In the late Nineties and early 2000s, a New Hindi Cinema emerged from the cultural context of liberalisation, crime and the ‘gangster’ film. This cinema mainly used the neo-noir framework — where violence, sex and crime did not have to be buried under heavy subtexts and insinuations — to address the anxieties of new urban youth which layered the underbelly, rather than the upper-caste, upper-class folks who heavily benefited from privatisation policy and the purchasing power that arrived with it.
The male characters that were produced by the New Hindi cinema became a mutation of the ‘gangster’, an anti-hero who functioned with cavalier amorality — resorting to violence casually — employing a kind of alpha-esque hyper masculinity that existed in these shadowy corners of society, trapped within the destitute architecture that dwarfed in front of the high-rise buildings.
The traditional noir hero of classical Hollywood was a morally ambiguous, hard-boiled detective who searched for the ‘criminal’ that often became symbolic of the malaise girding the city, like in The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Out of the Past (1947).
Many directors in India experimented with this form of cinema, notably Anurag Kashyap and Ram Gopal Varma, after the nineties. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum: There is a transition from the socialist Nehruvian cinema to a neoliberal filmmaking, that turns the focus from the collective, to the individual who is trying to scrape at the system. The hero who served the people's interest was exchanged for the anti-hero’s individualist angst in noir cinema.
These spate of directors included, as you can guess, Sriram Raghavan, and many consider Gopal Varma to be his predecessor. But over time, Raghavan devised an idiosyncratic style to tie these dark neo-noir narratives with black comedy, and created his own specific language of cinema which accessed the social unconscious of the lower and middle classes, and became pronounced with every addition to his filmography. For example, in Badlapur (2015) he builds his premise on the paranoia of crime in the middle class.
Unlike the other neo-noir men that come from this movement, who are born and bred in more desperate circumstances, Raghavan’s men exist on the boundaries between the darkness of a failed economic promise and the light of its potential. They are always on the precipice of falling into the underbelly of the city, rather than typically emerging from it. The men of Raghavan’s films are ordinary middle class men like Vikram (Johnny Gaddaar), Raghu (Badlapur) and Aakash (Andhadhun), all of whom live in flats that seem to be in middle-class residential areas, and they frequent western restaurants and bars. Their aspirations are also bourgeoisie, like getting the girl, moving abroad, and promotions within their company etc. With the exception of Raghu whose desire transforms into a lust for revenge, these ambitions end up leading these characters to act with a reckless forsaking of morality, and they are pushed into a series of unfortunate events.
Vikram, played by Neil Nitin Mukesh (in his debut role) in Johnny Gaddaar (2007), is a part of a collective of five men who run illegal businesses and sell contraband. But, he does not consider himself to be a gangster or ethically compromised. Sitting in a bar covered in a red sheen, after she asks him to leave this kind of work, he tells Mini (Rimi Sen) — the love of his life, and the wife of one of his business partners — that everyone has to be morally grey to survive. A fundamental distrust towards legitimate authority, and its pulse on the world, pumps up the moral universe of this film. The eventual murder of Mr.Sheshadri (Dharmendra) — who represented the older, and more principled ways of conducting business — by Vikram, can also be read as the death of the the erstwhile noir hero.
But Raghu (Varun Dhawan) from Badlapur is different. While he too is produced by the greed of the neo-liberal world, it is the ambitions of others that destroy him and transform him from the ‘normal man’ to the ‘noir hero’. His introduction is done through the bright, white and sanitised advertisement he creates for his normal job in the advertising agency. (The pitches at the advertisement firm include one about a push up bra that when worn can make even men look like they have breasts.) He has commonplace aspirations for a promotion that exists in a bid for financial stability, as well as a content family life. However, in an unusual and tragic event — a representation of the urban paranoia of the criminal world — his wife and son are murdered in a bank robbery committed by Liak (Nawazzudin Siddiqui) and Harman (Vinay Pathak). Both these criminal men have similar aspirational desires, but one roughly underscores the other side of economic reality, where the fantasy of this content family remains out of grasp.
In Andhadhun. Akash devises a twisted ‘experiment’ to act as a blind man who plays the piano, in a bid for both sympathy and distinction from able bodied folks. While it brings him the attention of the ‘good woman’ Sophie (Radhika Apte), the experiment also brings him closer to the insidious world of organ transplant. After he witnesses a murder committed by the femme fatale Simi Sinha (Tabu), the events escalate into a flitting cat and mouse chase that propels him towards a possible downward spiral. In the middle, rather than being just a hapless bystander, he is both a perpetrator of less-than-ethical choices, and their victim. His moral ambiguity is established again in the open-ended denouement of the film, where he flicks the can which is at some distance from him on the road — and would be considered inscrutable because of his condition — with his guiding stick. The true nature of his blindness is shrouded in mystery, though the implication that he is not rings stronger.
To fulfil his desire to marry Mini in Johnny…, run away to Canada, and start afresh away from the clutches of Shardul (played by Zakir Hussain, Mini’s husband in the film) and their past, Vikram hatches a plan to steal the consignment of money being sent to Bangalore. However, things do not go according to plan, he lands up killing Shiva (Dayanand Shetty), one of his partners, and in order to cover up his tracks he entangles himself deeper into the web of a life he wants to leave high and dry. What was initially supposed to be a pursuit towards moral legitimacy, and a ‘normalcy’, instead succumbs to becoming a murderous quest for Vikram. There is a scene, where Vikram enters a kitchen while dancing to a song. The lyrics say “ab na baap bada na bhaiya, sabse bada rupaiya (Now neither the father is powerful nor the brother, money is most powerful)”. The accumulation of capital is central to existence. Johnny could have taken the 50 Lakh rupees and fled, and it would have been sufficient for him, but the desire was to accumulate more.
Johnny Gaddaar is the most self-consciously noir film amongst the three, using visual paraphernalia commonly associated with the genre, like plenty of rain, light play, saturated colours, dutch angles and hand held camera work. The score is often reminiscent of Bollywood background music used in the chase sequences of Amitabh Bachchan action films like Don (1975) and Deewaar (1974). The film actually uses one of Bachchan’s films, Parwana (1971) in which he plays the criminal mastermind behind the theft. Parwana is used as the framework for Vikram’s plan and foreshadows his rise and fall.
The visual language of Andhadhun is far more in line with sunshine noir. The colours are popping, an array of red, green, and yellows. The film is mostly set in the daytime, the Pune sun floods the screen, even in the night scenes’ warm hues fill the scene, until the things start getting darker by the end of the film as relationships and circumstances get more convoluted. This mixture of saturated light mixed with Raghavan’s particular brand of dark humour maintains the equilibrium of the film — the darkness masquerading within the light.
In Badlapur, Raghu’s unquenchable, and obsessive desire for revenge pulls him into the dark criminal space. He obsessively, viciously revels in the past, a common theme in noir cinema. This is illustrated with the non-linear editing and the inclusion of the sporadic flashbacks through the film. Which also serves to maintain his moral ambiguity in face of his increasingly cruel and unhinged actions. Noir heroes are trapped in a moment of transition unable to change, and Raghu’s refusal to move past the event is his resistance to the movement of time.
After Liak is imprisoned, Raghu gets off the train in the Badlapur area of Thane on the peripheries of the city. Revenge becomes a location, a self-made prison. He lives in purgatory, in a house devoid of all personal memorabilia of his family, occupying an empty shell — a metaphor for his own self. His situation is an allegory for the lack of power and established structures of life in a new kind of world that he is unable to navigate. He transitions to being the criminal that he was hunting. He uses threats, sex, and sexual violence against women, unable to see the hypocrisy of his actions until the very end.
In true noir fashion, none of these men are able to achieve their desires. Johnny/Vikram is shot by Varsha (Ashwini Kalsekar), Prakash’s wife, who he had murdered to save himself while Rimi waited for him. Akash, is left behind by Sophie and does not get the girl he loves or the infamy he wanted. Raghu, in a twisted way turns into the thing he hated the most. Raghavan, paints a bleak world but not one completely devoid of justice. He empathetically explores the psyche of these urban modern men without falling for their con, and giving into gun-tilted their ambitions.