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Director: Ram Madhvani
Writer: Ram Madhvani, Puneet Sharma
Cast: Mrunal Thakur, Kartik Aaryan, Amruta Subhash, Vishwajeet Pradhan
Cinematographer: Manu Anand
Streaming on: Netflix

Hindi cinema has a journalist problem. It also has a social media, sports, nationalism and biopic problem, but those are discussions for another Friday. The journalist problem – spanning field reporting, writing and (especially) television anchoring – is not difficult to understand. It’s not an authenticity issue. I can still handle the superficial depictions of newsrooms and the hipster-simplification of breaking stories. The problem is rooted in a sense of cultural dissonance. Just as American stand-up comics, talk-show hosts and satirists were hit with a reality-is-stranger-than-fiction crisis when Donald Trump got elected President, Indian film-makers today are confronted with the prospect of inflating a parodic audiovisual space on screen. It’s sort of a losing battle: you can’t dramatize something that’s quasi-dramatic by design. Yet, they try. The result is a cringey amplification of soullessness rather than a genuine examination of opportunism. Actors end up playing performers instead of performative people. And the stories end up adopting the sensationalized tone they set out to critique.

While terrific shows like Paatal Lok, Scam 1992 and Mumbai Diaries 26/11 use long-form armour to deflect the chinks of their newsroom arcs, Ram Madhvani’s Dhamaka – based entirely in a fictional TV studio – has no such luxury. The premise ensures that there is absolutely no escape: What if Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani marries an imaginary Madhur Bhandarkar movie called Media? Or what if the common man from A Wednesday! decided to call an anchorman instead of the police commissioner? A remake of South Korean thriller The Terror Live, Dhamaka is centered on a frantic radio host, Arjun Pathak (Kartik Aaryan), who decides to broadcast his real-time phone conversation with a potential terrorist after the bombing of Mumbai’s Bandra-Worli Sea Link. A disgraced top anchor, Arjun sets out to leverage his exclusive access for a shot at his old job. The rest, as they say, is the-nation-wants-to-know history. Primetime Pathak is torn between ambition (a boss barking orders), love (his estranged wife is reporting from the site) and conscience (the ‘terrorist’ has a compelling sob story).

Given its focus, Dhamaka is a 106-minute-long journalist problem. The channel, for instance, is called TRTV: a hard alphabet away from TRP-TV. The live footage – of panicked people on a crumbling bridge – is edited like a movie, with artistic close-ups cutting to different angles and airy long shots, as though the cameraman’s dying wish were to make a festival-winning short. The news producer (a miscast Amruta Subhash) calls for her driver and casually walks out minutes after, among other things, a guest’s head explodes on air. A terrorist negotiator (Vikas Kumar), just like the producer, enters and disappears from the control room at will, stepping away for long stretches to field phone calls, making it seem like the script can’t account for more than one authoritative figure at a time. The coverage is cut and restored at will, too, making me wonder how the actual telecast played out in a viewer’s living room; who’s to say the abrupt lapses wouldn’t make us switch to Navika Kumar instead? At one point, a rival anchor interrogates Arjun from another TV screen in the middle of his show. Even if this were plausible, it just looks wrong. It reminded me of “God” talking to Truman Burbank from the eye in the sky.

These little details add up in chamber thrillers. Unlike the director’s previous film, Neerja, Dhamaka looks careless and hurried. An airplane hostage situation may not appear too dissimilar – at least thematically – to one in a news studio. But the former thrived on the shackled heroism of a true event, while the latter hinges on the moral conflict of a conconcted event. The mise-en-scene of a plane cabin is simple and familiar enough to keep the viewer invested in the humanity at hand. In Arjun’s case, the anatomy of his hi-tech environment keeps distracting from the human crisis. Characters interact with the purpose of revealing the language of a newsroom rather than operating in the confines of one. The boss, Ankita, repeatedly spells out their TRP-hungry motives to Arjun, as if she were addressing an audience unfamiliar with this habitat and not her employee in a do-or-die race against time. Arjun and she have worked together before, so there’s no reason to talk like that. Just the way she demands that “sad music” score a death on live TV seems off – it probably happens, but the makers flaunt her ruthlessness instead of implying it. This decision – to treat the setting as something that has to be explained, fetishized and occupied all at once – derails the narrative tension. It’s like TRTV, or the media in general, didn’t exist before the film. The final ten minutes are farcical, awkwardly straddling masala territory in an attempt to overstate the metaphor of a collapsing institution.

The choppy rhythm means no moment is allowed to breathe; one reaction simply disintegrates into another. I found myself unmoved by Arjun’s concern for his estranged wife – unlike, say, the doctor’s attempts to reach his estranged hotelier wife in Mumbai Diaries 26/11 – which in turn renders the stakes redundant. It doesn’t help that Kartik Aaryan, despite his best efforts, still appears to be a monologue away from turning Dhamaka into a romantic comedy. He has that “hero” way of emoting and speaking and moving that’s hard to unlearn. This can be particularly jarring in the role of a celebrity anchor, an everyman job designed to sell the illusion of heroism.

It never feels like he’s fluent in the grammar of Arjun’s profession, even though so much of his screen-time is spent responding to the uncertainties of a phone call. I can see why the makers might have cast him in the hunky Colin-Farell-in-Phone-Booth mould. But carrying the film is a tall ask, and one sequence demonstrates why he’s not up to it (yet): Arjun is in shock after an on-air tragedy, and his boss has to nurse him back to coherence for the telecast. She gives him another expository pep talk (“Journalists are actors, actors need an audience, audience needs drama”), and Aaryan is required to convey Arjun’s stages of recovery through rehearsals of his catchphrase. His dialogue delivery here is reminiscent of Akshay Kumar during his Khiladi days – kinetic and inert at once. The camera is in constant motion around his face, trying to convey the mental agony that his voice is supposed to. It’s easy to conclude that Madhvani falters with his first male protagonist after the success of Neerja and Aarya. But it isn’t about gender so much as intellectual curiosity. His reading of the space is simply too generic to make an impact. Consequently, watching Dhamaka often feels like watching one of those ticker-infested primetime shows. It’s much ado about nothing – and a loud reminder that, while the converse still holds true, it’s also journalism that has a Hindi cinema problem.

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