Director: Nikhil Nagesh Bhat
Writer: Nikhil Nagesh Bhat
Cast: Tara Sutaria, Abhishek Banerjee, Rajpal Yadav, Sumit Gulati, Aaditya Gupta, Dhairya Karwa
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Apurva is the sort of survival thriller that practically spells out adjectives like “hard-hitting” and “bleak” for us so that we don’t have to. It’s predictable, tasteless and frighteningly dull, ticking genre boxes because they’re cool and not because there’s a story to be told. NH10 (2015) will not be pleased, given Apurva unfolds like its poor pretender. The premise reads thus: After being abducted by four local dacoits in the ravines of Chambal, a young woman named Apurva Kashyap (Tara Sutaria) finds herself on the run. There’s not a soul in sight, and her desperate fiancé (Dhairya Karwa) is far away, trying to force the cops into action in a lawless land.
Over the course of one night, the delicate protagonist is forced to go from prey to predator, from victim to slasher. But her transformation is so performative that it’s funny. Like a flick of a switch, Apurva’s face suddenly becomes steely – and that’s how we know she can’t be messed with anymore. (I’m just surprised that the sky didn’t open up to reveal herself as a mythological figure – or the rebooted heroine of Anjaam). One moment stands out in particular. A dacoit is stuck at the bottom of a well, on the verge of drowning. When he looks up, he thinks he sees his colleague, but it happens to be Apurva. She isn’t cowering though. On the contrary, she is shining a flashlight onto her own face – to create that horribly misplaced “I’m here to haunt you” effect – before she hurls a rock at him. He probably dies of mediocrity-by-association before the rock gets to him. It’s like she knows she’s in a film, and the film knows it’s a film, but the narrative refuses to understand the relationship between survival, self-defense and cold-blooded revenge. Who has the time to stage their own entry during such a crisis?
This movie has 99 problems and a 95-minute runtime ain’t one. It’s mercifully brief, but it still manages to make us squirm (in a bad way). For the most part, the four dacoits are treated as the central characters of the story. I don’t mind the perspective, but one can sense the film is revelling in their vulgarity. They’re sick and brutal in a very showy manner, cackling like hyenas and torturing everything that moves, as if they were malfunctioning Anurag Kashyap characters. The gaze comes from a space of torture porn. Even if the intent is to show how monstrous these men are, the style here screams for attention, because it remains at odds with the (cultural) setting. What is the point of a scene in which one of them stubs a cigarette onto the palm of an unconscious Apurva before proceeding to unbutton her top? Or a moment where the four louts have a pissing contest? What is the point of the youngest of them clicking a selfie with a corpse? What is the point of hearing them casually discuss who will rape her first?
This is incidentally the same film that has a flashback featuring Apurva’s romance in a Dharma-love aesthetic. Forget the detail that Apurva doesn’t sound one bit like a feisty small-town dreamer, or that her terror seems to resemble the shock of waking up late for the latest iPhone sale. The four idiots, too, conveniently find themselves alone at different points so that Apurva doesn’t have to go through the trauma of facing two at a time.
The film tries to be oversmart and rationalise the portrayal of these dacoits by slipping in some pop-cultural nods to masculinity. Like, for instance, one of them watching a scene from Kabir Singh (2019; featuring Kiara Advani), and wishing he could marry a girl like that. Or the Dev.D (2009) song ‘Emotional Atyachar’ playing when Apurva is trapped in their stolen Fortuner. Or an open-armed Shah Rukh Khan bobblehead in a car. Or the fact that their rage is driven by impulse and male ego – like targeting a bus for not letting them overtake it, or randomly kidnapping a woman because her partner was rude to them on the phone. They might be influenced by the movies that glorify violence, which is why their purpose (robbery) is never clear. None of these saves are enough, however.
Even the set pieces lack suspense. There’s an unfortunate astrologer who ends up as collateral damage in the middle of it all, but his presence is also diminished with a flashback that reveals he was indirectly connected to Apurva. I can get behind the casting of Rajpal Yadav against type as the senior-most dacoit, but the typecasting of Abhishek Banerjee (who plays a lesser version of his Ajji and Paatal Lok offenders) and Sumit Gulati dismisses all hopes of originality. I can also get behind the debunking of the male-saviour syndrome – Apurva fends for herself, regardless of who she’s marrying or what’s at stake. However, this is 2023, for God’s sake. It should be par for the course. The bar has to be higher. So what if it becomes a survival thriller that sends the audience scrambling for survival?