I recently watched Andhadhun for the first time and it got me thinking about reality in movies — not realism, but reality — what is real and what is not. There is the objective reality in movies like Lagaan where the camera shows us what is actually happening and then there is the subjective reality in a movie like Drishyam 2 where the camera shows us a character's version of events that may or may not have happened. Andhadhun has one objective reality — the events that happen in Europe. The rest is a story Akash narrates to Sophie who was present for some of the events, but not all. So how do we separate the subjective from the objective in the world of Andhadhun?
What constitutes an ambiguous ending? Drishyam 2 leaves us with a lot of questions about how exactly Georgekutty got away. It gives us hints and at least one version of events, but the ending itself is pretty conclusive — Georgekutty got away. Ambiguous endings are not sequel hooks. They are not simply leaving a few unanswered questions. They're not cliffhangers. Cowboy Bebop has a banger of an ambiguous ending — is Spike alive or dead? Watchmen has another all-time great ending — will the newspaper publish Rorschach's diary? And is that good or bad? The Graduate leaves us with a bittersweet sense of incompleteness. Sometimes an ambiguous ending is the only appropriate ending like in The Thing. Then there are endings that are ambiguous while still providing closure. The ending of Inception is a perfect example: does the top stop spinning or not? Is Cobb dreaming or awake? But perhaps that's not the right question. The real question is why does Cobb not care about the top? He's chosen his reality. It gives resolution to Cobb's arc one way or another.
Let's take a movie like The Usual Suspects, a movie with a similar framing device to Andhadhun. The bulk of the movie is narrated by Roger "Verbal" Kint to the investigating officer. Did he make all of it up or embellish real events with stuff he made up using the prompts lying around the office? Ultimately the movie is about one character lying his way out of jail. It lives and dies by its twist ending. If the whole thing was made up, we just watched some guy bluff his way out of prison then get in a fancy car and leave. One interpretation erases all the characters, their conflicts, and development, and makes us wonder what the point of the movie even was?
It raises the question — when is an ambiguous ending appropriate?
Sometimes, to let us know that we're switching to a character's point of view, movies give us an audiovisual cue like those flashback transitions in old movies, or the cinematography changes like in Natural Born Killers, or is explicitly framed as a story within a story like Rashomon. Then there are movies that don't play fair, which brings us to Joker.
Joker is very clear about which parts are the protagonist Arthur Fleck's fantasy and which are reality. His fantasies of being in his favourite show are clearly just that. Until that is, the movie pulls the rug out from under our feet and reveals most of Arthur's interactions with his neighbor, Sophie, were also all in his head. Suddenly, we have no anchor to the reality of this world. We don't know which parts are real and which are subjective? Then at the end, there is the final twist — he's been narrating to a psychiatrist.
Is it all just a story Arthur made up to the psychiatrist? That would be in character for the comic book character upon whom this movie is based, but this film doesn't establish this character as an unreliable narrator — he has hallucinations, for sure, but the movie doesn't even suggest he might be narrating it until well after the main plot is over. If that was the intended effect then it's that most tired of cliche endings — the "it's all just a dream" ending. If it was all just a dream (or a lie) then again what was the point of the movie? What did we learn about Arthur Fleck at the end of 122 minutes? All those glances at mental health and abusive childhoods have no bearing on this Joker. Not only that, but it comes across as appropriating the language of mental health disorders simply for flavour.
On a side note, in The Killing Joke, one of the most influential Joker stories that established his multiple choice past, Joker's status as an unreliable narrator with a malleable past ties into the themes and tone of the tale — it fits right into the chaotic night of unravelling minds during which the story takes place. The Killing Joke itself has one of the most famous ambiguous endings in comics. We don't know at the end if Batman is laughing at the Joker's joke, finally realizing the absurdity of their situation and accepting there can be no understanding the Joker, or if Batman kills Joker, finally accepting there is no other solution. The latter is preferred by writers like Grant Morrison. The important thing is, neither interpretation makes the preceding story meaningless. If anything, they give it closure one way or another. That's the brilliance of this kind of ambiguous ending.
Which finally brings us back to Andhadhun. The very first thing we hear is Akash's voice telling us it's going to be a long story. Later we learn that he's saying this to Sophie before taking her out for coffee. Everything we see in the movie other than the parts in Europe is in subjective reality. Sophie is our anchor to the objective reality of this world. The only things she can confirm are things outside the murder mystery — she knows Pramod Sinha's body was found, the old neighbour fell to her death, and possibly that Inspector Manohar is missing (stuck in an elevator). She also might have heard that Simi was found dead in a burned-up car by the road. Sure, there are other things for which Sophie might be able to find corroborating evidence — the doctor's body must have been found a few metres down the road, but how likely is Sophie to go looking into it? How many stories do we believe just because most of it appears to check out?
Ultimately the entire murder mystery could have been made up. The only one who saw the body in Simi's apartment was Akash. For that matter, did Akash even lose his eyesight? Sophie never saw him freak out over his eyes. All she knows is that she caught Simi in bed with Akash right after the kid showed her evidence that Akash is not really blind. What about the scene between Simi and her husband in the kitchen where she gives an impromptu audition? It provides an awfully convenient excuse for Simi to have the right soundbite with which to convince the "blind" Akash that Pramod is really in the room, doesn't it? So what has actually changed at the end? Well in Europe, Akash convinces Sophie that now he really is blind. Not only that, but he's blind because of a noble decision to not take revenge on the woman who ruined his life.
What's more likely — a fraudster pretending to be blind stumbles into a murder mystery involving a yesteryear actor, his wife, and the local inspector before finding himself in the company of compassionate organ smugglers who help him hatch a plot to extort money from said wife or that the fraudster lied his way back into Sophie's good graces?
What makes Andhadhun's ambiguous ending better than say, Joker (in my humble opinion), is that whether you think most of the story is made up or part of the story is made up, no interpretation makes the preceding story pointless. Whereas, if Arthur Fleck is lying, then Joker is just a movie where a guy smokes a cigarette and tells a story. One interpretation gives it meaning while the other takes it away and leaves only the twist ending. We'll never know for sure what really happened in Andhadhun, but something definitely happened — perhaps a fraudster made a noble decision and karma saved him in the form of a rabbit. Then he either got his eyesight back and went back to his performance art project of presenting himself as a blind pianist. Or he really lost his eyesight, and knocking the can away was just a fluke. The other possibility is that he never lost his eyesight, to begin with, and instead wove a clever story that does not wrap everything up in a neat little package to convince Sophie to consider taking him back. It's a story perfectly suited to her sensibilities. After all, wasn't it Sophie herself who said that some things are better unfinished?