Directors: Kushal Srivastava (Vodka Diaries), Samir Soni (My Birthday Song)
Cast (Vodka Diaries): Kay Kay Menon, Raima Sen, Sharib Hashmi, Mandira Bedi
Cast (My Birthday Song): Sanjay Suri, Nora Fatehi, Zenia Starr
Two Hindi-language psychological dramas release in cinemas this week, and I’m not sure which one is more absurd. Kushal Srivastava’s Vodka Diaries and Samir Soni’s My Birthday Song star Kay Kay Menon and Sanjay Suri respectively. Both, (ad-man) Srivastava and (TV actor) Soni, are first-time directors, which somewhat explains why they’ve gone so pretentious-film-school-
Even stranger is the fact that both films serve as conceptual companion pieces to each other – with overlapping relationship themes, similar scenes, terribly fake blood, deliberately incoherent storylines, the misleading dream-reality dichotomy, mentally fragile (and perpetually shocked) male protagonists, and scriptwriters who seem to believe that the more they confuse us, the more impressed we will be. It’s almost as if the two films were being shot simultaneously in Manali and Delhi, with spies being sent to the rival set every night.
Both films start promisingly. They exude a kind of inexplicable mystery that is the first cornerstone of successful suspense thrillers. In Vodka Diaries, we see ACP Ashwini Dixit (Menon) return from a vacation with his supportive wife (Mandira Bedi), only to plunge straight into a bunch of puzzling homicide cases at a hotel called, well, Vodka Diaries. One of the victims is Herry Tangri, the Yuvraj Singh doppelganger from MS Dhoni: The Untold Story and Behen Hogi Teri. The resemblance is still so uncanny – Haryanvi accent not withstanding – that I wonder if the out-of-favour India all-rounder has simply taken to professional acting under a pseudonym after failing the infamous Yo-Yo Test. One soon expects Cheteshwar Pujara to do the same (adopting the pseudonym Ishwar Pooja?), given the way he has been running between the wickets in South Africa.
I digress. For some reason, Dixit keeps getting weird nightmares (dreams?) about his wife lying in a pool of blood next to their bed. And soon, as he goes deeper into the case, his wife is kidnapped. Familiar faces betray him. This begs the question, though: if you live in Manali, where the hell do you go for a romantic holiday to?
In My Birthday Song, we see a wealthy ad-agency owner named Rajiv (Suri) celebrating his 40th birthday at a swanky farmhouse with his friends. One of them is Ayaz Khan (as Vikram), who virtually disappeared from films after slapping Genelia D’Souza in Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na. Rajiv looks like a regular, self-satisfied Delhi predator. His loving wife is away, caring for her sick mother. The drama begins once he shows his true womanizing colours. He sees Vikram’s attractive “friend” Sandy (Nora Fatehi) at the party, who seems to recognize him before seducing him – and promptly dying while he goes down on her. Trust me: this is darker than it sounds. The manner of her death is clumsy and awfully shot. It involves broken glass and blood flowing onto a soft pillow as if it were a hard marble floor. This is almost identical to the manner of (accidental) death – an important character, too – in Vodka Diaries.
The interesting part in both films is what follows these incidents: Ashwini notices all the dead victims coming back to life the next day as if nothing had ever happened, while Rajiv, in a desi Nolan-ish time-travel-meets-dreams twist, is thrust back to the morning of his birthday when everyone, including sultry Sandy, is alive. Did anyone die at all?
Now, to be fair, the possibilities are endless here. Ashwini and Rajiv have our attention. Self-explanatory background scores apart, they look like the perfect candidates for a gritty psychological puzzle. We look carefully. We want to be surprised. As is usually the norm for the paranoid protagonists, it’ll soon be time to square up against their sinful past. The first acts are just about sly enough to make us want to know how the directors plan to fool us.
And that’s the problem. There is only ever one act in most cases. Such films are always born from a single-line idea: what if a flawed man couldn’t grasp the vagaries of his town? What if a flawed man couldn’t escape the circular machinations of karma on his own birthday? Technically, these are short-film concepts that need to be blown up and fleshed out into a restless “human” tale. But it’s the world-building – this fleshing out, even as the twist is imminent – that many newbies lose perspective of. They simply bide time instead of furthering the form of the film.
Storytellers like Nolan keep things novel in almost every scene, arresting our minds not through their characters and their personalities as much as the narrative. While his is a lofty example, homegrown filmmakers often trade the various machinations of the plot for complex behavior and backstories and histories. Everyone tries to follow the M. Night Shyamalan template – complete with sound effects and mental stakes. As a result, eighty percent of Vodka Diaries has Menon repeatedly looking shocked in every way possible; he loses his mind in every audiovisual manner possible, in snow and rooms and hotels and parking lots. The repetitiveness of his reactions feels stagnant.
Ditto for Suri’s fury in My Birthday Song: he is so stunned by the way things are unfolding that not for a moment does he not display the deer-in-headlights face. Every move is treated like a grand reveal. Playback songs randomly appear to remind us of his sad bafflement. We get it, but the makers concentrate way too much on the protagonists and their psychological deterioration. After a while, even the lines start to seem unintentionally corny (Sharib Hashmi as Menon’s assistant and Zenia Starr as Suri’s wife are the biggest culprits).
By the time the business end arrives, it’s hard to get beyond the fact that Suri’s foreplay killed a woman, and that Ashwini’s vagueness gets so grating that Menon might have considered dropping a “Kay” from his name to reflect our indifferent reactions. That the two could be operating in parallel universes is North India’s mess to clean up. I’m just glad I didn’t reach home to find a dead body of myself, only to realize that My Vodka Song never existed to begin with.