The piano piece that builds the intrigue of Andhadhun (2018); the frenzied beginning of Badlapur (2015) that inserts the viewer into the getaway car after a robbery; Sheshadri (Dharmendra) confronting Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh) about having killed a compatriot and made off with the money over tumblers of whisky in Johnny Gaddaar (2007); or the shot that rests on Sarika’s (Urmila Matondkar) face when she meets Karan (Saif Ali Khan) in prison in Ek Hasina Thi (2004) — depicting her transformation from the wronged woman, to a vengeful one. Even the weakest of Raghavan’s output – Agent Vinod (2012) – has a memorable single-take escape from a seedy motel in Riga, ‘Raabta (Night in a Motel)’ playing as Vinod (Saif Ali Khan) and Iram (Kareena Kapoor) evade Colonel’s (Adil Hussain) goons. While Raghavan may have been bracketed as a master of thrills, he’s fairly adept at moving from one space to another within his neo-noir cinema: Badlapur is not a lesser film for being a dark drama, just as Andhadhun can’t count for nothing because it’s a fleet-footed comic thriller. And in this space of building varied narratives, Raghavan produces characters that are as memorable as the moments they enact.
He repeats actors quite often: Zakir Hussain has been in all of his films save Merry Christmas — though he is acknowledged in the opening credits; Ashwini Kalsekar has been in four films (Johnny Gaddaar, Badlapur, Andhadhun, Merry Christmas); and Pratima Kazmi, Vinay Pathak and Radhika Apte all mark their third collaboration with the director in his latest outing. Four of his six films have featured veteran actors Raghavan probably grew up watching, and he has offered them roles that are both tributes to, and riffs on their legacies. In an interview (with Nandini Ramnath for Scroll.in), Raghavan recalled having read somewhere that “if you zoom into a particular character, there should be a whole film possible about that character.” Some of these characters may be bit-players in the schemes that are the films in which they feature, but they all have the sort of “Main Character Energy” that suggests the possibility of each of them being protagonists in some other tale. But in addition to being fully realised in their capacities, these characters also play key roles in serving up a deliciously constructed, idiosyncratic Raghavan twist, which have become essential to how we understand his cinema.
Ek Hasina Thi was cast such that it preyed on the expectations of the audience: Urmila Matondkar played an independent woman who must come to terms with the cards she’s been dealt, in contrast to roles she’d had in Satya (1997) and Bhoot (2001). Saif Ali Khan assumed and shed the baggage of the urban chocolate boy in a matter of minutes to don the garb of a slick, cruel gangster. For the role of a determined cop, Raghavan cast Seema Biswas, best known for her turn as the brigand Phoolan Devi in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1992).
But arguably the best bit of stunt casting was pulling in Aditya Srivastava as the slimy lawyer Kamlesh Mathur. Srivastava was, at the time, five years into playing a police officer on the show C.I.D. (which Raghavan has written two episodes for), and had also just played a cop in Shaad Ali’s Saathiya (2002). His face was one of instant reassurance, of the likelihood of things being set right. Insofar as a viewer commits to Ek Hasina Thi (to do so totally, one must drown out Amar Mohile’s score), there is a hope that hinges on Mathur. Having baited his audience, Raghavan pulls the rug out skillfully and stages the scene where Mathur’s intentions are made clear in a courtroom, to boot. Sarika knows now that Mathur never meant to get her bail, that the advice she has been given was meant to ensure she’d languish behind bars. The suggestion that Karan has used her as a pawn in his work has turned out to be true. That hall of justice and truth becomes one of lies and entrapment, and Mathur leaves the scene as slyly as he entered it.
Johnny Gaddaar technically has no supporting cast: it’s a true-blue ensemble film. But with characters serving functions of the plot, it becomes slightly easier to identify them and the purpose they serve within the grander narrative. Zakir Hussain plays Shardul, the man with whom Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh) has the closest link: they are joined together by Mini (Rimi), who is carrying on with Vikram whilst being married to Shardul. Hussain is menacing as a by-the-books crook, the kind who is always ahead of the man sitting across the table from him. It is a rare instance of Raghavan going along with an actor’s image — Hussain had gotten his break in Ek Hasina Thi, but had been found chillingly good in Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar (2005), but because the whole film is a subversion of types, Hussain’s Shardul technically ends up being one of the better men among the lot. Which isn’t to say he is particularly nice – he is constantly engrossed in some sort of battle with Prakash (Vinay Pathak), he is almost foul with Mini, but as far honour among thieves is concerned, he is in the green.
Shardul’s response to the crooks’ scheme going belly-up propels the narrative of the film, even as Vikram does his best to cover the tracks he had not realised he was leaving behind. His confrontation with Vikram sets up a fitting climax, and it’s the rare moment where one relishes the victory of one bad guy over another.
The cast of Agent Vinod is stacked: aside from the lead pair Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan, Raghavan recruited Seventies specialist villain Prem Chopra, television stars Ram Kapoor and Shahbaz Khan, theatre actor Adil Hussain, and his one-time boss B.P. Singh, the creator of Aahat and C.I.D. Dhritiman Chatterjee was a bolt from the blue: while a seasoned actor, he had only been working in Hindi cinema for seven years prior to Agent Vinod. His unfamiliar face in a sea of familiar ones should have made him stand out, but like all good villains, he receded into the background, letting others dirty their hands on his behalf.
Despite his limited screen time, Chatterjee makes Metla a fascinating character. His world government desires are of an older time, akin to the plans made by the villains of Raghavan’s youth, but Chatterjee’s sagacious tone makes one sit up and take note. Amidst the chaos and carnage of Khayyams and nukes and mujras and explosions, Raghavan is getting at something almost prescient: The idea that some of the world’s most powerful men — with fingers in pies ranging from big business to electoral politics — could engineer incidents viewed as acts of terrorism in the hope of bringing down stock markets across the world. Metla bluntly tells Vinod that the schemes he and his cohort had devised would’ve checked China’s power, left Pakistan without nuclear weapons, and solved Iran’s pipeline problem. “Yeh sab complex maamle hain, tum policewaale ho. Tumhaari samajh se baahar hai (These are complex matters, and you’re a policeman. It’s beyond your understanding).” Chatterjee delivers this spiel for the greater good with a clipped accent and flaring nostrils. One wonders, briefly, what Metla will have done to Vinod for having stumbled upon his plans, only for the man himself to go up in smoke — Vinod having done to him what he wanted to do to the citizens of Delhi who, whatever one may think of them, did not deserve to have a nuclear weapon dropped on them.
In Badlapur, we have a young man, who used to work at an advertisement firm, turn over to a quest for bloodied revenge when his family is murdered by two bank robbers. Yet again Raghavan baits us with a familiar face during the police investigation of this case, one that is hardly likely to surprise us because it has never been used in varied ways before. Kumud Mishra was Khatana bhai from Rockstar (2011), he was Capt. Kabir Mathur from 1971 (2007), and when his investigating officer Govind Mishra is introduced in Badlapur, interrogating Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), he seems like a determined policeman, one who wants to find the perpetrators of a double murder. He grows impatient with Liak’s lies and slaps him around, but no part of it appears to be the product of incompetence or unwillingness. He greets the bereaved Raghu (Varun Dhawan) with disappointing news but then cracks up when he shows the widower a sketch based on Liak’s description of his partner, suggesting it resembles the actor Ranjeet. Mishra pops up intermittently thereafter, usually acting as a buffer of some sort between the film’s two opposing forces.
When he returns for good, in the film’s “Fifteen Year Later” portion, he has had three promotions and two bypasses and is close to retirement, but the case still bothers him. So far so good. The first inkling one has that Mishra might not be on the level is when he has a brief conversation with Shobha (Divya Dutta) whilst waiting for Raghu: she appears uncomfortable, and has her arms folded across her front, while Mishra stands with one hand holding his waist, the other on a vehicle bonnet. Shobha answers his questions politely, even if she is brief. When things go awry, Mishra is on the case again, pursuing every avenue doggedly but when Shobha gives vent to the sort of questions he’s been asking her, it blotches his reputation, and Mishra is unable to wipe it off when he finally asks Raghu about the money from the robbery, which he surmises the long-grieving man has made off with. All of it starts to make sense now, but there could just as well be the possibility that in the fifteen years that have elapsed, even if Raghu’s lust for revenge, and Liak’s general lust did not wane, Mishra’s policing skills became less about solving a crime and more about earning a financially-healthy living. Perhaps the uncracked case gnawed enough for him to stop caring, to lapse into gluttony, to not be bothered anymore about whether a crime was solved or not as long as he made a quick buck.
In Sriram Raghavan’s most commercially successful outing, we have a protagonist who is pretending to be blind, entangled in a cat and mouse chase once he accidentally witnesses a murder. In the film, Manohar Jawanda, played by Manav Vij, is Simi Sinha’s (Tabu) lover and her partner-in-crime (she murders her husband in the film). He aids and abets in her attempts to cover up her tracks, but he is also fairly thick-headed. By casting Vij, known for the prison thug Tilakdhaari in Lucknow Central (2017) and the bad cop Jhujhar Singh in Udta Punjab (2016), Raghavan played with the trope of the ideal cop. Jawanda is well-built, and eats sixteen eggs for protein every day (says his doting wife Rasika – an excellent Ashwini Kalsekar). But because he is so inept, he cannot dispose of a body properly, and makes up the most inane stories to justify what he’s been up to (from his wife’s aunt being in the ICU to a skirmish with terrorists), and he can’t kill the blinded Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana) in a small apartment (that he doesn’t think it prudent to switch on the lights so he has a greater advantage says even more about Jawanda’s lack of brains).
Vij plays all of this with the straightest of faces, diving into the character’s stupidity: Jawanda is Simi’s only accomplice, and the only person who can help her get away with the crime and get rid of witnesses, which is likely why Raghavan has him deliver a ransom. Naturally, the hand-off gets complicated and Jawanda fires upon the ransom collector, wounding him. Realising the latter isn’t alone, he makes for the lift, and when that gets shut down, the little determination with which he had set off earlier quickly gives way to panic, in the course of which he decides that the best way to break out of an all-metal lift is to fire at the door: the bullet rebounds, killing him, and leaving Simi to clean up the remaining problem figures. This serious lack of thinking on Jawanda’s part lathers an already entangled narrative with wicked twists that makes Simi’s pursuit harder, rather than easier.
Raghavan’s latest film is about Maria (Katrina Kaif) and Albert (Vijay Sethupathi), who meet on Christmas eve, and what was supposed to be a frolicking night of romance turns into a stuff of nightmares. It is in the second half of the film where major twists click in, and we meet the self-described “lone wolf” that is Ronnie Fernandes (Sanjay Kapoor), ironically at a midnight mass being held for Christmas. He appears to act all gentlemanly there, helping up Maria who has fainted and offering to drop her home. So far so good, unless one wants to take the mickey out of a person for wearing a plum-coloured suit on Christmas Eve. Once in the lift going up to Maria’s apartment, however, he uses clumsy subterfuge to make sure he stays inside, pretending to do up his shoelaces so he can slip off his ring and pretend to be unmarried. Like Jawanda, Fernandes is not particularly bright and thinks his charms have worked when Maria invites him and Albert (Vijay Sethupathi) in. When his wife (Ashwini Kalsekar, playing wife to an idiot for the second consecutive Raghavan film) whips up stories about her beloved Ron in the police station after he is caught at a murder scene, you know it's because Fernandes can’t be relied upon to not land in trouble.
When things finally do go south, Fernandes unravels quickly: he’s a married man, he confesses to Vinay Pathak’s plainclothes police officer Paresh Kamdar; he suggests to Maria that they avoid mentioning Albert but is the one who actually breaks and rats him out. Not only does he liberally reveal this info — one of his material possessions, his wallet — inadvertently, ends up being significant in a carefully put together alibi coming apart, leading to one of the major twists in the film.