set designs, and a weird species of English that nobody in India actually speaks (ding! ding! ding! Dharmesh Darshan!).
Farhan Akhtar, as a director and producer (and now actor), is the antithesis of that. It’s easy to dismiss his work as more style than substance but I think he employs his fetish for the ultra-modern and contemporary very well. As a director, be it Dil Chahta Hai or Don, he and his crew weren’t just showing off because they could. I’m sure they wanted to be bigger and better just like anybody else in the movie business, but they used their strong design POV in service of the story rather than use the story as a framing device for all the cool toys they could get their hands on a la the Dhoom series or Blue.
And if movies like Rock On! and Luck By Chance are any indication, then this is the voice of Excel Entertainment, his production company, just as Punjabi-ness and sarson ke khet are now forever the property of Yashraj. In fact, when I saw Wake Up Sid, my first thought was that Dharma Productions had gotten the Excel feel right.
On the one hand, that’s fantastic: “contemporary” is a market that offers infinite growth. Sadly, however, it leaves you without that comforting well of nostalgia to tap into. Nobody is going to come watch your movies because it gives the warm fuzzy-wuzzies to be reminded of what happened yesterday at the office. They’d much rather forget it in a field of pretty yellow flowers where the worst thing that can happen is a maddened attack bee.
It follows therefore that Karthik Calling Karthik, the story of a loser who turns his life around when his alter ego starts to call him in the middle of the night, is pretty hit or miss just like all his other movies. You either like them (and him) or you don’t. If you haven’t liked a single one of his movies yet or “got” them, then this isn’t the movie that’s going to change your mind for you. Even if you did like them or even a few of them, you might not really have all that good a time.
Not because the movie is bad: it emphatically isn’t. But because it’s unnerving.
Karthik isn’t a loser of the kind that we’re used to seeing in Hindi cinema. He’s cute and he’s funny, with the kind of black humor that makes him note – “Well, no friends, no job, this life was a failure. Let’s see what the next one brings” as he prepares to swallow a bottle full of sleeping pills. But there’s little about him that’s truly lovable. He’s a void of a person in search of an identity and it’s creepy to watch him at work.
His life is defined by a childhood tragedy that’s left him with an intense desire to scuttle through his existence on the planet as best as possible without drawing attention to himself. He’s worked so hard at erasing all signs of himself that he’s turned into an invisible man. Rather unusually, he appears to have enough self awareness to understand that this is not normal and he has what must be the world’s most opinionated psychiatrist to talk him through it, but nothing’s working. He’s still the guy who has no friends, no respect, no identity other than the kid who didn’t die when he was supposed to.
When the mysterious Karthik (let’s call him K2), the voice on the other end of the phone who talks him into a better life, starts giving him advice, I felt even more creeped out. When K2 talks to Karthik, he sounds eerily like an abusive spouse even though he’s ostensibly giving Karthik the tools to succeed. “Am I hurting you?” he demands in an early rant as though Karthik is in the wrong for being freaked out at hearing his own voice at the other end of the phone. “Then why won’t you listen to me?”
And I didn’t feel like cheering when Karthik got his life in order – tellingly, the first thing he does at the mall is buy the clothes off a mannequin. Just sees an outfit in a shop window and gets it down to the shoes. Maybe there are actual people who do that (I apologize if that’s you and I obviously don’t mean anything personal by it) but in Karthik, it pointed to a man so devoid of self, he bought one off the rack. Underneath the pimp suit, he’s still the man with no friends, no life and no confidence to speak of – he just doesn’t look it anymore. He’s traded in a life of honest failure for a life of pretend success. Hooray?
Similarly, I didn’t find the romance with Shonali (Deepika Padukone) all that heartwarming either. Deepika is absolutely gorgeous and does much better here than Love Aaj Kal but Shonali is a bit of an idiot. Maybe it’s just unromantic little me but if some guy had been keeping track of my every move for years and writing me emails obsessively for the same amount of time to the point where he can quote them verbatim, I would find it Cause for Pause, not the best thing that ever happened to me. I should note, however, Farhan and Deepika do make it work somehow and are very cute together, perhaps because Deepika is Farhan’s style match in a way that Konkona Sen Sharma and Prachi Desai were not.
Lest you think this all means I hated the movie – you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a sign of how well it worked for me because this is a movie about a man with a serious problem.
Going into this movie, I wondered what path they’d choose on the way to resolution. Some kind of paranormal horror thingummy, I thought cynically. Third act is when Rekha shows up a tantrik, that sort of thing. To my shock, they actually went the grown up route and took the depression angle to an organic place. Karthik is a natural over-achiever whose psyche is at war with itself as it tries to autocorrect – not a thrilling place to end up and hardly the kind of ending that makes you turn to your friend and go, “Whoo! Didja see that?”
But here was a happy ending that was earned.
I had a good time. Going by his debut, writer-director Vijay Lalwani is someone whose work I’d want to see in the future.