Director: Ram Madhvani
Writer: Ram Madhvani, Puneet Sharma
Cast: Mrunal Thakur, Kartik Aaryan, Amruta Subhash, Vishwajeet Pradhan
Cinematographer: Manu Anand
Streaming on: Netflix
Anchor kya hota hai? Anchor actor hota hai. Actor ko kya chahiye? Actor ko audience chahiye. Audience ko kya chahiye? Audience ko drama chahiye. This exchange, between a television channel boss and a leading television anchor in Dhamaka, nails the rotten state of Indian broadcast media. Truth and trust are the collateral damage in a ceaseless ratings war. All that matters is eyeballs, by any means necessary.
Dhamaka is a largely faithful remake of the 2013 South Korean film The Terror Live. Kartik Aaryan plays Arjun Pathak. Arjun was once a successful, award-winning television personality with a prime-time show. But his career and his personal life are now in shambles. He has been demoted to a radio show (I wonder how RJs will feel about their job being seen as a downgrade). Arjun is frustrated and deeply unhappy. When a random caller on his show claims that he will blow up the Sea Link in Mumbai and then makes good on his promise, Arjun grabs the chance to grab the spotlight again.
Dhamaka, which was shot during the pandemic in ten days, is essentially a vehicle for Kartik to show that he can do more than deliver monologues with aplomb. Arjun undergoes a steep learning curve. He is a corrupt opportunist but as the drama unfolds, he comes to understand that he, like the bomber, is a disposable pawn in a system that thrives on exploitation and lies. The dhamaka is literal but also metaphorical – Arjun's career, his reputation and relationships, his place in the world are all blown to bits. As he is put through the wringer, on live television, Arjun discovers his own best instincts.
It's a delectable role and under the tutelage of director Ram Madhvani, Kartik shows flashes of seriousness and depth that he hasn't revealed before – especially in the last thirty minutes of the film. Kartik found his fame playing the boy-next-door in rom-coms, in which he sometimes came off as smug but also high-pitched and overeager. That is entirely missing here. The screenplay offers the actor moments of vulnerability and stillness and he does well with them.
Ram and his co-writer Puneet Sharma also attempt to weave in more emotion and plausibility into their version. Arjun's wife Soumya, played by Mrunal Thakur, gets a little more screen time. And Dhamaka offers an explanation, however feeble, for the ease with which the bomber is able to blow up things. But ultimately the middling nature of the source material also reflects in the remake. The Terror Live is intermittently gripping with stretches of suspense and so is Dhamaka. Most of the film takes place in one location. Ram, DOP Manu Anand, lead editor Monisha R. Baldawa and co-editor Amit Karia notch up the tension with shaky cameras and quick cuts. The film begins with footage of Arjun and Soumya in happier times. Even the couple's small, personal moments are recorded. It's a nice touch establishing that this is a story about a life lived on camera.
But ultimately, the scenario is too outlandish and the writing, too ordinary. Take the character of Ankita, Arjun's boss. Ankita who barks orders and manipulates people and is only invested in her own ascent, is such a cliché that even the wonderful Amruta Subhash can't make her real. The same goes for Soumya, who is portrayed as a paragon of courage and virtue. She is Arjun's conscience, which he loses along the way. He becomes, like the rest of the television folk, a person who doesn't report the news but sells it. The irony is that the television channel is named Bharosa 24X7. Ram, usually a director given to subtlety and shades, underlines the messaging here. And just in case you don't get the moral of the story, the song 'Khoya Paaya' composed by Vishal Khurana and sung by Amit Trivedi and Delraaz Bunshah, hammers it in.
Arjun is also a bit of an also-ran, coming on the heels of other blindly ambitious television anchor characters such Sanjeev Mehra in Paatal Lok and Mansi Hirani in Mumbai Diaries 26/11. And the idea of a common man against the system was done with far more suspense in Neeraj Pandey's 2008 film A Wednesday.
Dhamaka isn't a bad film – I don't think Ram is capable of making one. But neither does it match his previous work – the brilliant Neerja and the series Aarya. Dhamaka is passable, which coming from Ram, feels like he was slumming it.
You can watch the film on Netflix India.