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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Chup: Revenge of the Artist, Review: Critickill analysis

Chup: Revenge of the Artist, Review: Critickill analysis

Film critics, run for cover! Better still, seek police protection. Take a cue from the one renowned film critic already has police protection, and comes to our press previews with an armed escort, in uniform. The reason for this shield is not known to me. But all the other reviewers are mere mortals, some senior, some junior and some newbies. Some of them are well paid, some are paid much less than what they deserve, some are well-to-do and don’t need the money and some do film criticism because they love cinema, never mind if they are not paid at all.

Now here comes a movie about a serial killer who targets only film critics, and makes mince-meat out of them, literally. In a sense, he does to them what some of them do to the films they review—tearing them apart. So, does writer-director R. Balki (his wife Gauri Shinde is a co-producer) want us critics to be silenced (Chup), and is out for Revenge of the Artist? Or is he making a case for better standards in film criticism, in an over-the-top manner? On either premise, he tells a GORY tale in Chup, and it is up to us critics to make sense of it and assess it, without fear of any slasher sending us to the hereafter, soon after it is published, in case he does not like the number of stars we gave it.

Almost everything that will be said about Chup’s plot or story will be a spoiler, so one has to tread very carefully. A middle-aged woman returns home late at night and finds the lights switched off. She tries to switch them on again, and they come on. Calling out to her husband, she gets no response. Then she looks everywhere in the flat, till she finds him in the toilet. He is sitting on the toilet seat, dead, with his body slashed all over, and a triangle on his forehead, and a toilet roll placed strategically, where…The police arrive, led by Arvind Mathur, who immediately suspects that the triangle on the head is a vital clue, but cannot get any further lead. More ‘critical’ murders follow, each more brutal than the other, one involving the discovery of dismembered parts of a critic’s body.

Running parallel is the story of Nila Menon, who is single, and the daughter of a Tamil-speaking blind, mother, who loves tulips. Nila gets her tulips time and again from a shop that is so exclusive that it grows tulips, a flower native to Europe, in its own garden. The shop, called Danny’s Flowers, is run by a mysterious man, who Nila presumes, is Danny. The man is given to talking to himself and lands up at Nila’s house on Guru Dutt (late film director, actor, who died in the mid-60s, apparently committing suicide but enjoys cult status since then)’s birthday, with flowers made of paper. The last film that Guru Dutt had directed was called Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, a resounding flop when released, but since then, considered among the best Indian films ever made). They fall in love. Soon afterwards, the killer on the loose targets another victim, again a film critic, and the police are unable to get any leads again.

A well-known critic-turned-film-maker is among the writers on this film, Raja Sen, who has also directed a film. The leap from reviewing to creating has been taken by many a personality, right from the critics in the French magazine, Les cahiers du cinéma. Interestingly, I cannot recall any reverse leap—a film maker who gives-up directing films in favour of reviewing them. The two other writers are director R. Balki himself and Rishi Virmani. Less than halfway into the film, the killer is revealed, which might not have been so bad had the move worked. There were no suspects really, unless one counts the delivery man who wears a T shirt with a huge star on it and is shown only in long shot, or the producer/director who is briefly interviewed by Mathur. Nila works for a TV channel and no possible motive could have been attributed to her. And Mrs. Menon is blind, which rules her out completely. You could say, “What about somebody from the police force?”, and I would say that is too far-fetched, unless there was a long back-story.

Nila surrenders to ‘Danny’ all too easily, even sleeps with him, and demands an encore immediately afterwards. The delivery man has no role to play in the film and showing him at least twice was a waste of precious time. Why did Nila’s mother have to be Tamil and blind, and why does she behave in a very edgy, unpredictable manner all the time? What about Nila’s father? There is a long back story to ‘Danny’, but none to Nila. Who is that priest praying in a chapel next to Danny’s flower shop, with Guru Dutt’s huge picture hanging above him? That’s all we see of him. Dialogue is largely give and take; first your turn, then mine. Some witticisms are interspersed, but most of them sound pretentious.

How did the killer master the art of picking locks, taking a victim to a railway track and laying it there, to be carved into pieces under a running train, without raising the least suspicion; throwing a victim from the third floor to the ground, at a spot that the police cordon surrounding the building, including sharp-shooters with telescopic guns, are unable to notice, and then coming down and carrying the victim on a cycle, to dispense his kind of justice? The police are zeroing on all directors whose first film flopped, largely due to adverse film reviews, and this might be his way of getting back at the critics, although his victims are not those who trashed his film! They are present day reviewers. Adhesive tape used by the murderer to gag his victims was available 10-12 years ago, and has not been seen in the market since then. But the killer always uses this tape, which a smart killer wouldn’t, lest it give the police a clue. And this killer is smartness personified.

With an impressive though sparse record of seven films in 15 years, most of which were box-office bonanza, R. Balki’s last outing was Mission Mangal, three years ago, a film he only wrote. Taking-up vastly differing themes in each successive film, he turns to Guru Dutt for inspiration here. However, can Guru Dutt (Pyasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool) and a serial killer go hand-in-hand? Rather, one is reminded of films like The Boston Strangler and No Way to Treat a Lady. On the Guru Dutt front, he uses three songs from his films, taking them from the original sound-track and crediting the music to S.D. Burman, in all propriety. One Mohammed Rafi (the voice of Guru Dutt) song is sung in part by a female voice, which is out of place. There was no need to do that to an immortal hit.

Preceding the screening for the media, Balki organised a panel discussion on film criticism, at the theatre, that featured film-maker Anees Bazmee, writers/film-makers Krishna D.K. and Raj Nidimoru, venerated film trade analyst Komal Nahata, senior critic Anupama Chopra, Sucharita Tyagi and a couple of other speakers, and was moderated by Bharadwaj Rangan, another film critic. A lot was said in that hour-long conclave, but nothing could have prepared the panelists and the audience for what was to follow in the shape of Chup.

As far as the role of the police is concerned, it is a half-baked track. They are neither here nor there. And the weather-beaten threat of “The CBI will take over, unless you can crack this case in x number of days,” hovers large over Mathur, about which he can do little, except conclude that the mark on the forehead of victim number one was not an inverted equilateral triangle but an incomplete star, a star being the rating given (usually) at the end of a film review. Loathe to making any film without Amitabh Bachchan, Balki brings him in in Chup in cameo that any lesser mortal could have enacted as effectively. But AB has box-office gravitas that few can equal, and a very special relationship with Balki, so it does not come as a surprise. Though slickly directed, the genre, a first foray for the director who loves tackling different themes each time he wields the megaphone, does not show him as much in command as say Cheeni Kum and Paa. Gruesome blood-spilling, carving bloody rings on the body of dead victims, and stars on their forehead, spraying body parts along and near a railway track, etc., are surely difficult scenes to sit through. Even with an Adults Only certificate, such mayhem needed to be trimmed, and, perhaps, it has indeed been trimmed. Did we watch a sanitised version? How far did Balki actually go, only he knows.

Balki’s choice of cast is odd, to say the least. Sunny Deol is a little misfit as the Inspector (General?) of the Mumbai Police’s Crime Branch. Dulquer Salman, now 36, is an actor who has done films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Hindustani, in a 10-year career that includes a quadruple role. But his choice as ‘Danny’ leaves something to be desired. At 34, Shreya Dhanwanthary matches Dulquer age-wise, but her acting skills are yet to be tested. Saranya Ponvannan, who plays Nila’s mother, is brought in gratis, with little to contribute to the narrative. Only Pooja Bhatt, as a psychiatrist, is a surprise packet.

Getting to performances proper, Sunny Deol is constricted by the ‘riddles’ he doles out to his deputy and the frustration he shows at facing the prospect of being taken off the case. If he is indeed the Inspector General, one wonders whether he would be doing all that he does, and being in mufti always. Dulquer Salman, with that rare first name, shows complete ease of rendition. Yet his permanent, indulgent grin, and the flat rendition of dialogue at the most crucial of times, come in the way. It was a good idea to cast him as a Catholic, which persona goes well with his visage. Watch out for him! Shreya Dhanwanthary has a comely screen presence, and, amazingly, an indulgent grin that matches Dulquer’s. While she shows no inhibitions in the scene where she seduces ‘Danny’, she needs to work more in Hindustani films to mature.

Pooja Bhatt does a decent job, though her role has limited scope and could have been better written. A veteran of the South, Saranya Ponvannan, in probably her Hindi debut, makes a good impression. If only her role had more to contribute to the story, in concrete terms…! Amitabh Bachchan is Amitabh Bachchan, as the actor of a film called The Third Umpire. You do not need a ball tracker to declare that even at 80, he is not out. He is never out.

Adequate support comes from Rajeev Ravindranathan as Deputy Superintendent of Police, Srinivas Shetty, Adhyayan Suman as Purab Kapoor, Raja Sen (who is a co-writer) as Senior Film Critic, Dhruv Hiena Lohumi as Kartik, Bipin Nadkarni as Director General of Police, Crime Branch, Mumbai, Zahir Mirza as Nikhil, Rea Malhotra Mukhtyar as Richa, Pravishi Das as Reshma, Priyanka Karekar as Danny's mother, Pyarali Nayani as Nitin Srivastav, Veenu Khatri as Mrs. Srivastav, Nitin Srivastav's wife, Dogra as Parikshit Prabhu, Amit Chakravarthy as Irshaad Ali, Nilesh Ranade as Govind Pandey and Chandrakant Parulekar as Kaleem Bhai.

A lot of pastel shades are seen, and rightly so, since a lot of the action takes place in a flower-shop. Camera-work is by Vishal Sinha while the snipping and splicing is done by Nayan H. K. Bhadra. At 135 minutes, it is long for a murder mystery, but the temptation to show one more killing in a different set-up must have been too tempting to resist. Besides the S.D. Burman songs from Guru Dutt’s films of the mid-late 1950s, there are two other numbers, by Amit Trivedi and Sneha Khanwalkar. Background score by Aman Pant is loud on occasions, but what do you expect in a slasher movie?

Balki’s advice to all critics, via the film, is that you must see every film in the world, including Mongolian films, and remember all of them (a million, I hazard?) at the time of reviewing, to be able to tell whether the film at hand is a copy of any other film…and only then allot the stars, if you are to be considered a critic of merit. I must confess that he is asking for the impossible. Critics do not dole out advice on what a film-maker should do to become a film-maker of some standing. Then why should film-makers target critics? Aw…come one, it’s only a film, and I have given it a rating that is neither here nor there, so I presume I am safe.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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