Director: Atanu Mukherjee

Cast: Adarsh Gourav, Smita Tambe, Manoj Bajpayee, Kumud Mishra

Dhruv (Adarsh Gaurav) is frustrated. He is confused. His father, Divakar (Manoj Bajpayee), has died in a car accident. He is back in Mumbai, to carry out the last rites. If he weren’t at the boarding school his father had packed him away to, he might have known more. He can feel it – all is not right. Something is up. He hates being a teenager, because Indian adults have this patronizing habit of overprotecting teenagers from some of life’s essential lessons.

They are often dismissive of young intuition. Strange – but familiar – faces flit in and out of his eyesight. His father’s gentle textile-factory accountant helps with the arrangements. His father’s Saudi-based business partner (Kumud Mishra, as Robin) looks sheepish. Some other colleagues look panicked. They meet behind closed doors and speak about some CBI investigation.

The ones Dhruv doesn’t trust are smokers. A cop arrests a desperate truck driver. A shady South Indian man visits his mother (Smita Tambe, as Nandini) for an ominous cup of tea. His mother is annoyingly quiet. She hands over a package of money to a mysterious guy within the confines of her new workplace. She tells Dhruv to go to his room. The cop tells Dhruv to stop being a nuisance. Robin tells Dhruv to go back to school. Dhruv’s best friend tells him not to overthink. Dhruv wants answers. He hates the silence and denial in his household. He is not a fool.

For the first hour of the 105-minute-long Rukh, I feel a lot like Dhruv.

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I get vignettes, and no straight answers or full sequences. It is disorienting. The film teases. Most half-conversations end with knowing glances. Most scenes are cut short. Everyone is a Cluedo character. Maybe it’s first-time director Atanu Mukherjee’s intention to put us in Dhruv’s shoes here. It’s a tricky thing – to find that sweet spot between deception and perception, between narrative ambiguity and informative certainty. Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani managed very well, but not without some broad-daylight cheating.

Mukherjee doesn’t reveal strong emotions that work better when imagined – like grief, regret and the realization of loss. It’s a refreshing change to see feelings not explained

Viewers are too keen to identify the genre of storytelling in order to understand the atmosphere. Mukherjee might have prolonged the deliberate vagueness a bit much, but this also means that the film doesn’t shy away from being a film; it is confrontational about its suspenseful nature, and challenges us to watch closely. I’d like to believe that Rukh was written this way, and not an unintentional product of deleting all the note-ban references, which might have presumably contributed to a money-laundering Robin’s failed factory [the menacing disclaimer: “Principal photography was completed before November 2016”].

Many key moments, including the accident and Dhruv or his mother dramatically reacting to bad news, are hidden. Mukherjee doesn’t reveal strong emotions that work better when imagined – like grief, regret and the realization of loss. It’s a refreshing change to see feelings not explained. This makes for an initial air of detachment, in sync with Dhruv’s hometown attitude – an attitude that, we know, is primed to change. The background score is oddly melancholic and transitional during the aforementioned “serious” events, as if directing us towards the aftermath, which is where the story exists.

Slowly but surely, new faces appear, new possibilities arise, scattered flashbacks (either memories, or character voiceovers) impart a little more sense, and Dhruv finds ways to let the film unravel through his point of view. And perhaps that’s where Rukh falters a little. Because of the way it sets itself up in Dhruv’s absence – with somber Divakar eerily going about his routine on that fateful day – the narrative has no choice but to indulge in Robin and his “plan” as an offshoot. Away from Dhruv’s reach. Attempts to make him the suspect interrupt, and distract from, the tone of what is starting to become Dhruv’s own intimate journey. Robin’s actions feel somewhat designed. Secretive mill-compound meetings, polite threats and lakeside showdowns make for a parallel 1990s thriller – a simultaneous film running purely to make us invest in Dhruv’s mindscape.

It’s perhaps every child’s worst fear to retrospectively recognize the face behind their parents’ masks, but Adarsh Gourav makes Dhruv a strangely brave soul for wanting to jump into the past without a parachute

The intention here, of course, is to make us think like a teenager – to perhaps manipulate our focus – and view every small interaction and hot pursuit with a muted sense of paranoia. This is a bumpy process, given that we are constantly aware of the fact that there’s more to every scene than meets the eye. It’s no small wonder that Mukherjee manages to tie together the dozen-odd loose threads in the final few minutes. In hindsight, it might feel neatly conceived, but I was maybe seconds away from throttling each character into admitting – something, anything.

Adarsh Gourav, previously seen as one of the arrogant juvenile rapists in the Sridevi-starring revenge drama Mom, has a quiet rage about his face. I like the way he barely relaxes his intensity even as his character comes full circle in the unlikeliest of circumstances. It’s perhaps every child’s worst fear to retrospectively recognize the face behind their parents’ masks, but he makes Dhruv a strangely brave soul for wanting to jump into the past without a parachute.

It does help that his struggle is bolstered by our automatic belief in the casting of Manoj Bajpayee, Hindi cinema’s favourite wronged everyman. A direct comparison would be the role of Atul Kulkarni’s – another cinematic embodiment of uprightness – in a Mira Nair mentored short called Azaad from Humaramovie’s short-film anthology, Shor Se Shuruaat (2016). Siddharth Menon plays the son who, like Dhruv, is perhaps irritated by his writer-activist father’s idealistic courage – until the man goes missing.

This short may have given me a deeper peak into Dhruv’s problem-child ways; he, too, might have resented his father’s ethical core, therefore cracking under the pressure of being expected to follow in his footsteps. Which is why it’s both ironic and poetic that it takes death to mend the walls of a broken home.

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It is said that exceptional humans don’t often make for exceptional parents. The boys’ journey from rebels to believers relies solely on the way the world views their late fathers. In both cases, they are meant to achieve closure from the way other people – ex-colleagues, strangers, admirers – speak to them about their fathers.

Rukh does a decent job of turning this intrinsic awakening into a full-blown plot. It even streamlines these complexities down to a single revelatory moment. The payoff is worth the patience. It’s not a perfect feat, but an admirable one. Because Rukh is not a thriller, it is a thinly disguised psychological drama.

When a typical coming-of-age song – as much of a cliché as it is these days – plays at one point, it isn’t completely cringe-worthy. It signifies Dhruv’s transformation into the film he was trying so hard to invade. After all, enlightened youngsters love their Amit Trivedi anthems.

Rating:   star

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