Director: Sriram Raghavan
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Tabu, Radhika Apte, Manav Vij, Ashwini Kalsekar
"What is life?" asks a character in Sriram Raghavan's new film Andhadhun. He gives the answer himself – it all depends on the liver. This liver could be the person living the life or it could be an organ in your body. We are now in Sriram's world. Everything has at least two meanings and nothing is what it seems.
Because Sriram is Hindi cinema's thriller master. His films are filled with dark and dirty people – criminals and gamblers, murderers and conmen. His films are also filled with references to older Hindi films. But in Andhadhun, Sriram takes the homage further. Anil Dhawan, star of 70s pulp classics like Chetna and Darwaza, plays a version of himself – a yesteryear star who spends too much time revisiting his past glory. The character of Pramod Sinha is of course fiction but his house is lined with posters of films that Anil, older brother of David and uncle of Varun, actually did. The movies Pramod is watching are actual Anil Dhawan movies. It's brilliant casting. Because the very presence of Anil adds humour and nostalgia and just a tinge of sadness for a time gone by.
Pramod is married to the sultry Simi, who somehow even makes cooking a crab sexually provocative. Could the name Simi be Sriram's hat-tip to Simi Garewal who was terrific as the murderous Kamini in Subhash Ghai's Karz? Like Kamini, Simi is a creature driven by greed and lust. She's delightfully unhinged. Someone calls her Lady Macbeth – another hat-tip to one of Tabu's most iconic roles – Nimmi in Maqbool. But unlike Nimmi, Simi has no conscience. She's brutal but nonchalant about the awful things she does, which makes her hilarious. She gets irritated that other people find it difficult to be the serial user and abuser that she is. Another character tells her, "Ekdum bundle aurat ho tum." Tabu, in flowing black nightdresses, is flat out fabulous as this ekdum bundle aurat.
Keeping pace with her is Ayushmann Khurrana as Akash, the blind pianist at the centre of the mayhem. One day, Akash finds himself embroiled in a murder. As he plays the piano, a dead body is disposed of. There is no dialogue because the murderers don't want him to hear anything suspicious. So they are dragging the body and miming instructions. It feels like a sequence stolen from a silent film. It's absolute genius. Andhadhun is worth watching just for these few minutes. Ayushmann delivers a wonderfully calibrated performance – Akash isn't the boy next door. He's got his own secrets but he is also an artist with a smidgen of humanity and compassion – basically the best among this den of scorpions. I loved when Akash, tied to a chair, looks into the distance and plaintively says the classic Sholay line – Itna sannata kyun hai bhai.
Sannata hai because the bodies are piling up. With precision and control, Sriram constructs a theatre of the absurd. The surroundings – high-rises, leafy streets and old houses in Pune – seem perfectly normal but what's happening inside is deliciously twisted. There's murder, betrayal, sex and a mountain of lies. In short, you can't look away.
But as it happens too often in Hindi cinema, the energy takes a beating post-interval. New characters take center-stage but they aren't as interesting as the folks who dominated the first half – this includes Manav Vij, superb as a tough cop who becomes a mouse when he faces his over-enthusiastic wife, played by Ashwini Kalsekar. She redefines the phrase tough love. I wish though that Radhika Apte had more to do. She's lovely but not particularly memorable.
Andhadhun is inspired by a French short film called The Piano Tuner. Inspiration might also have come from 'Raabta' in Sriram's Agent Vinod – you remember that terrific song in which a blind pianist continues to play as Saif and Kareena spray bullets everywhere. Four writers worked on Andhadhun and the second half does feel like a bit of a khichdi. The narrative becomes more convoluted than inventive. And the humour isn't as sharp – though Zakir Hussain as a casually corrupt doctor irritated by the demands of his family deserves, I think, at least a short film of his own.
A rabbit plays a key role. And the soundtrack is superb, including piano riffs of Anil Dhawan's greatest hits like Yeh Jeevan Hai and Teri Galiyon Mein Na Rakhenge. In fact, Andhadun begins with a dedication to Chhaya Geet and Chitrahaar– film music shows on Doordarshan from the 70s and 80s. You have to be of a certain vintage to appreciate what those shows meant – basically you had me at hello. I'm going with three and a half stars.