Tuesday, May 14, 2019


Release date:
May 3, 2019
Ashwini Chaudhary

Aftab Shivdasani, Shreyas Talpade, Pavan Raj Malhotra, Jameel Khan, Ishita Dutta, Sonnalli Seygall, Manu Rishi Chadha, Vijay Raaz, Zeishan Quadri

Kaahe labadh-labadh kar raha hai?” sounds so much more colourful than its English translations “Why are you blabbering?” or “Why are you talking rubbish?” Siraj Ahmed’s Hindi dialogues, rooted in the soil of Varanasi, are among  the nicer elements in Setters, a film set in the holy city amidst an unholy bunch of locals running an exam paper leaking racket. Their trade is far more sophisticated than you might imagine, and gets increasingly high-tech with each passing day as the police close in on the gang. The remuneration, quite justifiably, is never less than several lakh rupees per candidate per exam.

Bhaiyyaji (Pavan Raj Malhotra) is the boss of these criminals and Apurva Choudhury (Shreyas Talpade) is his smartest lieutenant. Their troubles begin when the Superintendent of Police Aditya Singh (Aftab Shivdasani) forms a special task force to bust Bhaiyya’s business.

There is a hint of a whiff of a suggestion that Apurva was once in love with the woman who is now Aditya’s wife. These men used to be friends. Now, clearly, they are not.

Director Ashwini Chaudhary, who earlier made the post-Kargil war-and-family drama Dhoop, is credited as the co-writer of Setters’ story and screenplay along with Vikash Mani. He has designed his film as a police and crime procedural, stripping it of all the frills commonly associated with commercial Bollywood thrillers. And so there are fights but not of the one-man-vanquishes-them-all variety. There is a romance but the hero and heroine are not assigned a song and dance break from the overall tension. In fact, Setters has no hero or heroine in the conventional sense.

So far so good, and up to a point it does appear that Chaudhary has got his tone and pacing right. Some of the plot twists are interesting. The lengths to which people will go to ace an exam without studying for it are both fascinating and amusing. And Bhaiyyaji’s quirks – involving a spittoon and a chappal in particular – are an unspoken insight into the caste and class heirarchies in this society.

Yet, Setters never fully takes flight as it gradually becomes clear that there is only so much the writing has to offer and nothing further. No doubt several of the methods adopted by the gang are impressive, but there are as many that are either simplistic or simply not explained. The code language they use on the phone, for instance, is so easily deciphered by the police that it brings to mind people who use their birth dates as ATM PINs. (Spoiler alert) In one scene one of the ringleaders manages to evade a cop at an airport, but how exactly he gets her to follow another person instead of him (whether by his design or her stupidity) is not explained. Elsewhere, in a scene involving a printing press in Jaipur, one crook gets repeatedly caught trying to smuggle a paper out of the building but another gets away with it – how exactly the latter executes his clever idea is not shown, we are just expected to accept that he did. (Spoiler alert ends)

The writing of all the characters other than Bhaiyyaji, Apurva and Aditya is also wanting. This is not about screen time but about depth. If you work with an ensemble cast, some of them known and respected character artistes, then you had better make their roles something more than just the labels “the chikankari-worker-turned-hoodlum played by Vijay Raaz” or “the hot-headed honest Muslim cop” or “the woman cop”. Yet that is all these people amount to. They add to the numbers in the police task force and in the criminal gang, but that is about it.

Bollywood has done far better in this genre in the past with Neeraj Pandey’s Akshay Kumar-Manoj Bajpayee-starrer Special 26 and more recently with Raj Kumar Gupta’s Ajay Devgn-Ileana D’cruz-Saurabh Shukla-starrer Raid. So have India’s other film industries: the Mollywood film Action Hero Biju starring Nivin Pauly and Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru in Tamil come to mind just off the top of my head.

In a different genre but similar setting – the exam paper leaking ‘industry’ in an Indian town – this March, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Hindi film Milan Talkies provided a rich socio-political commentary on the community within which it was set filled with credible, memorable characters.

Setters’ clipped pace is fair enough but its superficiality becomes apparent early on. A fine example of surface treatment is the awkward attempt to illustrate that the loyalty of Muslims is automatically placed under question in our country without any justification. Another is the inclusion of a woman on Aditya Singh’s squad – not only is she a mere token presence, with the character being given hardly any lines beyond “Yes sir”, but the choice of actor is also telling. The slim, trim, model-like, statuesque Sonnalli Seygall, who you may remember from Pyaar Ka Punchnama, is the only glamourous individual in the two opposing groups. In a real world where women are judged more by their looks than their talent and intellect, it is worth noting that the director was comfortable filling Team Aditya and Team Apurva with frumpy men but could not bring himself to cast a frumpy woman in place of Seygall.

There is only one other woman in the entire film: Bhaiyyaji’s daughter does not get many scenes but at least she has a mind of her own. More to the point, she is played by Ishita Dutta who possesses an X factor that makes her noticeable despite the minuteness of her role.

As a youngster yet to establish herself, I guess she has far less to complain about than others in the cast. Why would you take the trouble to rope in Vijay Raaz (Monsoon Wedding, Delhi Belly) and Manu Rishi Chadha (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Phas Gaye Re Obama) in your film and then underutilise them? No idea.

Of the actors playing the three focal characters, one of them far outshines the others.

We know that Pavan Raj Malhotra is capable of being fabulous, but here as Bhaiyyaji he over-acts in a number of scenes.

Shivdasani’s career highlights in the past decade and a half have been gross sexist comedies. Given one of the few roles of substance in Setters, he ruins it with his stiff, plodding dialogue delivery and insipidity.

Marathi-Hindi actor Shreyas Talpade has really been given a raw deal by Hindi cinema through most of his career despite his fantastic performance in Nagesh Kukunoor’s fantastic 2005 film Iqbal. In recent years he has been reduced to playing secondary and tertiary roles in the Golmaal slapstick comedy series. He plays Apurva in Setters with conviction, and is the best thing about the film.

In terms of concept and cast, Setters has a lot going for it. In its execution though, it does not quite add up.

Rating (out of five stars): *3/4

CBFC Rating (India):
U (bookmyshow)
Running time:
126 minutes (bookmyshow)

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

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