Director: Indra Kumar
Writer: Aakash Kaushik, Madhur Sharma
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Sidharth Malhotra, Rakul Preet Singh
Sidharth Malhotra’s screen presence is a special brand of eye watering incompetence. When he acts, it is as though he keeps one word in his head and hams that — “angry” “sad” “happy” “excited”. He has what is best described as “confused eyes”. They are always searching, unconvinced, unsure, lurking for meaning or context or just a way out. And given some of the films he has been part of — Jabariya Jodi (2019), Marjaavan (2019) — it is not hard to see why. Like Thank God (2022), these are films that are awful on paper, crumpled and tired as cliches; but films you nonetheless act in, hoping to prop up your career presumably. Hoping they will widen your audience instead of deepening it, following some tired and untested advice of star-making.
It often feels like Malhotra is coasting along a career that has been thrust upon him. Even when he is staring at someone else — say, a lover — his gaze is so inward looking, so oriented towards himself (his hair? His beauty?), he seems incapable of intensity. It is the kind of minimal acting you tend to forgive for being so pretty. The films where his performances were most affecting — Kapoor And Sons (2016), Hasee Toh Phasee (2014) — were ones where the director was able to milk this confused gaze and lax-shoulders stance into something comedic or charming, giving the confusion and laziness a context to linger.
In Thank God, however, asking for context is a crime. The story is just floating out there without even the pretense of reason or logic. Not that we desire logic from films, but we do desire a thread to follow from one scene to the next, don’t we? A promise of tension building up, of its sweet release, its bowtied conclusion.
Malhotra plays Ayaan Kapoor, scraped from the bottom of the masculine barrel. He is jealous of the success of his wife, played by Rakul Preet Singh, who performs diligently the role of a diligent police officer. Deluded that he could do her job better, he is also deeply angry and resentful from loans rejected and businesses failed.
Broken by a car accident, his soul is stuck between death and life, and he is forced to play a game with Yamdoot and CG. Played by Ajay Devgn, CG is short for Chitragupta, the Hindu god who is the accountant of one’s karma, but in a black suit, dappered into the 21st Century. There are two apsaras who flank him, dressed in skimpy clothes — bare waists, fishnets — like magician’s assistants, delivering dialogues that are even skimpier than their outfits. Even if this mythological universe has been sexualised and modernised, it remains ubiquitously Hindu in its core. There is no hint of any other religion peeping in in life or afterlife. Arguably, not forcing tokens of Christianity and Islam into films like Thank God may be considered an act of generosity or even reprieve, but the absence of even tokenism suggests perhaps the myopia with which cinematic worlds are conceived.
CG gives Ayaan various situations through which his personality emerges — his anger, lust, greed, the way he takes his mother’s love and wife’s career for granted. If he does well in these situations, white balls are deposited. If he fails, then black balls rain. Too many black balls will lead to his death. That director Indra Kumar, the mastermind behind the sex comedic threesome — Masti (2004), Grand Masti (2013), and Great Grand Masti (2016) — should think a man’s fate hinges on the colour of the balls thrown at his face is a punchline to a joke I am not sure I want to make.
Ajay Devgn’s CG is the moral centre of Thank God. CG isn’t an accountant as much as a cane-wielding therapist, trying to make Ayaan a better human. Often he breaks the fourth wall, addressing Ayan narratively, but spectatorially, us, too. He stares us down, arm twisting us into becoming kinder, less lustful, more truthful beings. He shows up on the bedside of Ayaan just as he is about to have sex. Not to tell him that infidelity is immoral, but to tell him that lust towards women is immoral. As an antidote, he suggests seeing the image of one’s mother plastered on the face of the woman who is the object of lustful attention — Oedipus, are you listening?
The tone of the film is broken. Often, scenes feel like comic actors in a melodrama, or melodramatic actors in a comic film. The mismatch is jarring, as though the tone of a scene was an afterthought, fixed during the dubbing — which had its own personality, sometimes muffled, sometimes synchronized, sometimes off. Malhotra flails his hands too much, hoping it is able to convey what his face just cannot. It does the work, but a bit too much. The excitement is too exciting; the sadness, too sad; the joy, too joyous.
But ultimately, Thank God makes being moral, clipped and prim look so boring, you prefer the arrogance and the lust and the ineptitude. Rakul Preet Singh’s Ruhi is the perfect wife, apologising when Ayaan throws a tantrum, sexualising a moment when he is the one with the erotic range of a rock. The film forgets that creating the perfect woman on screen, too, is an act of lazy writing. To give Ruhi layers, and an emotional range requires thought and intention, which neither of the writers, Aakash Kaushik and Madhur Sharma, can be bothered to do. And so her perfection has this halo that is compromisingly tired, giving us a saint when we needed some salt in the storytelling.
Having said that, the terrible, hypocritical edge of such cinema is that it is unable — or perhaps unwilling — to embrace its trashy potential, merely puncturing this moral blandness with some sex and then retreating into its family-friendly jail of ideas. This is the kind of film which is promoted using eros and desire, but in the final moments of its final song, has ‘Thank God’ become ‘Thank You God’.
From this puncture emerges Nora Fatehi in Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla couture. The T-Series erotic fixture since ‘Dilbar’ broke some sort of record on YouTube and has added oomph to the dull-as-cardboard production line of T-Series. Here is a woman who knows the brief, adding a til to her breast, swapping her heels for flats when she dances opposite Malhotra, thumping the parts of the body that evoke the most muscle and erotic momentum. There is a shamelessness here that is the hallmark of stardom, of great cinema. But as the director sees her, she is merely a smoke and mirrors mist to cloud what they consider the actual film. Little do they know, the actual film is a corpse dragged by Fatehi’s viral, miniscule but vital presence.