In this series, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay talks about relatively lesser known and yet brilliant films by influential directors which were somehow overshadowed by some of their more popular films.
In 1999, riding high on the soaring popularity of his seminal film on the Mumbai underworld, Satya, Ram Gopal Varma made Kaun?. The film had all the ingredients that made it a sure and certain recipe for disaster—it was set in just one location, had only three actors (one of whom appears halfway into the film), didn't have a single song, the story was told in real time over one night, and it stripped a mainstream Hindi film heroine of her glamour and made her the victim of a ruthless serial killer. No director would have wanted to embark upon such a risky experiment, certainly not right after coming out of such a successful film as Satya. But Ramu being Ramu, he took that risk, and made Kaun? – one of the finest thrillers in the history of Hindi cinema.
On an evening of incessant rains in Pune, a young girl (Urmila Matondkar) is alone at home, with only her pet cat for company. Her parents are away and have not been able to return – thanks to the thunderstorm. The large bungalow type house gives the girl the creeps, and she somehow manages to distract herself by watching television. But much to her dismay, she hears the news of a serial killer on the loose in the city. Before you know it, there is a knock on her door, and a stranger (Manoj Bajpayee) subtly forces his way into the house. The eccentric stranger holds the woman captive, but later that evening, another man (Sushant Singh) comes into the house and introduces himself as a police officer. A dangerous game of cat and mouse ensues. And though scared beyond her wits, the woman not only has to survive the machinations of two mysterious men who have made their way into her house, she must also figure out which of them is the serial killer.
Kaun? was shot in fifteen days, with a shoestring budget. As experimental as the film is, there are several elements which come together in perfect harmony to make it the brilliant piece of cinema that it is. Chief among them is the writing. Varma returns to his writer from Satya – the still greenhorn Anurag Kashyap – and what a delightful script the man churns out. It is intelligent, unconventional and never shies away from toying with the audience's mind. There is a scene towards the climax of the film in which Bajpayee's character answers the doorbell; relying solely on logic and thrill, the scene offers the perfect clue to the mystery and despite that, you won't see the twist coming. That is a clear hallmark of great writing – if there ever was one.
The second feature that is commendable in Kaun? is the background score and sound design. Sandeep Chowta ensures that the BGM becomes almost like the fourth character in the film, underscoring each emotion and nuance beautifully to help take the plot forward. The steady patter of the rain adds a layer of thrill to the atmosphere, with the strategically placed lightning strikes doing more than half the job of keeping you on the edge of your seat. The house itself is used beautifully, and by the time you reach the climax, you know your way around the house – which is important for a film where the entire story unfolds in a single location.
But perhaps the best thing about the film are the performances. Varma knew that he had very little money to make the film with, which is why he chose a solid script and good actors. While Bajpayee is pitch-perfect as the irritatingly persistent stranger trying to save himself from the rain by wearing his jacket like a burqa, Matondkar puts in one of her career's best performances. There is a scene towards the beginning of the film in which being alone in the house finally gets to her and she panics. Lying nestled somewhere between the genres of horror and thriller, that scene is perhaps one of the most important ones in the film, and it is exquisitely performed by Matondkar.
Sadly though, Kaun? never got the due it deserved. It was never marketed well enough. Both Bajpayee and Matondkar were cast against type, and audiences found it difficult to accept them. The absence of songs played a big role. But since then, it has gathered a cult following among cinephiles, although one wishes it would reach out to a larger audience, so that everyone can see that even with a low budget, one can make engaging cinema.