Director: Rensil D'Silva
Writers: Rensil D'Silva, Niranjan Iyengar
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Neena Gupta, Sakshi Tanwar, Svar Kamble
Editor: Asif Ali Shaikh
Cinematographer: Anuj Rakesh Dhawan
Streaming on: ZEE5
To be pointlessly specific, Dial 100 is situated midway between Madhur Bhandarkar's Aan: Men At Work and Neeraj Pandey's A Wednesday. Which is to say, Rensil D'Silva's thriller belongs to a bygone decade where Hindi filmmakers think that exposing the "crime of being born normal and middle-class" makes for thrilling insight. It does not – especially not when every twist is still buried in a scene that features the twister (you know, the perpetrator whose expressions suddenly get crazy) generously explaining his/her identity and backstory while the twistee (you know, the shocked victim) patiently listens so that the audience is duly informed. And certainly not when a kidnapping adopts the language of a group therapy session, or when a grieving parent spells out the moral consequences of their suffering. It's 2021. We know the caller has a personal vendetta against the policeman – now what? We know the system is rotten – now what? We know the calls will trace back to a mole in the police station – now what?
Dial 100 is set in a familiar movie environment: the emergency control room. Bored cops sit around dehumanizing late-night crisis situations on their headphones until a caller jolts them out of their bureaucratic reverie. Nikhil Sood (Manoj Bajpayee), the senior supervisor, receives a call from a seemingly suicidal woman (Neena Gupta). She's a mother who's lost her son. Simultaneously, Nikhil is juggling a domestic crisis – his errant 18-year-old son Dhruv has gone partying, and wife Prerna (Sakshi Tanwar) is worried he will lapse back into his drug habit. So far, so The Family Man 7. The image of Bajpayee playing a protagonist who struggles with work-life balance needs to be patented. It's right up there with Pankaj Tripathi playing the small-town paternal figure. The actors will never be bad, but this is not the kind of cultural pigeonholing Hindi cinema needs right now – or ever. Nikhil's night spirals out of control once the deranged caller reveals – of course – that his son is the trigger of this unoriginal premise. If I were a character in the film, I'd be pretty terrible at pretending to be stunned.
Even though Dial 100 gets its nihilistic messaging on point, the gimmicky execution ensures the film is about as surprising as a traffic jam in Andheri East. So much of it features a tense Nikhil secretly trying to handle the situation from the control room. As his moral fibre comes undone, the narrative branches out into unnecessary visual diversions – Dhruv in a long chase sequence, Prerna in a car, and so on. The intention is to make nocturnal Mumbai a character in the film, which is fine, but the makers push the parking-lot metaphor too far. The cross-cutting isn't great either; there always seems to be a dramatic time-lag between the action and the (stretched) reactions. For instance, when a gunshot goes off in the control room, it takes an eternity for the startled cops to barge into the door only so that the shooter has enough time to convey some performative shock.
Speaking of which, I get the idea behind the casting of Neena Gupta – new-age Hindi cinema's favourite mother – as a parent on the brink of insanity. The reasoning is on the lines of Deepti Naval's subversive role in NH10. Actors otherwise known for their calm and cuddly roles make for startling sociopaths on screen. But Gupta isn't entirely comfortable here, especially in the moments of rage and recklessness; the novelty of who she is wears off within the first fifteen minutes. (Abrupt swear words like "bastard" and "bitch" bring to mind Kangana Ranaut's role in Fashion). It's also the writing that dilutes her body language, mostly because the dialogue depicts a very dated perception of madness. Her verbal expression sounds too designed, and too deliberate in its desire to explain human psychology. I almost expected a bearded 1980s doctor in a white coat to show up and say, "I'm sorry, we need to send her to a mental hospital". It's a pity, really, because it can be exciting when veteran artists step out of their comfort zones.
Another issue with Dial 100 is the sound design. I understand the creative license of making the phone calls appear as clean as possible. But it's a rainy night in Mumbai, she's calling from her moving car – the least one can do is at least not give her voice the clarity of a voiceover. There's a bit of city ambience in the background, a bit of road rage, but there's absolutely no need to get cute and mark the word "accident" with the screech of skidding tyres on the call. This sounds cool on paper, but let's not overestimate the spirit of the Bollywood flashback. More importantly, let's not overestimate the concept of crystal-clear cell coverage on Indian streets.