Karthik Calling Karthik

03 Mar

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 They’re dated and tired and look like they were made a decade earlier thanks to the cumulative effects of outdated costumes, garish set designs, and a weird species of English that nobody in India actually speaks (ding!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.


Posted by on March 3, 2010 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video


14 responses to “Karthik Calling Karthik

  1. pitu

    March 3, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Hmm… hearing such good things about it! I really don’t like Farhan Akhtar. I love his movies (LOVED DCH and Don, liked Lakshya although Hrithik’s spaz behavior before he joins the army made me want to wring his neck) but somehow cannot warm up to him at all. Partly, it’s the voice – the sandpapery lisp. It gets on my nerves. Ugh. Partly it’s how remote he seems. Cool even in his emo scenes. You might be right when you call Deepika his match. That’s my problem with her too. They’re both so bloody thanda! Anyway, I enjoyed ranting about them 😀 I shall definitely see this on dvd though 🙂

  2. ajnabi

    March 3, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    I wonder if Deepika finally got an acting coach? Her performance in this film is actually getting positive reactions from people who’ve detested her before. (Not saying you did.)

    I agree with you about Farhan’s affinity for the modern–it’s part of what made Dil Chahta Hai non-embarrassing to watch with newbies (well, except Kaise Hai Yeh Rut) and makes Don so much fun. I had a friend watch Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke and she was convinced it had actually been made in the seventies. Maybe that could’ve been my contribution to 70’s Week: Films That Look Like 70’s, But Were Made in the 90’s! I’ll file it away for next year. 😉

  3. Arti

    March 3, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    At some point, I’m just going to stop watching Hindi movies and read your reviews as substitutes. 😀 Loved this line, “but in Karthik, it pointed to a man so devoid of self, he bought one off the rack”. Lovely, lovely.

  4. Gradwolf

    March 4, 2010 at 12:19 am

    Going this weekend, so not reading this!

  5. Gradwolf

    March 4, 2010 at 12:19 am

    And do watch Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya.

  6. Kanika-PRelations

    March 4, 2010 at 1:33 am


    I actually adore Farhan Akhtar. Well written review though. But, will still watch it once for him.

    Also, i dont know if you are aware that ‘Bausch and Lomb’ following the release of the movie is giving you the chance to get a mini-makeover and still photo shoot by a Sushmendra Dubey,a leading photographer.

    Join the official Bausch and Lomb KCK contest fan page on Facebook, submit your profile picture and stand a chance to win a free photo shoot with a leading photographer and be featured as our Bausch & Lomb ‘Model of the Week’.

    Contest dates:
    February 19th to March 24th, 2010


    • Srinivas

      March 4, 2010 at 3:21 am

      WTF… lady?? Not here please

  7. Srinivas

    March 4, 2010 at 3:19 am

    Loved this one.

    That creepy K2 voice was I suppose to creep the audience out. Good guy voice vs bad guy voice – event though he was doing good for K1 🙂

    And I did not see that shopping spree the same way as you – more like the first steps to presenting a confident exterior and then moving towards the important stuff like friendships and love. He did look plenty confident when he did that makeover though 🙂

    Deepika was good in Love Aaj Kal and she did come through here as well. Though that opening smoking scene was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. What was the director thinking there?

    Farhan definitely shone here. Going places as an actor now…

  8. Amrita

    March 4, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Pitu – aww, why you no love the cutie? 😦 Do you not want to tickle him and cuddle him and mess his hair a little to hear him squeak? :mrgreen:

    Ajnabi – Films Made in the 90s That Look Like the 70s is a post that MUST BE WRITTEN! In fact, it’s a tumblr waiting to happen.
    I thought Deepika did the best she could in LAK given it was her third film (I mean, compare Saif’s third film to hers – it is to LOL) but she couldn’t really pull it off. But she was much better in this.

    Arti – awww, thank you! But i hope not! 🙂

    Adithya – When I get back hopefully!

    Kanika – thank you.

    Srinivas – the big problem with that makeover was how easy it all seemed. He’s been in therapy for years and it leads him to the brink of suicide and then he has one phone call and he’s a different person. It really set alarm bells ringing in my head. I LOL’d in that scene with Deepika’s smoking. But she was genuinely great in that scene at the club where he offers to get her juice :mrgreen:

    • pitu

      March 4, 2010 at 2:29 pm

      Comparing *anyone’s* third film with Saifoooooooo’s third film is LOLworthy. Chhote Nawab took a verrrrrrrrry long time to clean up his act 😀

  9. dipali

    March 4, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I found this to be an engaging movie, but not, sadly, particularly entertaining:(
    Yes, the juice scene was one of the few entertaining moments.

  10. fromherewegosublime

    March 4, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Dil Chahata Hai is the only Farhan Akhtar movie I have really liked. Farhan Akhtar cant really act in the same say Abhishek cant really act. They are both good at playing role where acting isnt really required. For AB it was Sarkar and for Farhan Akhtar it was Luck by Chance, Rock On (no wearing trendy clothes and trying to sing doesnt count as acting)

  11. Beth

    March 5, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Oooh. Hadn’t thought about how empty K1’s first life is – it had struck me that he didn’t seem to have any friends, not even an at-work pal of convenience – and that does a bit help to explain why he took to K2’s advice (despite the weirdness) so quickly and followed it so thoroughly.

    Fun side note: in the theater I saw this in, the crowd went BONKERS when we first see new-and-improved Karthik stride into his workplace in his new suit. We see just the shoes and trouser hem at first and people were whistling and clapping and all! So apparently K2 gave great “India’s Next Top Model” walking advice as well.

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