Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Rules of the Game: notes on Johnny Gaddaar

One persistent criticism of pastiche as a genre is how it really is about other works of art and therefore unrelated to reality; as Andrei T said, “Cinema uses your life, not vice versa.” Yet for something that is pure pastiche – nothing more than a series of quotations from the Sriram Raghavan canon – I find Johnny Gaddaar to be emotionally resonant in a strange way. And it isn’t a one-off impression. Having watched it about ten times by now, I’m still moved when Sheshadri (Dharmendra) crawls over to the tape-recorder to hear his dead wife sing after being gutshot. It is, like the rest of JG, yet another homage – a song from the early Dharmendra film Bandini – but one stamped with a precious sense of emotional experience.

That gets me thinking – how does Raghavan earn my emotional investment? The surfaces suggest otherwise. For one, the acting here is consistently hammy in keeping with the Vijay Anand tone. In the scenario leading up to Sheshadri’s murder, the line “shut up, you son of a bitch” is delivered so hilariously (cf. Dharmendra’s chinnery-sewing dog-blood-drinking days in the ‘80s) that it undermines the seriousness of the situation. And yet the murder ‘feels right’ because Raghavan knows how to switch moods – a pedestal fan provides the only ambient sound in tense dead-time (newspapers flutter) and then the ‘rupture’ occurs. But Raghavan doesn’t stop at that. The first thing Sheshadri hits when he tries to get to the tape-recorder is the fan, which falls with a loud clatter on the floor. This is the precise sort of consciousness about the medium’s plastic nature – and how to engage with it – that I wish more commercial filmmakers understood, given that they are in the best position to deal with plastic elements in the guise of ‘entertainment’.

How does Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh) get the idea of double-crossing? His girlfriend Mini (Rimi Sen) writes out the cash he’s going to make from a deal with lipstick on the bathroom mirror (they’re banking on it to ‘start a new life’), but she mistakenly writes the whole gang’s take instead of only his. Vikram corrects her. But later in the night he comes back to the bathroom to wash, having just had dinner while watching Parwana on TV. He looks into the mirror, the crazy Parwana plot fits in and he’s ‘sold’. Without quite understanding it the girl has set off her man into a bloody Macbeth-like quest for more than he wanted. (As if to validate my wild guesses, I found a basin filled with bloody water as a poster in Shardul’s office!)

But Vikram is not the only one falling back on Parwana. Prakash (Vinay Pathak) and his wife are watching it too in their home and she comments how no one could have foreseen in 1970 that the lanky awkward Bachchan – instead of sweet-faced Navin Nischol – would be the superstar. Prakash turns it into a wily excuse for ‘making the right decision at the right time’ and coaxes her into mortgaging her beauty parlour to raise extra cash for the deal. Same ‘reference’ but different people using it to different ends (both manipulative).

Making the right decision at the right time. Standing at the crossroads – the bifurcation between Pune and Goa, between a dirty scam and a clean life – Vikram wants to reconsider. Finding that he can’t take a definite call, he defers decision-making to a coin (who can you trust your conscience with but money?). Tails for a clean life, heads for the plot. First spin, tails. “Best of 3.” Second spin, tails. “Best of 5.” Third spin, the coin turns around. Fourth and fifth too, heads. Which is precisely when heads start to roll.

There’s a reference to Citizen Kane where a neglected wife plays jigsaw puzzle, but the more important debt might be to Welles’ method of cutting to the sound of the next scene while the image hasnt changed. This creates a sort of suspense through which the ‘drama’ of one scene segues into the other. Vikram is the only character for whom expressionistic sound design is reserved – as he stares into the lipstick writing on his mirror, a train passes by; then, sitting in Sheshadri’s house waiting for the other gang members to come – his plot exposed – the calling bell rings. In both these instances the sound is of horrors to come: a man hears more than what is real and in the present.

I can go on writing about how clever and ironic Johnny Gaddaar is, how every major plot point is coded in the colour red, how a crime caper like this is also a chronicle of three marital relationships – each of them telling – but that’s better left for you to find out.