Director: Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury
Writer: Ritesh Shah
Cast: Pankaj Tripathi, Sanjana Sanghi, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Jaya Ahsan, Paresh Pahuja, Dilip Shankar
Streaming on: Zee5
The premise of Kadak Singh is intriguing. A middle-aged man named Arun Kumar Shrivastav (Pankaj Tripathi) wakes up in a hospital with cinema’s favourite condition: Retrograde amnesia. This Kolkata-based patient has visitors, but doesn’t remember any of them. One by one, Arun asks these visitors to tell their story leading up to the incident. The resident nurse (Parvathy Thiruvothu) becomes his sounding board. Through separate versions, he hopes to piece together the person he was – or is. The timing of his ‘accident’ is telling: The former Arun was in the middle of a crisis at home and work. People claim to know him better than he knew himself.
This design does three things. First, it allows the film to legitimize the unreliable-narrator trope: Each of them – an anxious daughter (Sanjana Sanghi), a tender lover (Jaya Ahsan), a pensive protege (Paresh Pahuja), a supportive boss (Dilip Shankar) – is like an eye witness and suspect, while Arun is the intrepid investigator of his own life. He looks for loopholes, alibis, information, motives. Two, it allows the film to freely ping between disparate genres: Dysfunctional family drama, crime thriller, whodunit, social-message drama. Three, the Rashomon effect (different perspectives of the same event) reveals the inherent contradictions of Indian masculinity: Arun struggles to believe that he was at once a ‘kadak’ (domineering) father and a moralistic officer of the Department of Financial Crimes. The distance of his personal life is at odds with the integrity of his professional life. It also says something that he subliminally trusts the two men from his office more than the two women he loves.
I also like that the premise toys with our perception of the performer. In the last decade, Pankaj Tripathi has excelled as either principled and gentle men (OMG 2, Mimi, Masaan, Criminal Justice) or brutal patriarchs (Gurgaon, Mirzapur). This role seeks the greys in between. It counts on the instincts of a real-world man who must make sense of the personalities – the roles – he was known for. Tripathi is a prolific actor, always at ease on screen, so it’s often hard to tell a good turn from a simple one. The ambiguity feeds Kadak Singh, a tale of a man in search of a future and a past together. He can be anyone that he chooses to be, but not without solving the consequences of who he was.
Having said that, it’s ironic that the makers of Kadak Singh don’t trust its potential on paper. The concept is far more alluring than the actual execution. The problem with this film is that it’s too desperate to look and feel like a film. It’s too conscious of its relationship with the viewer. As a result, it succumbs to the post-Kahaani-film-in-Kolkata syndrome, where the psychology of storytelling becomes a distracting gimmick within the story. The city is made to overact; the atmospherics are overcooked. The non-linearity is frantic. It takes a while to even understand what Arun does for a living. It’s like the creators are so familiar with the details that they forget to convey them fully. A convoluted chit-fund scam becomes the backbone of Arun’s journey, a narrative choice that puts too much on a plate of cold starters. A busy story isn’t the flex it thinks it is. There are puzzling suicides, government pressures, an ongoing case involving a lynchpin, and departmental corruption.
It’s a pity, because Shantanu Moitra’s lovely soundtrack does its best to write the emotional language of a film that turns memory loss into a mind-game. At no point does Arun look like he’s genuinely affected or troubled by his own condition. Even if he thinks like a comic-book detective, there’s no reason for him to behave like one. It’s like he’s hand-holding a story that’s too afraid to be human. The red herrings are unnecessary. For instance, the camera films the young protege in a shady way, focusing on certain expressions and words that invite suspicion. The presence of the nurse, played by a popular Malayalam actress, is a film-school stunt. At some level, it wants the viewer to doubt her – and perhaps amplify the mystery of the agendas around him (Is she in on this? Why is she looking that way?) – so that he can spell out his thought process and we can wonder who she is.
The daughter wears such a furrowed brow that she’s deliberately made to come off as a secret-femme-fatale sort of character who’s perhaps avenging her ill-treatment (“Sorry, we have no photos together in the last ten years”). Sanghi’s performance is better than the writing, because it seems to grasp the complexity of her circumstances – the oppressive dad is replaced by a strangely cheerful man, and yet she is grieving the loss of a father.
The exposition and staging lack plausibility, too. The ‘conclusion’ features Arun literally narrating his findings to every character of his life (including a cop and his company’s CEO) while they dutifully sit on chairs around him. Where is the creativity and visual ambition? The grand revelation is formulaic as well; it forces the film to become preachy after spending two hours romanticizing its own knots. The family flashbacks are more interesting because the daughter and lover are coming to terms with the absence of someone who was never totally around. But the climax tends to pit his domestic negligence against social heroism – a trade-off that defines almost every honest-crusader arc ever written.
The film seldom suggests that the bitterness of being an upright man in society boils over behind closed doors. Everything moves so fast that no moment is afforded the space and time to breathe. The priorities are misplaced: The audience is waiting to be fooled, and the film-making can’t wait to embrace cat-and-mouse mode. At one point, Arun himself gets so confused that he turns to his omnipresent nurse and exclaims, “dimaag khichdi ho gaya (the mind has turned to mush)” – a phrase that, slowly and unwittingly, becomes the review of Kadak Singh.