Director: Akshat Verma

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Amyra Dastur, Shenaz Treasury, Akshay Oberoi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Vijay Raaz, Deepak Dobriyal, Neil Bhoopalam

A man (Saif Ali Khan) is told by a remarkably casual doctor that he has stomach cancer. His younger brother (Akshay Oberoi) decides to embark on one last booty call with an ex-flame hours before his wedding. Two small-time crooks (Vijay Raaz, Deepak Dobriyal) lament their ordinariness while delivering yet another bag full of cash to their underworld boss. A girl (Sobhita Dhulipala) readies to catch a late-night flight to Boston for further studies, moments after her vanilla boyfriend (Kunaal Roy Kapur) has – again – popped the question. 

Good situational comedies are born out of tragic beginnings. 

Here, we have four such desperate – and plausible – sets of circumstances that it’s only natural to expect their very next decisions to kick-start a nutty, interconnected single-night saga of orchestrated chaos. So Khan, who has nothing to lose anymore, “drops” some acid at the wedding cocktail party; a cold-footed Oberoi visits the five-star hotel for a quickie; the two foul-mouthed hoodlums design a flimsy get-rich-quick plan to fool their boss; the couple makes a quick stop at a wild friend’s SoBo birthday party on the way to the airport. 

Kaalaakandi, with all the workings of a twisted screw-baller, refrains from laughing at its faces. It is more of a multi-narrative drama that hides beneath the generic darkness of the city it occupies: a comedy made with the sensibilities of a tragedy

The stage is set. The characters – and not caricatures – are planted: a large-hearted transgendered sex worker (a wonderful Nari Singh), a drunken Parsi cougar (Shenaz Treasurywala) and her spaced-out toy boy, a legendary underworld sharpshooter famous for an unsavory accident and a glass testicle, and the Mumbai rains. But Kaalaakandi, with all the workings of a twisted screw-baller, refrains from laughing at its faces. It is more of a multi-narrative drama that hides beneath the generic darkness of the city it occupies: a comedy made with the sensibilities of a tragedy.

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We sense the urge to break free at various points – Khan’s acid trip promises a Nicholas Cage like existential spiral – before Kaalakaandi repeatedly reins in the crazy to look like more of a “film” comprised of four stories. And if we look at the film for what it is – too quirky to be serious, too existential to be funny, too inconsistently paced to be a pointless experience – Kaalakaandi feels a bit futile. Each track wants to mean something without being too tonally disparate. 

I’m sure there are loose metaphors in here: the older protagonists (Khan, Raaz, Dobriyal) operating between nothing less than dramatic life and death parables, while the younger ones (Dhulipala, Oberoi) are busy grasping the mechanics of unconditional companionship. Yet, they are linked feebly as more of an afterthought, despite the setup begging for domino-effect triggers that allow us to recognize its coming-of-age-ness only after the dust settles down. Instead, we are repeatedly reminded not to smile too early – for these are real flesh-and-blood folks who deserve our empathy. The frantic Bhaag-DK-Bose-ish chases across streets and hotel corridors occur intermittently, but they feel like remains of a rollicking (and discarded) first draft in a “screen-adjusted” script.

Perhaps Kaalakaandi comes across as a lesser film because of the first-time director’s reputation. Akshat Verma wrote Delhi Belly, which I thought was a landmark reinvention of the fading comedy-of-errors genre. Even farting, cussing and clumsy gunfights had acquired a kind of untimely realism that elevated them to a status beyond lazy Bollywood slapstick-ness. Most of it was hysterical precisely because its world wasn’t; not once did the characters stop taking themselves seriously. Yet, its success was a red herring. Nothing truly changed, because the Golmaals and Housefulls continued on their merry ways, and Verma took more than five years of rejection to launch his next. 

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Somewhere down the line, his interpretation of a life-comedy – one that he perhaps wanted to anglicize even further – might have gone through various mental updates. The era, and the contextual relevance of his vision, hasn’t changed a whole lot. But if you live with your creation long enough, you begin to humanize it and find an invisible depth within its form. 

In the process, the film may have ended up taking itself more seriously than its occupants. At one point, Khan, after mouthing a Sanjeev Kumar line from Gulzar’s Angoor – a remake based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors – gets distracted and reminisces with a sigh, “Zamana hi kuch aur tha”. One can almost hear Verma mourning through him. As a result, his Kaalakaandi ends up being a reactive victim of Hindi cinema’s stubborn “humour” landscape. In trying to defy the established template and simultaneously build upon the Delhi Belly template, it embraces a misplaced sense of control. And despite starting out purposefully, Kaalakaandi only ever invokes the film it wanted to be.

Watch the trailer of Kaalakaandi here:

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