Director: Abhinay Deo
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Kirti Kulhari, Arunoday Singh, Divya Dutta, Omi Vaidya, Pradhuman Singh, Anuja Sathe, Gajraj Rao
Black comedy is nothing but desperation elevated into an accessible art form. Director Abhinay Deo immortalized these words by designing the punkish franticness of Delhi Belly almost seven years ago. The film reinvented the concept of potty humour, overpopulated plotlines and rakish underdogs; it broke ground in a stubborn landscape centered upon stars and slapstick. Deo attempts to revisit the "formula" through Blackmail, and through the restrained elasticity of Irrfan Khan.
But there are a few fatal differences.
Firstly, Blackmail runs forty minutes longer than Delhi Belly, with an interval, at the kind of pace that needs to accommodate the deadpan aura of its lead actor. Even the darkest of comedies lose steam and choose one of two genres by the end of 140 stylish minutes.
Secondly, Deo made two mega actioners, Game and Force 2, in between these two films. As a result, the storytelling here feels somewhat homesick, as if Delhi Belly aged a bit, bloated into a middle-aged uncle and decided to attend a nostalgic Class of 2011 reunion to try those young dance moves one last time. An example is the moment after the protagonist, Dev (Irrfan), discovers his wife's affair; the camera leads him in an unbroken scene as his ungainly jog turns into a flailing sprint from the colony gate to the end of his street – almost as if he were imagining a Bhaag D.K. Bose cover scoring his brief meltdown.
Blackmail runs forty minutes longer than Delhi Belly, with an interval, at the kind of pace that needs to accommodate the deadpan aura of its lead actor. Even the darkest of comedies lose steam and choose one of two genres by the end of 140 stylish minutes.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Delhi Belly writer Akshat Verma hasn't penned this one; in fact, Verma's own directorial debut earlier this year, Kaalakandi, suffered from an uncannily similar hangover. Both of them have relocated their vision to fit the sweaty ambiguity of Mumbai. It's like two estranged brothers attempting – but failing – to individually recreate the magic of their successful partnership.
That's not to say Blackmail is a bad film. It just doesn't know how to quit while it's ahead. And it isn't as funny as the wry treatment (the Ram Sampath-ish score, the Punjabi rap songs) suggests it is, either. For that matter, very few "Bombay" films can be wholly funny because of how ingrained and rooted the feeling of survival is in this city; it's hard to consistently examine this feeling through the lens of tragicomedy – especially if there's debt, adultery, bloodshed or all of the above involved.
At one point, we see Dev and his wife Reena (Kirti Kulhari) in a quintessential Bombay shot – they occupy the same bed but different worlds, with their backs toward each other, and the faint din of local trains and festivals lulling them to sleep. Dev is thinking about the home loan, bills, Reena's affair and his harebrained scheme of blackmailing her lover, Ranjit (a perfectly goofy Arunoday Singh); Reena is probably thinking about the same things but in a different context. This is a sad shot, but the writers insist that secret sorrows make for fascinating setups. They prefer to trivialize these issues by overcooking their situations.
Their lives are separate, and the trust broken, not unlike the emptiness of Ranjit's boy-toy marriage with his wealthy cougar wife, Dolly (Divya Dutta), or even Dev's strange office equations in a toilet paper company owned by a delusional ivy-school reject (Omi Vaidya). The sequence reads thus: Dev cons Ranjit who cons Dolly whose threats drive Ranjit to con Reena and Reena to con Dev back. In between there is Dev's greedy new female colleague, his awfully perverse male colleague, a shady private detective and a homicide case.
The storytelling here feels somewhat homesick, as if Delhi Belly aged a bit, bloated into a middle-aged uncle and decided to attend a nostalgic Class of 2011 reunion to try those young dance moves one last time.
Basically, the photographer-blackmailing-landlord sub-thread of Delhi Belly is inflated into an entire adventure that prohibits Irrfan from flashing the tiniest grin. The labyrinth plot deliberately bears the repetitiveness of a dog chasing its own tail – except I'm not sure if the makers ever realize that the dog then ends up biting off its tail and bleeds to death long after the novelty wears off.
It's a pity Blackmail doesn't capitalize on its details. On a technical level, Deo exhibits the eye of a proficient ad filmmaker. The film opens with Dev playing Pac-Man on his office computer. That the game is all about Pac-Man navigating a maze of dots while avoiding four ghosts (Pinky, Blinky, Inky, Clyde) foreshadows his chaotic battle against the four blackmailers. Merely through a witty interplay of shots – leaky faucets, "Save Water" slogans, a tie being flung over his shoulder, tissue paper – Dev is also shown to be a chronic masturbator, who uses the photographs of spouses from his unsuspecting colleagues' desks to "stroke" his deflated ego. Amit Trivedi's 'Sataasat' is eerily tuned to his needs. The story hinges on the unlikely fact that Ranjit has never seen Dev's face; when he asks Reena, she responds rather profoundly that "Dev looks like a husband." Dev drives a Maruti Alto, a car that resembles a conventional Ola or Uber ride, indicating that he has only ever been a medium for others – his wife, boss – to reach their destinations, and that he doesn't fully own anything in his life.
Like a true middle-class Mumbaikar, he blackmails with the mentality of a struggler, too – by demanding a princely sum of INR 1 lakh, which is just about enough to cover his current debt. He doesn't think bigger than that, because he is at heart an "aam aadmi" who is only trying to teach them a lesson.
When an investigating cop interrogates a suspect in a murder case, the man blurts out Dev's convoluted plan in one breath to save his own butt. This is the first time we – and presumably, the writers – hear it aloud. The inspector mocks his imagination: "What B-grade movie is this?" – as if to remind us that Blackmail is more than aware of its truth-is-stranger-than-fiction idiocy. Or at least by incepting this thought of self-referential bravado into our heads, the film tries to get away with its arbitrariness.
These little moments don't quite add up, but they do place this film near the top of the burgeoning well-made-average-movie pile. Casting Irrfan, after all, is that sort of two-edged sword; the films he occupies almost never measure up to his reputation. The expectations that stem from his presence might occasionally demonetize the rest of the film. This, also however, begs the questions: Isn't Pac-Man really a horror movie? Doesn't Pac-Man feel fat and slow by eating those dots? Don't the ghosts also lose patience, get quicker and abruptly reverse directions by the nineteenth stage?
I suspect the answers to Blackmail's indulgences and inadequacies lie in these questions.