Dial 100 opens on a solid note: a rainy night in Mumbai, a wife upset with her husband's constant absence, a greasy vada pav and a mysterious phone call. The foreshadowing and atmospherics are cliched but immersive. The setup is immediately intriguing, and the presence of Neena Gupta and Manoj Bajpayee together is promising to say the least. It's a shame then, that the film gets caught in a web of predictable twists and sketchy writing, doing a disservice to its terrific cast.
In the first fifteen minutes, Bajpayee's PI Nikhil Sood receives a phone call from a woman veering between murderous and suicidal. Director Rensil D'Silva creates a palpable, slow-burning tension that's both creepy and thrilling. But as the film moves along, the gaping loopholes in D'silva and Niranjan Iyengar's screenplay become jarring and the grip begins to loosen.
There are a few clever flourishes. Seema isn't a criminal mastermind, so when she kidnaps Nikhil's wife Prerna (Sakshi Tanwar), her responses often feel unplanned and harebrained. Even the cliffhanger towards the end feels well-earned, but there's a curious lack of energy in the film that diminishes the effect of moments like these. Supporting characters are reduced to stereotypes, and while some of Iyenger's dialogues are conversational, others feel like they've been extracted from countless other old-school thrillers.
The screenplay aims for a no-nonsense, icy tone, which is particularly frustrating because it works in some bits and feels completely misplaced in others. It gives the film an edge but never lets you empathise with the characters. You never buy into the movie's sentimental core because of the otherwise cold treatment. How far can you go for love? What does it take to break a person? What is the difference between revenge and justice? The film asks several pertinent questions but barely scratches the surface in trying to answer these. In the end, neither is it insightful nor very thrilling. A large chunk of it comes off as extremely gimmicky, an odd mix of subdued and high-strung drama. The tension eventually merges into blatant manipulation, and it's a pity because there's so much talent on display.
The screenplay seems strangely detached from Seema's character, and Neena Gupta tries her best. Oscillating between a manic, feral energy and seething but righteous rage, she tries to convey the character's cynicism with sincerity but the writing never gives her a consistent pitch. The fluctuations are inharmonious, and Seema never feels like a real person. Sakshi Tanwar is also in fine form as a desperate mother, whose character sharply juxtaposes with Seema, another desperate mother. Towards the end of the film, there's a scene in which she cries. You constantly feel like she's going to explode but she never quite does. It's a piercingly honest performance that's unworthy of the film's lack of precision. And at the centre of it all, there's Manoj Bajpayee. He's completely convincing and absolutely riveting. Some scenes feel like they could be interchangeable with The Family Man, but the actor makes it different and refreshing even when the script feels feel jaded.
To give credit where it's due, the film is technically sound. The production design often seems a bit too immaculate, but Anuj Rakesh Dhawan's camerawork is impressive. It's also nice to see a thriller that doesn't resort to overusing its background score and music. Ultimately though, Dial 100 feels like a wasted opportunity. What begins with promise ends up spiralling into a muddled and lethargic mishmash that never quite finds its groove.