Director: Prakash Kovelamudi
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Rajkummar Rao
Mental health is a strange beast in mainstream Hindi cinema. Nobody is really diagnosed; conditions are character traits. People with antisocial personality disorder (“psychopaths”) are usually villains – the films romanticize their ability to be manipulative under the garb of seemingly normal behaviour. Their illness becomes an “anything goes” narrative device. Then there’s Parineeti Chopra in Hasee Toh Phasee, a ‘genius with tics’ heroine for whom love acts as a medicine. But Kangana Ranaut’s Bobby Batliwala Grewal (of course she’s half-Parsi) in Judgementall Hai Kya has more in common with Ranbir Kapoor’s Ved from Tamasha. Ved’s imagination – he turns to hybrid storytelling as a refuge – is an extension of his (unnamed) bipolar disorder. He revels in being different characters, anyone but himself. Bobby, too, is a Hindi dubbing artist who is seduced by almost every character she voices. She veers between acute psychosis and dissociative identity disorder, both of which are emotionally supplied by her day job; one day she is a mysterious mistress of a haunted mansion, the next day she is a rowdy rani. The subtext: Acting is nothing but a creative personality disorder.
The opening credits of Tamasha (“Chali Kahani”), though, hold the key to understanding the intent of Prakash Kovelamudi’s audacious film. Ved’s childhood montage is hallucinatory, blurring the lines between the fictional stories he loved (Laila Majnu, Ramayana, Heer Ranjha etc) and the real story he is. His mind, full of customized legends and myths, is splashed across the screen. It’s the one portion of Tamasha that truly internalizes Ved’s feverish mental state. Perhaps this was writer Kanika Dhillon’s brief to her brave director and editor. The pitch is tough: “Now imagine an entire film internalizing the mind of its unstable protagonist; imagine an entire film afflicted with acute psychosis”. There’s even a blown-up Ramayana-themed plot device in the second half. Like Tamasha gone dark.
It’s a miracle Judgementall Hai Kya exists in cinemas today. It’s daring and disruptive and inventive and campy and impossible to understand – the audiovisual manifestation of a nightmare. Much like Bobby. The soundscape is hers: The whispery nursery-rhyme-style songs, the amplified buzz of electrical equipment and fans and footsteps and birds (almost as if Bobby herself did the foley in her dubbing studio), the loud crunch of a cop incessantly chewing on aloo bhujia, the cackle of burning skin, the abrupt descent into retro background cues, the folded creases of origami paper, the papery crawls of a cockroach.
The visual mindscape is hers: Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography makes a mood out of neon-lit bedrooms, shadowy corridors, black cats, vividly parched flashbacks and something as basic as the faint red glare thrown by an electric meter onto a face. Bobby’s eccentric shades are shaped like shreds of broken glass: rose-tinted but deceptively dangerous. An early childhood tragedy makes her unsure of who she really is, which is probably why she views the world through a melange of bad masala movies. The film, like her, revels in being all over the place.
At times, Bobby, who chooses an asylum stint after slashing the nose of a sleazy boss, does look a bit gimmicky – almost as if the film has been conceived solely to accommodate its lead actress’ edgy, me-versus-the-world personality. Ranaut’s anti-media hostility during the promotional tour has been well-documented. Only while watching this film might it occur to us, however, that her real-life behaviour seems to have been engineered to advertise the nuttiness of this reel-life character. There are shades of Bobby in Ranaut and vice versa – either an achievement of immersive genius or an ambitious publicity stunt. But it’s only when Rajkummar Rao enters the film (as her hunky tenant, Keshav) does Bobby become an interesting narrative template.
Bobby’s Keshav obsession is designed to condition us into expecting a standard psychological thriller. The makers leave no (sensory) stone unturned to reveal Bobby as an unreliable thinker. When Keshav’s wife dies, she is convinced that he is the culprit, while the film exploits her condition to convince us that she is paranoid and therefore cannot be trusted. Moreover, her fragile mental state makes her a prime victim of gaslighting. A bit like Jodi Foster’s predicament in Flightplan (she is grieving, which is why nobody believes her when she claims her daughter is lost in the plane), and Shia LaBeouf in Disturbia (he is a troubled teen, which is why nobody believes his suspicions about a new neighbour being a serial killer). The question being: Has Bobby met her match or is she just being Kangana Ranaut?
Bobby’s hallucinations are dialled up to near-abstract levels towards the end. Fortunately, self-doubt is a cinematic emotion; the less sense it makes, the more effective it is
The film moves to London in the second half, a weird leap of faith given the Ramayana-performance backdrop. Bobby is roped in as a Sita understudy. It’s to Rao’s credit that he uses his inherent everyman sheepishness to distract us from Keshav and the film’s unconvincing motives. You’d think it would be easy playing a man who is trying to convince the world that a woman is mad. Which explains why Bobby’s hallucinations are dialled up to near-abstract levels towards the end. Fortunately, self-doubt is a cinematic emotion; the less sense it makes, the more effective it is. But beneath all the drama and left-of-field treatment lies a fascinating interplay of tones. In a way, Bobby is the “good crazy” trying to prove the existence of “bad crazy” – a modern mental-health poster-child trying to prove the existence of a flimsy Bollywood psychopath (the ones rarely diagnosed). A disturbed woman trying to expose the destructive man.
The chemistry between the two informs this complex relationship. You keep wondering why Keshav isn’t as alarmed as he should be. In fact, Rao’s dignified off-screen persona – notice him in the infamous video where Ranaut picks a fight with a journalist – somewhat informs our preconceived notions of the whodunit angle. Just as Ranaut’s does, in how we sympathize with rather than empathize with Bobby. At one point, Satish Kaushik as a cop investigating the case looks at her with such sad eyes that they guilt us into feeling sorry for her. A happy coincidence then, but ‘judgemental’ – to which ‘mental’ was amended for political correctness – works better in the title.
Judgementall Hai Kya is a Superhero Origin story, in which misunderstood mental illness is actually the superpower/identity needed to recognize the bad apples
There’s a particular scene in which we see Bobby striding triumphantly alongside all the colourful characters from her head. It looks like a classic afterthought, the kind a producer might insist on in order to soften the blow of an unorthodox story. She explains her condition here, heroic and unapologetic, breaking the fourth wall to spell out an unnecessary social message. On another day, in another industry, this might have been a franchise-defining moment – like a character from M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy declaring that “the broken are the more evolved”. In this analogy lies a clue to how we can grasp, and perhaps enjoy, a movie like Judgementall Hai Kya: As a Superhero Origin story, in which misunderstood mental illness is actually the superpower/identity needed to recognize the bad apples. In which acute psychosis is her cape of good hope.
Extreme? Maybe. Delusional? Possibly. But then this film doesn’t exactly promise a pension and lifelong health insurance. All the world’s a stage, and Bobby Batliwala Grewal can be anyone she pleases.