Director: Ali Abbas Zafar
Writers: Ali Abbas Zafar, Aditya Basu, Siddharth-Garima
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Ronit Bose Roy, Rajeev Khandelwal, Diana Penty, Sartaaj Kakkar, Sanjay Kapoor, Vivaan Bhathena, Zeishan Quadri, Mukesh Bhatt
So much of our viewing experience is informed by how we choose to approach a film. Nobody enters the theatre with a blank slate. No matter what the rulebooks say, it’s our inherent biases that shape the subjectivity of art. Our eventual engagement with a film stems from a starting point of either cynicism or nervous hope. The scale is tilted by nature. Hope leaves us more vulnerable to disappointment. But the more common slant for mainstream Hindi cinema involves going in with no (or negative) expectations. When that happens, there’s the chance of getting ‘pleasantly surprised’ if the movie is not terrible. This reaction is a double-edged sword, too, because there’s also the chance of misinterpreting the surprise as genuine enjoyment.
It’s a loaded and fraught journey, and one that I almost always traverse during an Ali Abbas Zafar title. I go in cold, get blindsided by the slickness, become a believer, start rooting for the film or show, overstate its merits, and end up disappointed when it doesn’t satiate my newfound joy. I then come out confused about my overall impression: Was it almost good? Or was it almost a copout for wasting its initial promise? Bloody Daddy – after Jogi (2022), Tandav (2021), Bharat (2019) and Sultan (2016) – is the latest addition to this specific canon of “almost” entertainment. It falls agonizingly short of being a blast, but also comes agonizingly close to being a slog. A remake of the 2011 French-language action thriller Sleepless Night, Bloody Daddy revolves around an irate NCB (Narcotics Control Bureau) officer unleashing one night of havoc in a 7-star hotel of the kingpin who’s kidnapped his son. But he’s not exactly a hero.
The film opens with the officer, Sumair (Shahid Kapoor), robbing – as opposed to busting – a lucrative cocaine shipment at Delhi’s Connaught Place. Unfortunately for him, it belongs to Sikandar (Ronit Bose Roy), the owner of a lush Gurugram hotel who wastes no time in abducting Sumair’s son (Sartaaj Kakkar) and demanding the cocaine back in exchange for the boy’s life. Sumair promptly arrives, but hides the duffel bag in the ventilation shaft of the men’s restroom as a (not so bright) negotiating tool. All hell breaks loose when the bag disappears and tension mounts, thanks to the other characters of the story: Sumair’s honest colleague (Diana Penty), his dishonest colleague (Zeishan Quadri), his corrupt boss (a scene-stealing Rajeev Khandelwal), Sikandar’s nefarious client (Sanjay Kapoor), and Sikandar’s beefy brother (Vivaan Bhatena).
At first, Bloody Daddy sparkles with wit and narrative flair. The adaptation itself is nifty. The pandemic is written into its universe – an advantage that the 2015 Tamil remake Thoonga Vanam (simultaneously shot in Telugu as Cheekati Rajyam) didn’t have. The Hindi film is set after the deadly second wave – when cities are opening up again, when the hospitality industry returns with a vengeance, and when ‘businessmen’ like Sikandar are desperate to recover their losses. As a result, the backdrop – Sikandar’s hotel, which is hosting the sort of excessive high-society wedding that used to make the headlines as super-spreader events – is squarely in The White Lotus territory. A DJ in the nightclub gets the crowd going with a “Go Corona Go” rendition. Masks play a key role in the opening scene that features Sumair stealing the shipment. For once, empty Indian streets – deserted enough for a shootout to happen without witnesses – don’t look unnatural. When atta (wheat flour) is passed off as cocaine at one point, an anxious crook blames the tastelessness of the powder on a possible Covid-19 infection. (It helps that Mukesh Bhatt buys into the ridiculous role of a desi henchman named Rafa, who sounds like he’s watched too many Mexican gangster movies). Even Sikandar’s edginess – and Ronit Roy’s wickedly campy performance – emerges from the mental space of a villain who was bored witless during the lockdowns. Testosterone and tempers run high in his lair, adding to the amusing chaos of their exchanges.
You can sense Abbas Ali Zafar getting a kick out of these parts. Sumair’s son, Atharv, is annoying and oversmart. Early on, there’s a jarring moment in which the kid becomes a human exposition dump to convey the backstory of his father – something on the lines of “It’s my mistake to stay with you after your separation and it’s no wonder mom chose another man over you!”. He stops just short of giving away Sumair’s place of birth and sun sign during this outburst. But soon you realize that Atharv is a Gen-Z punchline of sorts. A running joke on his diet (“lactose-free milk and gluten-free bread”) begs for Manoj Bajpayee’s exasperated face from The Family Man (Srikant Tiwari’s son is named Atharv too), a void filled by Ronit Roy’s droll “bina doodh ka doodh (milk without milk)” reaction to the boy’s habits. The humour keeps defusing the violence, a cycle that doesn’t overreach to puncture the well-choreographed action sequences with spurts of ‘comedy’. Sumair’s scene with a Nepali cook in the hotel kitchen extends this Raj-&-DK-like tone, where urgency becomes the cornerstone of humour.
I like that the film riffs on Shahid Kapoor’s distinct Hindi film machismo. Sumair contains all the traits of the actor’s ultra-aggressive recent roles – namely Kabir Singh (his attitude towards his ex-wife and female colleague), Jersey (the father-son bond) and Farzi (the hustling). There’s a performative cockiness about the man, a pent-up masculinity that he doesn’t know what to do with. The makers do well to use our perception of his career against us. For an unhinged guy, Sumair is unusually woke. For instance, he teaches Atharv to address waiters by their name. He offers money to the cook after bullying him into submission. He apologizes to a manager whose collar he pulls in the heat of the moment. And he punishes a chauvinistic Delhi chap in the washroom for harassing a woman, complete with a “No means no” gag. It’s almost as if Sumair is trying his best to ‘correct’ the tropes of a typical Shahid Kapoor protagonist. Every time he loses control, he overcompensates with manners and gallantry. It’s a nice touch, especially because Sumair’s moral ambiguity – is he a toxic cop in a sticky situation or an undercover officer in a sticky situation? – defines our relationship with the thriller. It keeps us in the dark about whether there is more to Sumair than his primal instincts as a father.
But the problem with Bloody Daddy is a familiar one. Towards the end of the prolonged second act, the storytelling stops having fun and starts taking itself seriously as a ‘premise’. The action gets more showy, blood gets more screen time, Sumair becomes more narcissistic, Sikandar descends into conventional villainy, and the plot behaves as if the stakes matter. A misplaced phone (and an awfully scripted voice note) echoes the final twist of Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai (2000), and a sappy father-son montage suggests that the film gets too tired of being snappy and self-aware. To draw a sports analogy, it’s the equivalent of a tennis player breezily reaching match point only to tighten up and collapse when he notices the scoreboard. Or a life analogy: Man remembers his manliness and quits goofing around.
An hour into the film, I was so into the Guy-Ritchie-meets-Bullet-Train brand of eccentric crime noir that I started pre-enjoying the film. I began to laugh before a punchline, and cringe before a bone-crunching set piece. My reactions became a little more exaggerated, as if I were willing the film to be smarter than it was. An Action Hero (2022) sprung to mind for a hot minute. Farzi sprung to mind for a hot second. At some point, though, the illusions melted away. And it morphed into just another sad-cop drama. The fizzling out feels all the more frustrating, because the film was on the brink of being exhilarating. In other words, Bloody Daddy snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. The jaws are strong till they last. The dismay is inevitable when it comes. After all, only an Ali Abbas Zafar movie can exceed expectations and fall short of them at once.