June 10, 2011
Kalki Koechlin, Neil Bhoopalam, Kirti Kulhari, Shiv Pandit, Gulshan Devaiya, Rajeev Khandelwal, Raj Kumar Yadav, Rajit Kapoor, Pavan Malhotra
Shaitan is what Paanch might have been if it had lacked soul but possessed more sheen. It must rank as one of the heartbreaks of contemporary Hindi cinema that Paanch, Anurag Kashyap’s debut film as director – a raw, sock-you-in-the-face, punch-you-in-the-stomach type of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll saga – was never released as a combined result of Censor intolerance and the producer’s problems. Nearly a decade after he made that film, Kashyap is now himself an influential Bollywood producer presenting to us debutant director Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan.
To begin with, this story is enjoyable and quite intriguing. Shaitan stars Kalki Koechlin from Dev D as a troubled NRI kid who’s just landed in Mumbai because her father is working on a government project. It’s evident from the start that Amrita Jayshankar a.k.a. Amy is mentally not all there. She writes her mother’s name on every piece of paper she can get and imagines that Mom has been confined to a mental institution though she’s dead. Her father and stepmother seem to love her, but she’s not willing to give them a chance. Enter: rebellion and ‘friends’. Amy meets Dash, KC, Zubin and Tanya, and the five decadent youngsters while away their days in a haze of booze, sex, cigarettes, drugs and a speeding Hummer. Wildness is second nature and remains that way even when a joyride leads to tragic consequences, and their lives spiral out of control.
They’re a charismatic bunch, these five actors. Neil Bhoopalam (Zubin) who we’ve earlier seen in No One Killed Jessica and model-turned-actress Kirti Kulhari (Tanya) deserve particular mention for their natural ease before the camera, and Shiv Pandit (Dash) for his easy good looks. Besides, our introduction to the depravity of these fast-talking, highly intelligent youngsters comes through well-edited sequences (take a bow, Sreekar Prasad) filled with sharp-witted, cheeky dialogues that are highly entertaining. When they first meet, Zubin tells Amy to choose him as her boyfriend. “F*** the tiger, save the Parsi,” he says. But the joy of these positives rapidly gets diluted as style takes over substance especially in the second half of the film. I remember the precise point at which the over-stylisation of Shaitan began to irk me. It’s when a clever story is being told in flashback – the word “flashback” flashes on screen, then it’s rewound, then the words “flashback mein flashback” appear, then ... well, the thing about being clever is that you must not allow the effort to show. And sadly for Shaitan, it feels like it’s trying too hard.
To be fair to Bejoy Nambiar, he’s got his basics in place – the production is slick, some of the writing is commendable, the accident that proves to be a turning point in the film is superbly executed, and he’s remarkably sure-footed while interlinking two long, parallel sequences of mayhem unfolding beautifully over that lovely classic song Khoya khoya chand (I really loved this part very very much). And so I’m keen to see how Nambiar will evolve with a second film. But in Shaitan, gloss overshadows heart beyond a point, which makes it tough to empathise with the characters or invest in their pain. I found myself enjoying the violence unfolding on screen, but not really caring too much about the fate of that crazy five. In fact, I was far more involved with a satellite character: Rajeev Khandelwal’s irrationally violent cop who is deeply in love with his estranged wife and is investigating a high-profile case while struggling with his own failing marriage.
The film’s catchy background score gets jarringly and unnecessarily loud in several places, and the characterisation of many of the central players isn’t very consistent either. Okay, I get that the lead five are spoilt, bratty and irresponsible, but there’s nothing that tells us in the beginning that they are fools. So what explains the loophole-riddled plan they come up with to get out of a tight spot? The plan doesn’t go awry solely due to circumstances beyond their control. No, it goes awry because it’s downright stupid. Amy is the daughter of a well-connected man, but when her bizarre behaviour makes it to television news, she and her friends seem surprised beyond belief. Why? Why does her stepmother suddenly break down saying she can’t live without Amy, although it’s obvious that the two barely have a relationship? And why do Amy’s parents – who otherwise come across as decent, caring folk – not take her to a psychiatrist when it’s staring all of us in the face that she’s been completely unhinged for years?
Kalki Koechlin has an uncommon and arresting face that worked perfectly for her out-of-control Chanda in Dev D. She deadpans her way through Shaitan. It would be a pity if her third film also features her as a wacko character given to a spot of debauchery, and relies more on her interesting facial features than her acting skills. On the other hand there’s my pick of this cast, Rajeev Khandelwal, whose exceedingly likeable personality and under-stated performance reminded me of why he was such a superhit as Sujal on the TV soap Kahiin To Hoga. I wonder why Bollywood is not giving him a better deal.
Shaitan is about five youngsters who are done in by the devilish streak within. It’s also a fine example of a promising film that’s done in by its own seeming determination to be glib. I’m waiting for your second film, Mr Nambiar.
Rating (out of five): **3/4
CBFC Rating: A with one cut
Running time: 128 Minutes
Language: Hindi with some English
Photograph courtesy: http://www.facebook.com/CultofShaitan