Director: Mikhil Musale
Writers: Mikhil Musale, Parinda Joshi, Anu Singh Choudhary, Kshitij Patwardhan
Cast: Nimrat Kaur, Radhika Madan, Soham Majumdar, Chinmay Mandlekar, Subodh Bhave, Bhagyashree, Sumeet Vyas
Duration: 114 mins
Available in: Theatres
On paper, Sajini Shinde Ka Viral Video is a smart film. A sassy crime-branch officer, Bela (Nimrat Kaur), investigates the mysterious disappearance of a young physics teacher, Sajini Shinde (Radhika Madan). The premise brings to mind School of Lies (2023), a well-made series in which a missing child at a boarding school doubles up as a cultural X-ray of society. Mikhil Musale’s movie isn’t as bleak, but the objective is similar. Everybody and nobody is the suspect. Sajini might be gone, but her vanishing – and erasure – started ages ago. A history of violence emerges. The event becomes incidental; the world is her culprit.
The film’s design packs quite the social punch. Despite the implication in the title, the “viral video” in question does not involve sex. It’s a clip of Sajini getting drunk and enjoying herself at a bar during an overseas work trip. The context is important; she hails from Pune, not Mumbai or Delhi. When her colleague accidentally uploads it online, Sajini’s universe is uprooted. After being slut-shamed and suspended back in India, she posts a suicide note on her Facebook account – and disappears. There’s no evidence of her death, so one by one, the slow-burning culpability of her family and friends is revealed during the police investigation.
The setting makes sense. Pune is a city in constant ideological flux; it exists at the intersection of old and new, tradition and modernity, Marathi and Hindi, boomers and millennials, patriarchy and wokeness, PG accommodations and students. The running joke about a fair-skinned Sajini looking nothing like her vintage Maharashtrian family is expanded further by the fact that she represents the social media generation in a stubborn household of print-age veterans. Her father is a popular Marathi actor who, behind closed doors and stacked closets, is nothing like the progressive men he plays on stage. Image is everything. His older brother is the sort of backward patriarch who, in a not-too-different story, might have been a kingpin of honour killings. Sajini’s mother is a silent sufferer. Her brother is the black sheep.
The script doesn’t stop at incriminating one side. Sajini’s colleague is an upscale liberal – a classic armchair activist (special props to the dialogue writers for coming up with terms like “hashtag didi” and “kitty party activism”) – who turns the tragedy into an online circus. Sajini’s fiance is a virtue-signaling creep (“you’re a classist idiot but not a criminal,” his lawyer opines), the kind of toxic gaslighter who might have been a heartbeat away from being named in a MeToo scandal. Sajini’s boss – the principal of the school she teaches in – is an alleged feminist who’s too obsessed with her school’s reputation to practice what she preaches. Even Sajini’s flatmate is a digital poet who shares deep and attention-seeking thoughts on her Facebook wall.
Each of them is indicted by the bemused presence of Bela, a female version of an Akshaye Khanna detective who has a one-liner for all the hypocrisies of Sajini’s ‘loved ones’. Nimrat Kaur goes about it with wry gusto. The rest of the cast is in fine form, too – especially Soham Majumdar as the fiance and Chinmay Mandlekar as Bela’s chatty subordinate. I also like the way Madan plays Sajini. It’s the sort of performance that unfolds like a sepia-tinted memory: A mix of small-town quirk and big-city hope. It never feels like she’s sly enough to orchestrate the whole thing or even recognize her own complicity in a culture that treats her as a passing headline. As a result, Sajini’s reel-making awareness is often at odds with her real-world subservience. The complexity is refreshing at a time when most narratives reverse-engineer their personalities to reach the crime.
But movies aren’t (entirely) made on paper. Perceptive writing aside, the rhythm and tone of Sajini Shinde Ka Viral Video are a bit scattershot. Musale’s staging of this environment is replete with broad strokes and theatricality, almost like the film is paranoid about being too smart for its own good. For instance, when the intent is to show that Sajini’s people are apathetic, there’s a dissonance between the gravity of the situation and the vibe. None of them initially look like they’re worried per se – or like Sajini might possibly be dead, murdered or lost. It’s a direction problem, not an acting one. There are chase sequences and exposition dumps (a cop is not always the right excuse), long-drawn epiphanies (Sajini’s parents, in particular, seem to occupy a separate film) and silly red herrings. There’s a cursory glance at Bela’s private life, but no real understanding of it; it feels like the kind of decision that’s inspired by Western dramas about talented professionals saddled with solitary lives. Only once do we see her coming back home, and settling into a routine of dinner and television. Consequently, her personal awakening during the case doesn’t hit as hard.
The postmortem of the rage and media discourse feels clumsy, too – where a present Sajini is framed as an offender and a missing Sajini is reframed as a victim. Then there’s the bizarre background score, which makes the mistake of treating every scene in isolation; the sonic language has no continuity or connecting tissue, and each moment looks disconnected from the next. The interval point is pointlessly amplified, despite nothing new happening in terms of the case. The final revelation is not too clever either, because it believes in an ending. It conveys the film’s failure to trust its own moral fluidity, while running the risk of unfolding without a trigger warning.
So the conflict with a social thriller like this remains: Is the concept bigger or the execution? Is the promise of mature storytelling enough to derail the curse of immature film-making? It comes down to subjective things like long-term impression and artistic integrity. In that sense, I’d like to give Sajini Shinde Ka Viral Video the benefit of the doubt. It’s a middling film, but it also enters a territory that swings between the success of an idea and the failure of an aesthetic. It gives itself a chance to let a statement emerge rather than directly make it. That’s more than can be said about the mainstream social dramas these days, most of which treat meaning like a sponsored hashtag. This is no School of Lies (or college of truths), but once in a while, the dismantling of a world can be just as significant as its building.