Director: Abhay Chopra
Cast: Sidharth Malhotra, Sonakshi Sinha, Akshaye Khanna
For the second consecutive time this year, after Mom, Khanna plays a shrewd policeman who thinks he is smarter than the film he occupies. It's crucial he looks, and feels, better than the rest. And it's crucial we sense his inherent cynicism, his weathered smugness.
Ittefaq is a remake – though it's more of a modern-day adaptation, a "system update" – of Yash Chopra's 1969 thriller. While Abhay Chopra's film cannot possibly retain the datedness of the mental hospital and court scenes, it does have to be loyal to its title (meaning "coincidence"): a term that, in itself, serves as a reminder of a truly filmy plot. After all, what are the odds of an NRI man suspected of killing his wife escaping to a house ripe with a mysterious lady occupying the scene of another murder? Even in context of the warped times we live in, this frying-pan-into-the-fire story sort of pushes it.
Which is why director Abhay Chopra designs Dev very smartly. Dev is essentially the 2017 eye-roller stuck in a 1969 situation: a life caught in a movie. He personally chuckles at the "weaknesses" of the script – and, therefore, at the very aspects we are conditioned to criticize. For instance, when he first appears at the murder scene, he mocks the idiocy of his shabby (and very annoying – almost a mainstream "comic" device, a la Paresh Rawal in Mohra) subordinates. "Who makes tea at a damn murder scene?" he asks, with muted exasperation, as he pulls up a typical Maharastrian caricature (Tambe, of course) wandering in with a tray from the kitchen. And then he proceeds to take a cup, as if deciding to go with the "movie" anyway, but not without an air of superiority.
The actors keep us guessing despite the contrivances which, to be fair, are far slicker than most homegrown suspense dramas. The film rarely allows its characters to pose, meander or play for effect – a refreshing change in an era full of screenplays that fall back on style and mood to overcompensate for its loopholes
Later on, he sizes up the prime suspect in a cell. "You don't look like a writer at all," he smirks, as if chastising yet another film (after Kapoor & Sons) for casting the impossibly good-looking Sidharth Malhotra as a novelist. When this man, with his writerly name (Vikram Sethi), cries tearfully about being "framed" for murdering his wife and a stranger, Dev calmly shifts away his plate of food. "It'll drop in the sambhar," he prompts. Dev is basically us – the city-slicking audience – watching a Bollywood thriller these days. He wants to believe everything and nothing. He even slyly taunts his pressured boss, who expects him to solve the high-profile case in three days: "Let him go! So many commit crimes here to become NRIs nowadays". I sense an alternate career as a film critic for Dev if this whole law enforcement thing doesn't work out. As it is, he seems to have a tired conscience, as well as an unnatural need to get facts right.
As the film progresses, and as Dev digests both Sonakshi Sinha (as mystery lady, Maya) and Malhotra's accounts of the night's events, there are moments when he goes quiet. He listens. He wonders – if this film is indeed worth exploring. Khanna's smoldering expressions can melt even the hardest of hearts – and he believes this helps him break down the psyche of their deluded minds. Occasionally, he is torn between sympathizing with these characters and wrapping up a bizarre case. As soon as his face softens, we, in turn, begin to look at the suspects differently. If he smiles at them, we know they're lying. His eyes serve as the background score, telling us which way to sway and how to think.
That said, the real background music – loud and desperate as ever – clearly doesn't trust his body language as much as I do. Because, honestly, there is no way the narrative can seem plausible. Unless, of course, the writers take a few jarring liberties. So, information is fed to us very methodically, by way of two intercutting accounts that take their time piecing together contrasting pictures. One of them is false. Often, a certain flashback is immediately followed by a different version of the same scene, making it seem like the characters – Vikram and Maya – are merely roleplaying instead of being "natural". The most notable device is the way Vikram's version is intermittently spaced as fragments throughout the film, instead of being presented as one complete alibi.
Thankfully, Sinha, and especially Malhotra, are equally sincere, "responding" to Khanna instead of performing against him. They keep us guessing despite the contrivances which, to be fair, are far slicker than most homegrown suspense dramas. The film rarely allows its characters to pose, meander or play for effect – a refreshing change in an era full of screenplays that fall back on style and mood to overcompensate for its loopholes.
The last few minutes are obviously the "original" addition to Yash Chopra's storyline. I'm a little conflicted about the necessity for almighty plot twists, especially in films that commit to their own ideas. It's easy to do – almost a lazy shortcut – and forces the makers to work backward and add a few unnecessary Easter eggs. Here is where most movies try to outsmart their audiences, and end up condescending upon its own form in the process. Dev is the only man who has the right to do this. But the climax is when he becomes the film he detested.
There's a misconception among most contemporary storytellers that a "remake" must seem cleverer, even forcibly so; I believe it just needs to be modified for the world it represents. And this world has no patience for twists, because most truths are already stranger than fiction. It's frustrating enough that the producers couldn't rid their momentum-building thriller of an interval. I suppose even Akshaye Khanna's disapproving nods and disarming grin can't entirely rid us Indians of our overpriced-popcorn cravings.