Directors: Jaspal Singh Sandhu, Rajeev Barnwal
Writers: Jaspal Singh Sandhu, Rajeev Barnwal
Cast: Sanjay Mishra, Neena Gupta, Manav Vij, Saurabh Sachdeva
Vadh stars Sanjay Mishra and Neena Gupta as a middle-class couple. By virtue of this pairing alone, the film has no business being less than solid. The premise is potentially promising, too. This Gwalior-based, God-fearing couple – retired teacher Shambunath Mishra and housewife Manju – is in deep debt after funding their son’s move to America. The bank’s interest has left them with next to nothing. But their biggest threat is the local loan shark, a despicable man in cahoots with the cops. He makes their life a living hell. Things come to a head one night when the seemingly gentle husband murders the goon in a fit of rage. Shambunath goes to great lengths to cover up the crime. The rest of the film is centered on the couple’s battle to stay one step ahead of the police investigation.
The problem with Vadh, though, is that it’s tonally an Eighties’ melodrama with a simplistic reading of societal conflict. Even the central metaphor is clumsy. Early on, Shambunath deals with a pesky rodent by replacing the humane cage trap with a lethal spring trap. When Manju gasps at the prospect of killing an animal in their chaste home, he remarks that mercy is not always an option. The gaze feels exploitative, almost like it aspires to be a Devashish Makhija movie without understanding the moral language of bleakness. For instance, establishing the loan shark, Pandey (Saurabh Sachdeva), as a monster involves several stretched scenes of him humiliating the Mishras. The film goes out of its way to fetishise his meanness.
Pandey arrives with chicken, booze and women every other night, determined to use their vegetarian household as his personal bar and brothel. The camera lingers on their pained faces while grunts and moans emerge from the bedroom. Moments later, Manju breaks down when she sees a used condom near the bed. A few days later, Pandey returns to threaten Mishra, demanding he bring him one of his 12-year-old students for the night. The scene plays out forever, replete with long takes and dramatic pauses, willing the viewer to feel enough disgust to justify Pandey’s murder. The darkness seems to come with a hashtag.
What’s worse is that the film-making is not nearly sophisticated enough to support this treatment. When you cast seasoned veterans like Sanjay Mishra and Neena Gupta, the downside is that they expose the (lack of) craft surrounding them. The supporting cast, for example: Their adult son on Skype calls is cruel in such a cringey way, like a Baghban character gone rogue. His NRI wife (with a Western name) rolls her eyes like a retro vamp. The flashbacks of Shambunath breaking his FD for his ungrateful son literally belong to another era; the couple’s sadness is performative, and the writing caricatures the younger generation with all the nuance of a bitter Whatsapp uncle. Their greedy young neighbour (Sumit Gulati) serves absolutely no purpose, other than acting like he’s acting. The dubbing of the film is tacky, instantly taking the viewer out of what is allegedly an intense story. The convenient plotting, too: A police constable (the ‘comic relief’ of the film) refuses to believe Shambunath, deriding him as a senile storyteller when he comes to confess. It’s a silly plot device, especially because the man’s moral struggle – triggered by his wife’s trauma – makes sense on paper. She doesn’t trust her husband for a while, but the film trusts them even less.
There are sparks of what Vadh might have been in the right hands. Gupta is perceptive as always, committing to the irony of a character whose physical frailness is a direct result of her religious faith (daily temple visits). Mishra’s performance, too, aches for far more than the film’s B-movie aesthetic. The makers don’t display enough curiosity about their relationship with the setting. He becomes a different person altogether after the murder, smoking and drinking and turning clever overnight – the equivalent of a ‘sanskari’ woman magically appearing in skimpy clothes once the twist reveals her villainous deeds.
The idea of an ordinary man turning against the system that fails him is never not interesting. But Vadh feels like an old movie that’s being hurried into release – perhaps resurrected from the cans – due to its eerie topicality. Shambunath’s 2019 plan echoes the recent Mehrauli murder that’s still making headlines all over – it involves the hacking up of Pandey and disposal of his body parts across multiple nights outside the city. His method is all too familiar. (At one point, he sneakily dumps bones into a shop’s grain grinder). This is entirely a coincidence, of course, yet Vadh feels weirdly opportunistic, because there’s no feel for the way the narrative is told. The form is tasteless and visibly incomplete. After all, milking a cultural moment is pointless if the milk itself is so stale.