When Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) first made its rounds in foreign film circuits in 1951, it left audiences stunned. Based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (also known as "the father of the Japanese short story"), Rashomon explores four radically different retellings of one event: The rape of a woman and the murder of her husband. By the end of the film, each narrator could be deemed unreliable because each of their accounts shows the influence that greed, lust, shame and social conditioning has on people. Kurosawa used the multiple narrators to strike at rigid notions of right and wrong, and instead suggested that the truth may be a confused jumble of tarnished memory, social influence and even deception.
This narrative technique of using unreliable narrators gave rise to what we know today as the 'Rashomon effect'. Here are six Indian films that have employed the technique (with varying degrees of success).
Released just four years after the original, this film by director S. Balachander blends Kurosawa's grammar into Tamil noir. The crime mystery, starring Sivaji Ganesan as the murder victim, spins a brand-new plot about the murder of a radio engineer, Rajan, during World War II. This pivotal event is established through its unconventional (for the time) opening shot – Rajan's face contorted in pain as he staggers away from the camera, clutching his bullet wound before dying. The suspects – Rajan's family members and a nosy neighbour – each have their own theory about the murderer, which is played out as separate segments. Through these fragmented accounts, Rajan's character is revealed to be an anti-hero who deserved his brutal fate.
More a cerebral nod to Kurosawa's narrative structure than a philosophical questioning of the truth, Kamal Haasan's Virumandi is a take on the death penalty through the lives of two criminals – Kothala Thevar (Pasupathy) who is serving a life sentence and Virumandi (Haasan) who has been sentenced to death. Through Angela Kathamuthu's (Rohini) interview of the two inmates, we unravel two versions of the incident: Thevar's version paints Virumandi as the instigator and prime culprit while Virumaandi's version does the opposite. Powered by great performances, the narrative contains an important subtext about caste-based violence.
The much-loved Kannada film Ulidavaru Kandante cemented Rakshit Shetty's reputation as a director. The neo-noir crime drama, which also stars Shetty as a pivotal character, unfolds through five accounts of multiple murders. The film renders the Kurosawa technique brilliantly, imbuing it with the culture and local dialect of Mangaluru's coastal region (Shetty's birthplace). Replete with off-beat humour, mafia dealings and violence, Ulidavaru Kandante might have tanked at the box office, but it's a cult favourite today.
Based on the infamous 2008 double-murder case of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj Banjade, Meghna Gulzar's film shows three versions of the fateful night. Seen through the perspectives of the local cops, the child victim's parents and the investigators from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Talvar placed in public record crucial details that were obscured in the real-life examination of the case. Although it is technically fiction, the film is rooted in realism and actual events. Talvar masterfully juggles multiple interpretations of the double murder, without overtly picking sides – a feat that felt terribly difficult to achieve, given the murkiness of the case.
An official remake of the Spanish film The Invisible Guest, Badla stars Taapsee Pannu as Naina, a woman accused of murdering her lover. Instead of the usual use of the Rashomon effect with multiple narrators, Director Sujoy Ghosh has only one (very subjective) witness who is also the suspect. However, undercutting her at regular intervals is her lawyer who keeps reminding her that to win a case, one needs a good story rather than the truth. In trying to re-create an event devoid of evidence apart from subjective memory and perspective, the film manages to grapple with the elusive nature of objective truth. Amitabh Bachchan played the lawyer and his pairing with Pannu came soon after the success of another courtroom drama, Pink (2016).
Two bodies, two strangers and one murderer. A remake of the 1969 Yash Chopra thriller, Ittefaq revolves around two murder suspects – Vikram Sethi (Siddharth Malhotra), accused of killing his wife; and Maya (Sonakshi Sinha), who is suspected of killing her husband. The film is filled with red herrings as the two spin a tale of deception around the investigating officer, Dev (played by Akshaye Khanna). The remake may didn't have the original's finesse, but the film kept you hooked.