India (2018) Dir. Abhinay Deo
There are some games you just shouldn’t play, as they will get very messy. Blackmail is one of them. The perpetrator always thinks they will get away with it but they are soon found out and pay the price, whether via official judicial punishment by law, or the victim if they find out who is tormenting them.
Debt ridden Dev (Irrfan Khan) is a sales rep for a toilet paper company with a few odd quirks that keep him late at the office. One night, when returning home early with roses to surprise his wife Reena (Kirti Kulhari), Dev finds her in bed with a former lover Ranjit (Arunoday Singh). Unseen by them, a furious Dev runs out of the house to compose his thoughts on how to deal with them and comes up with a plan.
Ranjit receives an anonymous text the next day demanding 100,000 rupees or his affair with a married woman will be revealed. As he is jobless, Ranjit blags it from his wife Dolly (Divya Dutta) but her powerful father (Atul Kale) demands Ranjit pays the money back. So, to raise that money, Ranjit secretly blackmails Reena, who spins a yarn to get the money from Dev, who then demands more money from Ranjit…
Ideally, this incestuous circle of deceit and betrayal should end there but writer Parveez Shaikh and director Abhinay Deo have other ideas and push this premise to what seems like ludicrous degrees in this rare black comedy from India. But in doing so, Blackmail imparts a very serious message about the cost of hurting the one you love, exposing the depths the desperate and the immoral will got to in protecting themselves.
Morality play may not have been the key incentive for creating this story – it doesn’t actively judge the characters either, leaving that to the audience if they see fit to do so, and there is plenty of room for that. But the sub plot of the toilet roll company’s latest publicity drive is goofy enough to remind us that this is a comedy, just as much as the multiple blackmail threads s they spiral out of control.
Yes, multiple is right, as this becomes a tangled web of money grabbing opportunists all zooming each other without being aware of it, and as contrived as this might sound, the plotting is immaculately constructed to ensure it all falls into place under scrutiny. Some of the supplementary threads might get lost along the way, a casualty of the excessive 138-minute run time but on the whole, this is an impressively crafted yarn.
As the aggrieved party, Dev should by rights by the main sympathy figure, but his rather icky peccadilloes – taking photos of his colleagues’ wives into the toilets with him and erm…well, you work it out – isn’t an immediately endearing quality. And when Dev gets home, he spies on Reena in the bedroom through a hole in the kitchen wall for reasons unexplained, though if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have seen Ranjit there too.
Not much in the way of comedy so far, unless you count Dev’s fantasy killing of Ranjit and anyone else who upsets him. This is provided by Dev’s boss DK (Omi Vaidya), not quite an Indian David Brent but the same delusion of grandeur is there. He promotes Dev to be his head of the new campaign, having him bribe the municipal office to cut the city’s water supply for twelve hours so people will buy their new super soft toilet roll.
This actually becomes very important to the main story later on, a fantastic example of the intricate plotting. Meanwhile, Dev’s colleague Anand (Pradhuman Singh Mall) takes a shine to new office girl Prabha (Anuja Sathe) and pursues her in earnest. However, Dev drunkenly lets slip his blackmail scheme to Anand, who does the same thing to Prabha on their date.
Dev is naturally angry when he finds a note saying “Blackmailer” on his desk and having got the confession from Anand, confronts Prabha, who drops her butter-wouldn’t-melt façade and demands a 30,000 rupee payment to stay quiet. So, Dev threatens Ranjit again, who sends a text to Reena, who tells Dev another lie about her father’s ill-health so he’ll stump up the cash for her demand. And so it goes.
But we’re still not done, although if I continue I’ll have recapped the whole film, so take it from me this situation gets very complicated and very dark, resulting in a catalogue of bad decisions being made leading to avoidably unpleasant outcomes. The key to it all is that nobody comes out of it looking good with some losing far more than others, and even those left standing have nothing to celebrate, beautifully delineated through an ironic image from a game of Pac-Man of all things.
Once the slowish opening act is done, the pace picks up and the humour arrives tenfold with it, though not every joke translates well. There is enough ironic and black comedy for a good giggle, not to mention the never ending carousel of intertwined extortions that remarkably never gets old. The final act is a sombre affair, laced with violence and crippling poignancy so a post credits coda about the toilet roll promotion lets things end on a lighter note.
I expect the cast won’t be recognisable to those outside of India or hardcore Bollywood, with the exception of Irrfan Khan who starred in The Lunchbox. His stern looking face is perfect in relaying the pathos of Dev’s actions without being overtly comic which is left to other characters like Arnand and DK, the latter almost a caricature.
Why Bollywood films are so long, I don’t know; Blackmail is a great 110-minute film with extraneous musical numbers and asides that only bring it down, but fortunately not enough to ruin what is a taut and deftly crafted comedy crime drama, presented in a typically slick and attractive package.