Director: Sriram Raghavan
Cast: Ayushmann Khurana, Tabu, Radhika Apte
What are the odds of you playing Good Samaritan to a distressed neighbour on a regular day, and then getting toppled off of a high-rise building in broad day light? Also, without provocation? “That’s bizarre,” you might say, with a nervous laugh, convinced this macabre thought may have been taken straight from the pages of a B-grade thriller novel. But what if you were an ill-fated spectator who happened to catch the murderer in the act and they looked you in the eye instead of fleeing the scene? “Some nerve,” you might gasp!
It is this defiance that underscores most of the character sketches in Sriram Raghavan’s universe, the man famed for filming cult thrillers in the past like Johnny Gaddaar (2007) and in recent times, Badlapur (2015). Raghavan’s penchant for making plot twists work without relying on whodunit trails and snaking his way in through the seemingly obvious, is what makes his movies stand out as classic masterpieces. Andhadhun, a neo-noir thriller duly inspired by a 2010 French short film L’accordeur (The Piano Tuner), is visibly cut from the same cloth. At the heart of the story is a blind pianist (Ayushmann Khurana as Akash) whose life takes a turn for the worse when he becomes privy to a murder and goes on to report a crime he never actually witnessed.
At the outset, it would not be remiss to say that the mystery of whether Akash can actually see or not is solved in the first fifteen minutes of the runtime. And yet, even as the end credits roll, you find yourself still floundering for clues – Can he see or not? The director’s ability to take a relatively obvious element of the plot – Akash’s blindness – and play around with the idea of sight using deeper, darker undertones till it drives the audience to exasperating (yet chuckle-worthy) confusion, is remarkable.
But the idea of sight is not the only element the director toys with. If you aren’t the kind to dismiss opening and end credits (and you mustn’t be, if you’re watching this cinematic treat), you would find puns galore in the film. Right from the opening credits, which start with a seemingly out-of-place, “What is life? It depends on the liver”, a blind man singing ‘Naina Da Kya Kasoor‘, to the shrewdest of specifics in the end credits, the essence of the movie is neatly sandwiched between these points. You miss this, and you miss out on the whys and hows that effectively describe this zany ride.
“Andha hone ke problems toh sabko pata hain, fayda main batata hun,” Akash draws us into his private world – one that’s dominated by a grand piano, and his relentless search for inspiration. The only other recurring distractions are a pesky neighbourhood kid frequently testing his patience (and the veracity of his handicap), and a pet cat named Rani. Enter Sophie (Radhika Apte), a refreshingly candid and earthy woman, who he meets literally “by accident”, before being profusely apologized to and offered a gig at her father’s diner. Amidst casual conversations and random scooter rides, the two wildly different personalities develop a bond which swiftly culminates in a passionate, albeit, short-lived affair.
But not before we are told that Akash wasn’t really born blind, but became so, after being struck by a cricket ball at the age of fourteen. This revelation serves to further amplify Sophie’s interest in the man – and ours – as the first layer of this flawless make-believe world is peeled away just a tad bit. Clearly, there’s more to this blind musician than meets the eye. This however, does nothing to create a dent in Sophie’s unmasked admiration for Akash, who keenly churns out mystifying originals of his own as well as classic masterpieces, day after day, to the wonderment of the guests at the diner.
On one such eventful evening, as he contentedly plays out a series of old melodies, his genius is picked up by a jovial, indulgent yesteryear actor Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan) who later invites him home for a private performance. But once Akash arrives at the actor’s apartment, all the happy coincidences of the recent past turn into a dramedy of unwelcome coincidences he cannot easily extricate himself from. As he then fumbles his way through a chain of staged realities, Akash, along with his fellow desperados, come to realize that no matter who invents the game, nobody truly knows all the rules. This jumble of twists and turns, flip-flops of loyalties, pretence and sheer audacity through it all makes up the core of Andhadhun, which justifies its likeness to the Hindi word (Andhadhund) meaning ‘indiscriminate’, or ‘slapdash’, more than it does to ‘blind melody’ – its literal meaning.
Ayushmann, the poster boy for entertaining, social dramas moves away from that predictable mold to enter the conflicting, experimental world of Andhadhun and succeeds in giving his own spin to it. Here too, glimpses of the boy next door remain; in fact, Akash’s inherent sensitivity and unassuming aura is what enthralls the audience on and off the screen. But these are merely sprinklings overlaying the character’s true motivation, which remains consistent throughout the movie, much like the heightened focus he so boasts of, at the very beginning.
Unlike a straight-laced Vicky Donor or a Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, Ayushmann’s character in this wily project seems more in control of his circumstances, despite the obvious tragedies, sometimes brought about by his own smug machinations. Khurana delivers a crackling, delicious performance, probably the best of his career so far – never truly letting his grip on Akash slacken, even as there were moments where it could’ve been laid threadbare for the viewer to catch on to. Besides the broader picture, the actor seems to have a grip on the minutest of details – from the practiced agility of a professional pianist, to the wary body language of a blind man, he hits it right out of the park every single time.
Matching his finesse is Tabu, as Simi (Pramod Sinha’s much-younger sexy wife) who knows a thing or two about making crab murder a little less unpalatable than it really is. By her own admission she has quite a big heart, given that she prefers lulling the crab to sleep in an ice bath before plopping them in boiling water so it doesn’t meet a shocked death.
Tabu, who has previously played the femme fatale to perfection in Maqbool (2003) and Haider (2014) knows just the tropes to get the inevitably charming, yet insidious trappings of her character right. Fascinatingly dangerous, yet affable, she makes Simi worthy of your understanding, as you take turns sniggering at her dervish ways and pitying her, but never with outright disdain.
Together, Ayushmann and Tabu lend a fresh, intriguing touch to the neo-noir genre and give us some superlative moments in the film. In one of the principal scenes in the movie, the blind man is shown fervently playing high notes on the piano, proud of the applause coming his way, even as the camera shifts enough to focus on a minor detail on the fringe – there’s someone lying bedraggled on the floor. And they have broken glass and splattered wine (or is it blood?) to give them company. Even before you can put two and two together, the tempo of the music intensifies, as do the muted goings-on – painting a picture of such gruesome yet, amusing incongruity that it leaves you agape and breathless in anticipation for what’s waiting next. A winsome tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, this will forever stand out as a moment of unparalleled cinematic brilliance.
Andhadhun is an extremely intelligent film, in the sense that it dunks the obvious and refuses to play to the gallery. As is evident, the taut screenplay (by Pooja Ladha Surti, Raghavan, Arijit Biswas and others), an outstanding editing (by Surti) and phenomenal camerawork (by K.U.Mohanan) contribute greatly to the film. But this is also a project where the background score is pushed to the foreground, compelling the audience to take note of. This is one movie where music is used to drive the story forward, backwards and sideways and isn’t a mere garnish on the actual recipe. It is what makes the recipe. Borrowing heavily from childhood delights like the Tom and Jerry series, as well as a generous mix of the 70s mood (courtesy Dhawan starrers such as Honeymoon, Hawas and others), there are no suggestive background scores telling you what to think or how to react.
Despite some portions in the second half bordering on the contrived, the humor and the urgency never leaves the characters. Rather, a disquieting air of desperation pervades the participants (of this muddled adventure) and their circumstances in general. For instance, there is tough cop Manohar (Manav Vij) stuffing 16 eggs a day to manage his protein intake, but scrambling for breath in his wife’s (Ashwini Kalsekar) presence. A small-time lottery ticket seller (Chhaya Kadam), an auto-rickshaw driver and an unscrupulous doctor (Zakir Hussain) are the other crooks flipping between playing the devil and then the sidekick, just as conveniently and desperately as their motivations change. At one point, the audience is left second-guessing everything and everyone in the movie, even as the director challenging our wits mercilessly without ever truly giving us our “Aha!” moment.
Special credit to Radhika Apte for playing Sophie in the most natural, undecorated way possible for a Hindi film heroine – for acting as a lever to such an ambitious, heavyweight venture. She is feisty, and doesn’t mind baring her heart out. And so, if it means she’s got to spurn the “invisible tension” orchestrated by her hard-to-get musician lover in favour of having brighter, pimple-free skin, so be it. Sophie’s candor is not the only thing that draws us to her, she unintentionally soaks up the collective perplexity of the audience and throws it back at the events, and the man in her life, almost asking – Yeh chal kya raha hai?
Andhadhun is wicked, riveting and mindbogglingly witty. This is not your regular mystery movie, to be enjoyed with a tub of popcorn and a racing heart. This is the kind that will torment your mind, long after you’ve watched it, making you ferret for answers where they may be none.
After all, in Sophie’s words, “Kuch cheezein adhoori hone ki wajah se hi toh poori hoti hain”.