Director: Aasmaan Bhardwaj
Writers: Aasmaan Bhardwaj, Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast: Arjun Kapoor, Tabu, Kumud Mishra, Radhika Madan, Shardul Bhardwaj, Konkona Sen Sharma, Naseeruddin Shah
Kuttey opens with a red flag, both literally and figuratively. It’s 2003, and a Naxalite (Konkona Sen Sharma) named Lakshmi has been captured by the police. She’s wounded and defiant, seated in a well-lit corner of a bleak prison. When the cop (Kumud Mishra) questions her purpose, Lakshmi doesn’t bother with Communism 101 lessons – and instead begins to narrate a fable about a lion, a goat and a dog. It’s not a short fable, less so when you consider that she’s in pain. The narration is so long that Lakshmi asks him if he understood, before actually spelling out the political allegory by the end: Cops and society at large are the dogs, Naxals are the goats, and the government is the lion. Even the cop looks impatient by the time she finishes. If you miss this fable, there’s another one not too long later, narrated by a corrupt inspector (Tabu) for no good reason. It’s the old frog-scorpion story about character trumping logic, which we only recently heard in Darlings (2022). You know there’s a problem when a film has to be explained by not one but two fables.
You also know there’s a problem when this fable fusion is the only thing that legitimises a showreel-style movie where everything – including the ideology of these fables – is an excuse to kill other people in slow motion. It’s a decent concept note for a film-school project, but a feature-length drama needs a lot more than humans breaking into animal stories at the drop of a hat. Kuttey, in that sense, feels like a violent mishmash of borrowed vision and perspectives. It comes across as the sort of movie that’s made to impress rather than express. Given that it’s directed by Aasmaan Bhardwaj, there are echoes of his father Vishal Bhardwaj, including the Kaminey (2009) title track on loop for much of the action. Yet, these remain just that: Echoes. Very little of it feels informed or natural. There’s also access to some of Hindi cinema’s finest actors. But the dream cast is reduced to a series of glorified cameos and bullet bait. Not least Tabu and Konkona Sen Sharma, who seem to be at cultural odds with their Comic-Con-level characters.
Kuttey is, as the title suggests, mostly about the dog(s). All of them are blindly chasing a (cash-filled) car. I take umbrage with the choice of animal – canines are loyal and lovely and life-affirming – but that’s a debate for another day. I guess it’s the slang that sounds cool. I guess these are wild dogs. But I digress. So each one of them is hungry and desperate. There’s a vile cop named Gopal (Arjun Kapoor) who needs a couple of crores to revoke his suspension. There’s his partner, Paaji (Kumud Mishra), the only one with some sort of moral compass. There’s the Tabu character, their superior, who cusses like she’s in a college play. There’s an eloping couple – a gangster’s daughter (Radhika Madan) shacking up with his henchman (Shardul Bhardwaj) – who need their own parachute to Canada. The intent is to locate a black comedy within the chaos of multiple people targeting the same truck on the same night.
Yet, the first half is entirely dedicated to Gopal’s track. It’s just set piece after set piece – a gory and gimmicky shootout at a pool party, another messy shootout on a rainy highway. A lot of it is unnecessary because it doesn’t tell us anything more about Gopal or his slimy opportunism. It’s not too entertaining either. If the plan is to make violence look funny in a Tarantino way, it fails. The director himself appears in a cameo, but the fake moustache – which morphs into the shape of a bat by the end – is distracting. In fact, it’s so distracting that it feels deliberate. I suppose the idea behind this ‘staging’ is to convey the farcical nature of striving in a country like ours. But the craft isn’t nearly sophisticated enough to pull off the ironies and genre fluidity.
It’s only when the second half begins that the narrative reveals its hand. We see the other parallel tracks building up to the ‘heist’ scene. Different vantage points emerge. A voice emerges. But again, it soon collapses in a heap of style-over-substance tropes. The portions featuring the couple are awkwardly executed, with a romantic score pulling us out of the film’s Maharashtra-noir tone. The timing – between mood and rhythm – is off. It doesn’t help that the bullets pumped into various bodies across the film are some of the most useless bullets I’ve seen. So many plot points rely on characters popping up alive a few scenes after they’re allegedly shot dead. I started to develop trust issues with the sight of spurting blood. The film is so conscious about looking and sounding like a film that there’s no real insight into anyone’s struggle, be it the scruffy dogs or the tragic goats.
There are a handful of moments where Kuttey shows glimpses of what it hoped to be. Like when Gopal sings a song to his kid on the phone in a noisy quarter bar, or when a bunch of conspirators make a Whatsapp group to share ‘information’ about the heist. That’s when you sense the influence of Bhardwaj, Raghavan and Kashyap – until you remember that Anurag Kashyap’s head is one of the early characters in the film. (It looks better and worse than it sounds). But then there’s also a demonetization sub-plot that plays out more like a punchline to an internet joke than an event in a story. The climax, as per the rulebook, brings together the full house. Without giving away too much, let’s just say The Departed (2006) will be worried. To be fair, once Kuttey is over, the opening fable finally reflects the gist of the film: The narrator took too long to come to the point. If you’re wondering, the scorpion and the frog are busy auditioning for other Hindi movies.