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Colour me impressed, Johnny
Raja Sen

Neil Mukesh
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October 08, 2007 15:55 IST

The colour of passion. The colour of blood. The colour of treachery.

Red almost never fills the entire frame in Johnny Gaddaar, but the colour is used to sensational effect all across the periphery -- beanbags, shirts, blankets covering sitars, mid-burger slices of tomato -- constantly highlighted and meticulously framed by persistently duller colours around it.

It's not black and white or made largely on a computer, but the superlative way director Sriram Raghavan dabs the Red onto this film begs comparison with a totally different world of vitally discoloured noir: Robert Rodriguez' Sin City. Take a bow, cinematographer CK Muraleedharan, masterfully executed.

And on such a scarlet note our film opens, a studly youngster looking at the world through blood-tinted sunglasses. His name is Vikram (Neil Mukesh), and over the next four or so days, he and buddies Prakash (Vinay Pathak), Shardul (Zakir Hussain) and Shiva (Daya Shetty), under the able guidance of Seshadrisaab (Dharmendra [Images]) plan to double a fortune.

How? Oh, don't bark up the wrong tree. It isn't about the 'how', it's about the 'what-happens-next.'

In a supremely pulp plot likely born out of a hardcore diet of Jack Daniels and James Hadley Chase, our twisty film begins by showing us the last scene -- and then neatly, without fuss, introducing us to the titular traitor. And, mind you, telling us that he has a scene with Shardul's wife (Rimii Sen). Not hoarding our plot-points, are we?

Thus begins a tale of impulsive double-crossing, our Amitabh-aping gaddaar inadvertently, but coolly, opening a can of corpses. Blood. Banknotes. Betrayals. Bollywoodity. The action flows in fits and starts, akin to bullets from a revolver wrapped in an ochre car-cleaning kapda: hard-hitting when pressed, yet more or less inconspicuous -- deceptively slow, even -- the rest of the time. It's a two-hour ride, yet there's lots of room for brooding between the lines. Or, more appropriately, the lies.

Named after a throwaway scene involving a Johny Mera Naam film clip -- and having nothing whatsoever else to do with the Vijay Anand classic, forget what you might have heard -- Johnny Gaddaar is a hardcore 1970s trip. From funky lowslung camera angles to a kick-ass old school title sequence, from a snazzy shot to go to interval to the edgiest soundtrack to hit Hindi cinema in ages, Johnny's got it all. And as befits a film trying to fit into bell-bottomed trousers, the tone occasionally jars, seems too loud. Yup, it wears flared collars too. Perfect.

As for references, this film laps up thrillers by the dozen, borrowing entire twists and techniques from cool cinema gone by, but earnest enough to keep loyally acknowledging the sources. It's a bizarrely fun world where crooks, cops and the conned all watch the same movies, to different effect. Wind that around a retro soundtrack -- used with near-flawless efficiency -- and this is a treat to all fans of the genre. And I mean the word 'fan' in its most accepting sense: if you watch The Great Gambler or Jewel Thief for at least a half-hour every time they're on television; if you like your racy paperbacks; if you like trying to guess upcoming twists: you qualify.

The acting is pretty much top-notch, as a realistic thriller demands. Vinay Pathak is great as a big-table, big-ego gambler; Zakir Hussain carries off ridiculously florid shirts and a tough role with disarming natural ease; Govind Namdeo is spot-on as a corrupt, code-loving cop with an atypically good eye for leatherwear; and then there's Dharmendra. Mouthing English like only he can (which may be both a good and bad thing, but always undeniably memorable), he's the film's authority figure -- rightfully first billed in the opening credits -- and when that hand slaps someone, you, burrowed into your multiplex seat, flinch. The old lion heart warms up to the role, and seems to enjoy himself -- very amusing to watch.

Rimii isn't bad, but is thankfully not given too much to do, the rest of the ensemble cast managing the more demanding histrionics. Almost equally relieved of high strung acting duty is leading man Neil, used constantly in the film, but largely as eye-candy.

And what eye candy this is. Ladies and gents -- and I say this with a record of unblemished heterosexuality -- the man is reasonably edible. I see what the women are melting about. A cooler, leaner and more cerebral looking version of Hrithik Roshan [Images], there's a tender softness about Neil that gives him the feel of depth. He acts quite all right -- though his English dialogues need polish -- but this isn't a testing role. It demands well-paced coolth, which he delivers strongly.

A discerning woman friend, raving about the man for the last two weeks, was torn while describing a scene -- Neil walks into his pad and, while tidying up, grooves to the beat of that fab Move Your Body song with a complete lack of self-consciousness -- whether 'sex on buttered toast' was hyperbolic enough to do the man justice. I saw said scene, and I must say I dug. This lad's going to have his clothes ripped off by women at every opportunity -- seemingly not too hard a task, ladies, given his visible disdain for shirt-buttons.

Johnny Gaddaar is a very clever thriller, one that delights in having the audience two steps ahead of the characters and then confounding their expectations. The dialogue is smart and snappy, black humour underlining some one-liners, but this is a grim, almost-macabre film, with no concession made to include 'comedy,' the real laughs coming from that fantastic movie-worshipping fanboy treatment. The pacing is lugubrious except for the action scenes, and while some might find it slow, try and enjoy the chaos contained by the silences.

Trip on it, man. The treatment is as crucial -- if not more -- than the story, and very neat indeed. I pray that it brings originality to a genre we abuse constantly by mindlessly knocking off DVDs. Johnny Gaddaar is the single coolest film in a really long time, and you need to savour it.

Red is as good a reason as any.

I know this isn't officially a review, being unfortunately typed up a week after the film's release, but a lot of friends have already posed the what-if question to me regarding a star rating. Sigh. Hard, but it's come so tantalisingly close to a four-star rating in my book that I'll have to go ahead and say 4 instead of 3.5.

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