In director Abhinay Deo‘s rip-roaring Blackmail, Irrfan Khan plays Dev Kaushal, a salesman for a toilet roll manufacturing company. Dev’s life, however, is anything but. On a roll, that is. he plays Pacman on his desktop until 2130 hours every night, loses, and then heads home to renew afresh the ennui of his married life. He and his wife Reena (Kirti Kulhari) have, as so many couples do, drifted apart. In this case, the marriage’s cracked, literally, because all Dev does is peep through a hole in the kitchen wall at his wife asleep in their bedroom, stare at her well-manicured toes, and then heats up his dinner. For true sexual release, Dev flicks his colleagues’ wife’s photos adorning their cubicles and beats it to them in the office toilet. This is set to Amit Trivedi‘s superbly laconic Sataasat number, that pulses with a languid bass, trumpet, and times itself to a water-drop oozing out of a tap – possibly Indian cinema’s first ode-ditty to masturbation, but done absolutely brilliantly.
When prodded on by office friend Anand Tripathi (Pradhuman Singh, who also wrote the dialogues) to surprise his wife with flowers one evening, Dev plucks courage to get the said bunch, choosing as morbid a place as any to get his hands on them, and lands up at his regular peeping place, gently laying his blazer on the dining chair, the flowers on the table, and then looking through the hole…to discover Reena in bed with a hunk, who we and Dev discover later to be Ranjit Arora (Arunoday Singh), who’s married to a perennially inebriated Dolly Verma (Divya Dutta), she the daughter of a powerful local politico (Nav Ratan Singh Rathore) and an orange-peeling, toughie-drinking, eyes-darting-poisoned-arrows-at son-in-law of-a-mother (Neelima Azim). Add to this bunch Dev’s 3-ply caressing boss DK – a sly reference to a number from Deo’s Delhi Belly – played by Omi Vaidya, who has now convinced the cinematic world that his twang in 3 Idiots wasn’t method-acting.
If you think all of this is bawdy and vulgar, it actually isn’t, so don’t get your prudish knickers in a twist and shout – Delhi Belly actually scores higher on the grossness factor; here, with writer Parveez Sheikh, director Deo makes what probably comes closest to the Coen brothers in Hindi movies. Blackmail is downright devilish fun, and Dev blackmailing Ranjit is only the beginning of a mad merry-go-around of more blackmail, money ricocheting off different houses, accounts, and late-night drop-points. And this, even as it introduces some more pivotal characters – the new employee at the toilet paper company, Prabha Ghatpandey (Anuja Sathe), a double-dealing detective Chawla (a superb Gajraj Rao), a blind gun dealer (Vibha Chibber), and a cop bionic
troubled by all that’s going around him, Inspector Rawle (Abhijeet Chavan, simply marvellous).
Plus, there’s a superb dance number – the dance, not so much the number, Bewafa Beauty – by Urmila Matondkar, which is no cause for the story to stop – in fact, it is in this song that the path to a stunning interval calling card is paved; and it is also here where Dev’s friend Anand sets off a series of unfortunate, delightfully dark events that cause, post-interval, for dead bodies to begin to pile up. Deo also takes his pauses to show the quirks and pain that drives most of the characters to behave the way they do.
And the characters are fleshed out by actors who’re all on top of their game. Pradhuman Singh (he the fake Bin Laden in the hilarious Tere Bin Laden) is non-stop fun and a bundle of nosey energy. Anuja Sathe’s act is a swashbuckler wallop – note the scene just before the interval where she has a showdown with Irrfan’s Dev – she waits for the office door to hinge to a close, and then lets loose an explosion of an act. Arunoday Singh is outstanding, his hunkering frown to get all the madness under control an absolute delight – he trapezes between threatening upper-class haughtiness to a subservient son-in-law and husband married into money with effortless swings. On the other side of his home front is Divya Dutta playing his wife – she’s so on the cue as usual, caustically incisive and entertaining – watch her grill the hapless Ranjit about his business model – she’s as sharp as a triple-blade razor in her timing, minus the comfort of the aloe vera coating. Kirti Kulhari is good, but perhaps also has the weakest written character in the enterprise.
Director Abhinay Deo makes Blackmail a roller coaster of a ride, using techniques such as Dev’s expenses list hopping back and forth with the numbers – and while that’s a good laugh, it also shows how typical middle-class families balance their budgets which topple over as extraneous forces play havoc with all their plans. Aiding this movie in all its zip and zap fun is the music score. Apart from most of composer Amit Trivedi’s songs, the background score by Mike McCleary and Parth Parekh is a winner. Using snazzy bass, LCD-induced moog synthesizers, and extended trumpet riffs, they add a snappy bounce to the proceedings, a la Rahul Dev Burman.
But where would this movie be without Irrfan Khan? Several, several notches below. The actor shows yet again why he’s arguably India’s most instinctive actor. Of all the cast here, it is he who has the thinnest bundle of dialogue sheets. He doesn’t speak much, but boy does he tell you tomes with his eyes, his devastation combined with stupefied expressions, his pained hunch, his uncertain gallop, his panic-stricken desperation and his moment of epiphany in a mall. Every scene is a masterclass act by him, as his expressions range from the stumped to the deadpan – and it is here that he delivers a mind-boggling act – how can anyone let you, the audience, know what they’re feeling even as they’re acting deadpan to their co-actors onscreen? Damned if I know, but Irrfan does it with the ease of a bionic mask that’s designed to hide all and tell all at the same time. Even in the scene, where, drunk with his friend Anand in a bar when he laughs, he conveys part-pain, part-triumph, part-evil anticipation. The actor is funny, vulnerable, and makes us laugh at him not because he’s a cartoon, but because he’s one of us, and it’s just so satisfying when people like us act on our darker instincts. Here’s to you, Irrfan and your health – to you having a long, long stay at the cinema hall – no blackmail here, just a prayer.
Blackmail is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s temptations to resort to blackmail, violence, and the pinned photos to the toilet door.
Director Abhinay Deo Running Time 2h 19 min
Writers Parveez Sheikh
Stars Irrfan Khan, Kirti Kulhari, Pradhuman Singh, Arunoday Singh, Divya Dutta
Genres Action, Comedy, Thriller
Watch the trailer of Blackmail here: