A plot twist isn't as simple as it sounds. The "surprise ending" cannot afford to be a random leap of faith. It has to be a resolution, an earned moment, not necessarily something that is designed only to trick the viewer. Hindsight is its greatest friend. It must change our reading of the film, not the narrative. It should inform the life of the characters before informing the story of this life. Some of the finest Hollywood films over the years have ended with sleight-of-hand slyness: Psycho, The Shawshank Redemption, Saw, The Sixth Sense, Seven, Unbreakable, Memento, The Usual Suspects, The Prestige, Shutter Island, Fight Club, Arrival. The best of them fooled us in broad daylight, not only offering an element of shock but also a sense of closure.
But the twist isn't limited to suspense thrillers either. A recent instance – where it totally altered our perception of a "comedy" – came in Gulabo Sitabo. (Spoiler alert: if you haven't watched Gulabo Sitabo yet, or any of the older films mentioned in the list below, stop reading right now.) Directed by Shoojit Sircar and written by Juhi Chaturvedi, Gulabo Sitabo presents a slice-of-life story featuring a crabby landlord and his younger tenant. But the ending – where the landlord's 95-year-old wife, Begum, has eloped, leaving the warring men with nothing but karma – actually proves that the film was an act of concealment. While we were enjoying the petty disputes between two famous faces, the Begum was busy making other plans. It's not just optical gimmickry: A statement is made, about lost love and the fetisization of tradition and oldness. It ties in well with the location (Lucknow) and theme, and instantly elevates the whole film, which was little more than a series of Tom-and-Jerry conflicts until then.
Hindi cinema isn't exactly known for skillfully designed plot twists, but there have been some memorable ones. Some may even be playful, but they've added to the identity of these movies. And I'm not talking the Abbas-Mustan variety here, where the entire film is a plot twist with a tad of story in between.
Here are eight of my favourites:
Again, the woman dupes two warring men and an inherently hero-obsessed audience. But Ram Gopal Varma's Kaun? still stands as perhaps the most inventive psychological thriller in Hindi cinema. A serial killer is on the loose, it's pouring outside, and Urmila Matondkar stars as a paranoid girl who is wary of the two shady male strangers she's let into her house. The film puts us in her jittery position, as her suspicions sway between the irritating businessman (Manoj Bajpayee in his breakout year) and the slimy thief (Sushant Singh). The twist in the end reveals the dead body of the original house owner, which in turn reveals that the girl was the serial killer all along. The use of rain, sound, atmosphere, dialogue, space and gender conditioning is second to none in Kaun?, a film that was pathbreaking at a time when a songless Indian chamber thriller was virtually unheard of. I was barely into my teens when I first watched it, and my "Bollywood" mind was irrevocably disrupted. The Sixth Sense released later in the same year, but Kaun had trained me to read the signs of the twist.
Back when texting was yet to make this world a lonely place, a lot of moviegoing lives were ruined by four words that became a national anthem for a nosy, gossip-starved Stardust generation: Kajol is the killer. Rajiv Rai's Gupt: The Hidden Truth was, for many '90s kids, the first taste of what a desi plot twist felt like. And irrespective of how hammy and clumsy the film might have been, the twist was brave. And what's more, logical. For an audience unfamiliar with the dramatic potential of a love triangle, a quiet female character played by the queen of romantic Hindi cinema is naturally the last suspect in a crime story about a long-haired hero framed for the murder of his own stepfather. It may be a cult-level joke today, but I can assure you that the deafening symphony of minds being blown across Indian cinema halls in 1997 was never heard again.
A woman pulling the wool over a macho system's eyes seems to be a recurring twist in this list. As I mentioned earlier, maybe the shock is inherent to our culture – we don't expect the "heroine" to be anything more than the apple of our heroes' eyes. So when they hit back and show ominous agency, the moments are milked by most male filmmakers. Aishwarya Rai's hidden agenda in Raj Kumar Santoshi's Khakee – where popular male leads play cops and robbers – is a prime example. (She would go on to repeat her damsel-in-stress act in the Steve Martin-starring Pink Panther franchise). Rai plays an unwanted extra on a journey that features a team of policemen on a booby-trapped road trip. Until the famous football stadium scene, where she reveals herself as the green-eyed "mole" – and sneaky lover – of the scar-faced villain (Ajay Devgn) to a stunned Akshay Kumar. It's an iconic moment, but also a well-planted one.
Homi Adajania's first film, an eccentric English-language drama, starred Saif Ali Khan as the mysterious titular outsider who infiltrates a dysfunctional Parsi family with an ulterior motive. Everyone's a nutter in the family: a spaced-out sculptor (Naseeruddin Shah), his amorous wife (Dimple Kapadia), her sleazy brother-in-law and lover (Boman Irani), and his deluded old man (Honey Chhaya) with a pot of gold. The voiceover-induced plot centers on an unhinged Cyrus taking them all for a ride. He may be the man of the crazy hour, but the property heist is eventually orchestrated by a woman. Nobody, including the viewers, suspect the only timid female member – the lover's wife (Simone Singh) – of anything more than garnish in the narrative. The twist: She's Cyrus' sister, and they inherit a fortune after framing the others. The eerie mood of the unorthodox film makes the ending look much cooler than it is. Something had to give, and it did.
Navdeep Singh's Chinatown-inspired first film is a masterful murder mystery that weaves the device of writing – its protagonist is a failed author – into the small-town Indian cocktail of sex, corruption and political power. There's no single twist, because the central truth-seeker, Satyaveer (Abhay Deol), peels layer after layer off what might have been a complex web of contrivations in a lesser filmmaker's hands. Every layer triggers a new revelation, while almost every character is pretending to be someone else. Satyaveer discovering that the influential villain is a pedophile who used a children's orphanage as his breeding ground is reminiscent of a sub-plot in Madhur Bhandarkar's Page 3, but the final twist – where two dead characters are revealed to be siblings who had hatched an elaborate plan – is the icing on a cake of wet literary dreams.
Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani might have been perfectly paced, but it wasn't perfect. The flashbacks of its pregnant protagonist Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) were visual red herrings conceived solely to mislead the audience about the identity of her missing husband. But for those who forgave the film's license to cheat, Kahaani became an ingenious cat-and-mouse game between its plot and its viewers. A pregnant woman fighting her way through an ominous Kolkata in search of justice builds up to a twist that, once again, plays on our preconceived notions about womanhood and "manly" thrillers. In a spectacularly shot climax, it's revealed that Vidya was only faking her pregnancy to trick men by weaponizing their reading of feminine vulnerabilities. Most of us did a double-take, because here was a twist that tested our own gaze of a male-dominated medium. Which, in turn, turned the one-word title into a broad-daylight twist.
Neeraj Pandey's first film featured Anupam Kher as a police commissioner put on tenterhooks by a man (Naseeruddin Shah) who has threatened to bomb the city if four terrorists aren't released. Right till the end, it appears that this unnamed man, who is operating from a hi-tech setup on an ordinary terrace, is a plain-clothed terrorist who wants his demands to be met. But a strange turn of events – where the criminals are instead assassinated – and a searing monologue in the end reveals him to be "just a common man" who is sick of watching his city get destroyed by 'these people'. The jury is out on the Islamophobic subtext and problematic politics of the premise, but purely on a storytelling level, the twist itself is superbly worded and craftily executed. It never second-guesses itself and, through two faces on the opposite sides of the law and life, lends a lyrical duality to the tale of modern citizen rage.
I'm a sucker for the blind man's bluff – Mohra almost found a place on this list. After all, you never want to "see" it coming. But Sriram Raghavan's most successful film subverts not one scene but an entire template to paint a portrait of naked ambition, deceit and dangerous liasons. The twist is that the twist isn't the actual twist – the blind piano player reveals very early on that he isn't blind, and the rest of the film morphs into a murky survival thriller. But the closing shot of Andhadhun truly changes the way we perceive the morality of the "hero". He calmly uses his cane to knock a can out of his path – an impulsive act that suggests how the man had never really transformed, still faking his way to his dream. He was, despite earning our sympathy, only the lesser villain in a tale full of them.
Talaash: "Kareena is a ghost" doesn't quite have the same ring to it as "Kajol is the killer," but Reema Kagti makes a spooky go for it anyway.
Kartik Calling Kartik: Farhan Akhtar playing a broken architect who leaves voice notes for himself sounds great on paper, but the film fell just short.
Ugly: Anurag Kashyap directs our attention to the dark bylanes of Mumbai, while the body of a missing little girl – whose kidnapping is faked by her own father – rots in a bike sidecar.
404: Nishikant Kamat stars in this severely underrated psychological thriller about a haunted student who discovers that he is being used as a guinea pig by a science professor who doesn't believe in ghosts.
Ittefaq: Akshaye Khanna and Sidharth Malhotra star in this cleverly cast update of an old template. Cool Khanna as an oversmart cop is expected to have the wood over beefy Malhotra as the innocent suspect, until the tables are turned.