Director: R. Balki
Writer: R. Balki, Raja Sen, Rishi Virmani
Cast: Sunny Deol, Dulquer Salmaan, Shreya Dhanwanthary
Fifteen minutes before the first show of Chup: The Revenge of the Artist was due to start, the theatre in a multiplex in suburban Mumbai looked desolate. There were barely six people scattered across the hall, which seemed odd for a film that had seen record advance bookings. However, by the time the film began, practically every seat was filled. There was a hum of expectation in the air. “The ticket’s for Rs. 75 and the movie has Sunny Deol. Banta hai, boss,” said one audience member before unleashing enthusiastic catcalls for Hrithik Roshan, who appeared on screen in the Vikram Vedha trailer.
Sunny Deol is definitely one of the better features of Chup, a mystery set in Mumbai, featuring a serial killer who is targeting film critics. Deol plays Arvind, a taciturn cop who is heading the investigation. The first murder leaves a tubby film critic sitting on the toilet, naked. His dead body has been slashed multiple times and his modesty is protected by a roll of toilet paper. This is just the beginning. Two more spectacularly gory murders follow, with stars carved on the critics’ heads to mimic the star rating system of reviews. (We’d just like to state for the record that Film Companion stopped doing star ratings years ago, possibly before Chup was a twinkle in director R. Balki’s eye.)
As the bodies of film critics start piling up, Arvind tries to figure out who is behind these elaborately staged crimes. Meanwhile a young entertainment reporter named Nila (Shreya Dhanwanthary) is introduced to the story with the sole purpose of being bait for the serial killer. Before she can fulfil this function, she provides some distraction from the murders when she walks into a quaint little flower shop and finds herself faced with tulips and Dulquer Salmaan. Salmaan plays a florist who seems to live a dream life — he has a bungalow in Bandra and no boss breathing down his neck while he potters around the nursery in his home. However, as any one with a dating life will tell you, when a single man seems too good to be true, chances are you’re going to regret having dated him. Or as one young man in the audience put it during intermission, “See, you go for a guy who looks like Dulquer, this is what happens. This is why aam janta like us are better. What you see is what you get.”
There’s a lot to be said for watching movies in a packed theatre. The crowd for Chup was mostly college-going young adults who were far more irreverent and outspoken than reviewers tend to be. For instance, they shushed and “chup”-ed each other loudly when they were bored. The audience didn’t hesitate to burst out in laughter when a dead body appeared, hanging on a wall like a painting. The scene is intended to be shocking, but it gave the crowd giggles. So they giggled. When Nila meets the florist for the first time and walks off without paying for the flowers he’s given her, someone said, “Don’t worry. She’ll come back. Palat has to happen.” “Haan but without dialogue, because it’s Chup,” said someone else.
The film flitters between murder mystery, romance and slasher horror, as though hoping shifting genres will confuse the audience enough to make us lose sight of how obvious the identity of the serial killer is right from the beginning. However, a good mystery can be about the whys rather than a whodunit. In its first half, the film does set up some intriguing questions about the way the murders are carried out and the motivation of the serial killer, but the answers are mostly disappointing and unconvincing.
Chup is entertaining enough so long as you don’t start thinking about logic and plot. Once you do, it teeters between absurd and silly. The killer is clearly disturbed and delusional, but why have they started killing now? What’s flipped the switch to murder in their head? How did the killer find the alone time needed to carry out elaborately grisly affairs like dissecting a body on a cricket pitch and scattering organs all over the field? What made the killer pick these particular critics? Chup answers only one of these questions. Arvind brings on psychologist Zenobia Shroff (Pooja Bhatt) to help him find the killer and she arrives at the conclusion that the critics who made the cut (pun intended) are the ones whose writing provided “a script” to the serial killer. Yet the final reveal suggests the killer was more than capable of scripting their own story.
Not only does Chup steadily lose the plot after intermission, the film is also awkwardly structured. There’s a whole film within the film that arrives like an add-on featurette. It’s supposed to be an autobiographical work of unrecognised genius — like Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) — but it doesn’t seem particularly well-made and the parallel feels forced. Balki is lucky to have two actors who are charismatic enough to make the audience look past the hapless writing. Whenever Deol and Salmaan are not on screen, Chup sags and the holes in the plot become woefully obvious. Deol has some good scenes, including some moments of droll comedy, and we fervently hope that he will be cast in more films that require him to holler “Baaaaastard!” Salmaan provides all the eye candy you could ask for and manages to deliver an acting performance that is the right balance of chilling and charming. There are parts of Chup that are rich with menace and tension, but these are too few for a film that is supposed to be a thriller. By the time we reach the climax, it seems as though the film’s writing team had had enough — so much so that they chuck logic out of the window (somewhat literally).
At the end of Chup, while leaving the theatre, one young woman said to her friend, “It’s good timepass but if I’ve learnt something from this film, it’s ki online dating hi best hai.” The audience had spoken.