Director: Sujoy Ghosh
Writers: Sujoy Ghosh, Raj Vasant
Cast: Kareena Kapoor Khan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Vijay Varma, Karma Takapa, Naisha Khanna, Saurabh Sachdeva
Duration: 138 mins
Streaming on: Netflix
Imagine being in a situationship that consumes you. It’s strange, new, intense, and replete with the suspense of discovery. But the moment it’s over, the spell is broken. You snap back to your senses; sobriety sets in. The separation is anything but amicable. And your first reaction is: What in the world was I thinking? That’s what watching a Sujoy Ghosh thriller feels like. It’s very engaging in real time; the staging and mood and performances keep you hooked. But the second it ends, the whole experience seems hollow. The true colours emerge. The viewer tends to feel betrayed rather than tricked. Hindsight reveals hidden clues of characters who were posing as other people; here, it’s the entire film that pretends to be someone else.
In rare cases like Kahaani (2012), the showy payoff doesn’t derail the journey. But in titles like Badla (2019), Kahaani 2 (2016), Lust Stories 2 (2023) and now Jaane Jaan, the post-climax clarity ruins our reading of the process. The analogy of a runner choking in the final lap of a race does not apply either. If anything, it’s like finding out the runner was perhaps cheating all along. The build-up feels not like narrative subterfuge but deception, because the twist itself is dishonest: It’s in service of the storytelling instead of the story. It trades impression for image. But more on this later.
Jaane Jaan is the latest addition to a super-specific subculture of Hindi cinema. It joins last year’s Monica, O My Darling as a Netflix adaptation of a Keigo Higashino novel named after a retro Bollywood song starring Helen. Based on the Japanese author’s The Devotion of Suspect X, Ghosh’s film revolves around a murder in the misty hilltown of Kalimpong. It marks the collision of three distinct protagonists.
There’s Maya D’Souza (Kareena Kapoor Khan), a single mother and cafe owner who seeks her neighbour’s help to cover up the murder of her estranged husband. There’s Naren (Jaideep Ahlawat), a sullen school teacher so infatuated with Maya – the neighbour he spies on – that he plans the disposal of her husband’s body. And there’s Karan (Vijay Varma), a Mumbai cop who leads a small-town detective story featuring a cryptic Maya and old college friend Naren. Each of them is the central character of their own narrative. The questions emerge: Is Maya using her damsel-in-distress face to exploit the creepy masculinity around her? Does Naren hope that Maya mistakes debt for love? Is Karan in his own Decision to Leave (2022), where the policeman’s heart hampers the judgment of his sharp mind?
When viewed in isolation, the setup of Jaane Jaan is potent. The murder scene is so raw that the moral ambiguity is never in doubt; the action blurs the line between self-defense and revenge. Maya is a protective mom who wants nothing to do with her past, but at some point during the scuffle, her accumulated rage takes over, turning last-ditch survival into a brutal attack. Even the little touches matter. For instance, when Karan visualizes the crime in his head – like most besotted detectives do – his lusty skepticism results in an imaginary Maya breaking the fourth wall, meeting his gaze and making him flinch. (A lot of Varma’s acting is reacting – and his flinching here is so natural that I winced with second-hand shyness).
Some of the style is borderline corny, like the juxtaposition of a verbal joust with an actual joust of jiu-jitsu; physical punches are thrown in sync with the punchlines. The casting is mildly meta, in that it pits not just people but different schools of acting against each other. It’s not just Naren and Karan in the thrall of Maya, it’s the trained languidity of Jaideep Ahlawat and Vijay Varma trying to decode the mainstream spontaneity of Kareena Kapoor Khan. It’s fitting that the two gifted but red-blooded male characters are swayed by the woman’s blue-blooded charm. One starry smile and all their talent goes for a toss.
I also like that the mystery in this murder-mystery is love. It’s not your typical whodunit – the “who” actually alludes to the identity of the love story, not a person. Naren’s involvement in Maya’s life creates the social illusion of romantic involvement. They steal conspiratory glances around town, he calls her from a phone booth, she waits to see him in the corridor, he whispers that they can’t be seen meeting in public, they almost resort to gestures and notes. To the eyes of a casual observer, they are having a clandestine affair. Except, complicity is their love language. Ditto for Karan, who meets Maya at cafes, restaurants and even a karaoke bar to interrogate her. You’d think they were dating officially, in the open, where Maya thinks nothing of accepting his dinner invite and performing an unplugged version of the title track on stage. The way she looks at him, magically switching into movie-siren mode, is vintage Kareena Kapoor – but it’s also neatly written into Maya’s personality. As an ex-dancer, she derives trauma from the stage, yet feels confident enough to sing in front of the man ‘pursuing’ her. In a parallel universe, Naren is stalking her, while Karan is seduced by the chase.
The undoing of Jaane Jaan, though, is its funky reframing of the original story. I don’t mind that the devotion (of suspect X) here is presented as madness. It’s a leap of faith, a riff on the perception of love as a form of insanity. A Darr nod appears early on. Naren is addressed as “Teacher” by everyone in town, which implies that he’s already more of a concept than a person. He’s the nutty professor, in more ways than one. But the film’s reckless desire to outwit the viewer – and fetishize a love story for the sake of a twist – is ironically what sinks it. There is no precedent, no tangible reasoning behind the change. It’s like the film is striving, unsuccessfully, to reach the absurdist realms of literature. All I can think of is that the writers decided to debunk the more orthodox choices and take the least expected route.
What’s jarring is that Naren’s job plays a key role, to an extent that even the story looks blindsided by its extended cameo. It’s not just the reverse-engineered clues: His book-strewn house, the equation-laced dialogue, the math metaphors, or the awkward scenes of Naren losing his cool with students who complain about his exam papers. It’s the literalization of science as a medium of logic and obsession. It’s the intellectualization of madness as something that transcends human relationships. It’s also the misguided notion that thrillers must, at any cost, surprise the audience. I get the intent – the film sets out to subvert the relationship between genius and heartbreak. But not even a fine actor like Ahlawat can pull off the conceit in a manner that’s less than preposterous. It brings to mind his losing battle in the Ajeeb Daastaans (2021) segment. The final scenes let him down, with their design as much as their resolve to diverge from conventional mystery. Effect makes way for affectation. And the climax evokes a familiar reaction: What in the (atmospheric) world were we – and they – thinking?