Bouquet of red roses. Bottle of red wine. A 70s fading superstar. #Surprise, he screams, and he receives one instead of giving one. The bouquet and the wine bottle fall to the pristine white marble floor, and smash. The red wine blends with red blood, while a sustained a piano score ominously builds the tension in the background.
The scene is a deliciously layered one. In the hands of any ordinary or even a good filmmaker, the above scene’s ability to produce tension would have been enough. But then, AndhaDhun is directed by no ordinary filmmaker. It’s Sriram Raghavan’s film. Mr. Raghavan, a self-confessed love child of the cinematic fusion of Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Vijay Anand, French New Wave (Jean Luc Godard & Francois Truffaut), 70s & 80s Bollywood, especially thrillers and B movies, peppers his films with enough hat tips to the films by the above mentioned masters and films of that era. His films are fun, not just for their intricate plotting and insane storytelling; but also because it allows us, the cinephiles, to play the “spot-the-reference” game.
AndhaDhun is adapted from a French short film L’accordeur (2010), which in itself was a tribute to Truffaut’s classic Shoot the Piano Player (1960). On the surface, the plot of AndhaDhun is very simple. A blind pianist aspires to greatness as an artist, finds not just a muse; but also an opportunity. The opportunity is a private performance at the anniversary of a 70s fading Bollywood superstar which is designed as a surprise for the superstar’s wife. A murder takes place, and the blind pianist gets embroiled in the conspiracy. The subsequent incidents form the most intricate plot development tricks you might potentially ever watch in a Bollywood movie.
Since it’s Sriram Raghavan at the helm, one can never expect the routine. So, we have hat tips, nostalgia, subtle visual details, and an absolutely gobsmacking 80s pulpy background score by Daniel B. George (Raghavan’s usual collaborator since Johnny Gaddaar).
Sriram designs an elaborate crab cooking sequence shooting Tabu in a Nigella Lawson-esque fashion; but peppers the scene up with chilling description offered by Tabu’s character Simi about how she keeps the crab frozen in the deep freezer for longest hours as possible to eliminate the shock the crab is likely to feel if thrust into hot, boiling water or oil. Sriram uses this little exposition and Tabu’s tremendous and super expressive face to foreshadow her character’s subsequent evolution in the film. What adds another amazing layer to this already delicious scene is Tabu hugging her husband, Pramod Sinha (70s star Anil Dhawan in a casting masterstroke). The camera just pushes both Simi and Pramod Sinha in soft focus and brings into sharp focus Simi’s hands which are covered in red marination. Symbolism and foreshadowing, much?
AndhaDhun is filled with these nuggets of directorial flourishes which only a master like Sriram can add to an already ripe screenplay. His approach to writing & directing this film is eerily similar, and yet very different from his early film Johnny Gaddaar. It’s not a suspense in terms of whodunit. As a matter of fact, for us, the audiences, AndhaDhun is not even a thriller. It’s designed as a thriller for the characters in the universe of the script. For the audience, it operates as a screwball noir. It’s almost Groucho Marx meeting Charlie Chaplin for lunch, writing some funny lines/scenes, and then they meeting Coen Brothers for dinner, and recalibrating those scenes. If you get the drift, then that pretty much sums up the sheer madness this crazy masterpiece of a film unleashes on you.
AndhaDhun’s yet another fascinating aspect is its tonal shift, use of ironic humour to shift the joke and the joked upon. Throughout the film, Sriram constantly throws the motif of visually impaired at us. Radhika Apte’s character is introduced to us while she screams at a man in a car at a signal by calling him blind, while in the very next shot, she hits the blind pianist at a zebra crossing while not even looking at him coming! The patrons of the club Franco’s, where Akash plays the piano, dance blind-folded to the tunes being played by this blind pianist. Willingly wanting to be blinded? Even a small kid in Raghavan’s universe is not squeaky clean. This is a world, where people will do anything as an act of self-preservation.
This then brings us to 3 of the most fascinating characters in the film, that, in my personal opinion, are easily the most layered and carefully constructed characters in a Bollywood film in a long time. Pramod Sinha, the fading superstar. Simi, the superstar’s Nigella-like wife. Akash, the blind (?) pianist.
AndhaDhun, like other Sriram Raghavan films is as much a beast of its own, as much as it is an homage, a love letter to nostalgia and cinema, pop culture of the yore. Anil Dhawan’s casting, the film’s use of piano as the centrepiece, and the film’s opening tribute to Chaaya Geet and Chitrahaar are all inextricably linked to evoke a delicious memory of the past, the fading away of it now, and a tinge of sadness we feel at our distance from it today. Yet at the same time, our faces light up at the interlinking of all the 3 in the film. Anil Dhawan’s casting in the film is a perfect metaphor for Raghavan to stitch all of these metaphors together. His plush home is adorned by his movie posters. The entire cinemascope screen is filled with footage of his old movie songs. Notice the scene, when Anil Dhawan is introduced in the film. His house is introduced to us with a tease of his film posters — the final one being of his film called Darwaza. As soon as the poster of Darwaza appears on the screen on the right side of the frame, the frame dissolves seamlessly over to a door which opens to reveal Tabu to us in flowing black gown applying red nail polish to her feet. A few scenes later, Sriram focuses on her feet with red nail polish as she walks around her house on the blood-stained floor.
Here’s where Sriram’s pop culture references and odes come to serve him beautifully. Tabu’s character Simi (named after Simi Garewal, perhaps, the original femme fatale in Subhash Ghai’s Karz) is called Lady Macbeth in the film. She did play the role of Lady Macbeth in Maqbool (Vishal B’s adaptation of Macbeth). When Pramod Sinha drools over finding an admirer from Denmark on his YouTube video, Tabu asks — “Isn’t that where Hamlet is from?” Another hat tip to Tabu’s role in Haider. She played a version of Gertrude. If Pramod Sinha’s character evokes, love and sadness from us, Simi’s is a study and a manifestation of a Shakespearean witch. Remorseless and funny!
Sriram uses piano as an homage device in AndhaDhun and yet gives it something very unique to do in the film. For the longest time now, piano in Hindi films have conveyed sentimentality, love, anger, passion. But Sriram commissions Amit Trivedi’s piano solos as a detached commentator on the absurd proceedings. Very much like the character of Akash. Finally, the character of Akash is hard to pin down. He is like Alice, that just happens to tumble down Sriram’s intricately designed rabbit hole.
The film opens with an amazing throwaway line —
Depends on the liver.
This innocuous sounding line opens the film up to the most delirious detours ever witnessed in a Bollywood film. Believe me, the band of madcap characters introduced in the 2nd half of the film only further heighten the already amplified moral and existential depravity of the film, while still keeping its tongue firmly in the cheek.
For a film as understated in its production design, AndhaDhun is not low on quality or assured and deliberate styling of itself. The contrast between the landscape, location or the stage and the actual staging is exemplary, and can only be appreciated for its detailing after a couple of views. The quiet neighbourhood, the leafy streets, the plush apartments, and the unchecked blood, depravity in the minds and deeds. The sound editing and the overall production soundtrack is carefully constructed. Very minimalist, and the use of ambient sound is further heightened when it segues into the thunderous piano solo. The background score traverses from embracing 80s kitsch to modern discordant electronic with perfection. Use of camera has always been Sriram’s biggest arsenal. In his films, the marriage of shot breakdowns and blockings attain a level of magic because of the harmony between film editing and camera movements. He reveals his story very gradually by way of subtle shifts in camera perspectives, angles or slightly longer shots. When not, neither the camera reveals, nor the scene or the shot will stay longer. Notice his use of crane shot in a crazy chase scene in a building before the climax. The way the camera cranes up while simultaneously rotating is straight of Hitchcock’s playbook which he deployed beautifully in Vertigo.
Even the climax scene where Sriram shows a band called Aznavour Ensemble performing somewhere in Europe, he tips his hat to Charles Aznavour, the lead actor from Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. And finally, I can’t remember, if I have seen a better use of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in an Indian film. It’s said that Beethoven was deaf by the time he composed the epic Fifth Symphony. What a brilliant thematic heft this piece adds to the film, and also a certain gravitas!
Sriram also uses the colour yellow to design the poster for AndhaDhun, which is his tribute to the modern posters of Shoot the Piano Player. This was also the working title of the film while it was being shot.
AndhaDhun is an endlessly rewarding film experience, carefully designed, intricately constructed, and passionately performed. It’s a study in crafting thrillers that slowly, but very assuredly, cock-a-snook at the audience’s ability to guess. It pulls the rug from under our feet, and then laughs at us. When was the last time a Bollywood thriller did that to you?
PS: Final Pieces of Trivia:
Reference to his own work in Agent Vinod. The Raabta song takes place in a club where a blind pianist performs in the middle of a shootout.
Sriram showed one of his characters in Johnny Gaddaar watching Eyes Wide Shut. In that film, a pianist is invited to perform for a private party. Only that the pianist must perform blindfolded. It’s in that party, that the life of the lead character and the pianist go through irreversible change.
Thank you, Sriram Raghavan for this dark, delicious, sinful, and singularly masterful symphony.