4 stars out of 5 (Excellent)

Director : Bejoy Nambiar

Hindi (English subtitles available), 2011

Shaitan, for those who are not familiar with this Islamic nomenclature, connotes the devil. The devil may stun in its pure cinematic form ("The Exorcist","The Grey Zone" or even "Irreversible") and its insidious version reveals its subtle clutches when admixed in seemingly "okay" people - like many Indian film producers or like the characters in "Shaitan". A teenage girl is so drugged out that she mocks a victim of sexual assault...a police constable lets his pathetic salary serve as an excuse for being an accessory to murder and goes on to savagely serve up blackmail....a society which will excuse all crime as long as palms are adequately greased. The devil may also lie in the detail- when a girl in the film is pointed towards the degenerate ways of her boyfriend and asked what appeal she finds in him, she says" I find myself in him". Director Bejoy Nambiar tailors a tale of ruptured conscience which allows all these transgressions to swirl in a stylized thriller. Five friends, blown into rotten bohemia by their parents’ wealth and psychotropic drugs, descend into a vicious spiral of accident and crime. They try to come out of it, but they are undone by the fact they were made bold not by brains but by inherited money.

At the start, their celebratory abandon is shown in full-blast: rapturous frolic in the pool, sniffing cocaine, lounging in bars, gunning around town in a Hummer, and a power-waltz into the sea with a yacht. This gang of five, three of them from a rich background, are comprised by three young men Karan, Dushyant and Zubi, while the girls are Tanya and Amy (Amritha). They proceed to grab the fountain of youth and hose themseves silly. There is of course nothing wrong with this behaviour - except that one ought to remember the brakes when riding such bandwagons. However, except for condoms (perhaps), they don’t seem to care much for any other thing of caution. 

 We have seen excellently directed "group of urban youth" movies before - DCH (Dil Chatha Hai) and RDB (Rang De Basanthi) - but their themes were different. Shaitan becomes the anti-DCH movie, the counter-RDB film.

The casting of the brat-pack is a bulls-eye hit by itself - all five of them deliver carefully calibrated performances and their characters’ respective behaviours conform naturally to the kind of personalities they are steadily shown to be. There might have been a sensitive, caring and intelligent girl in Amy ( Kalki Koechlin ) but that ideal core is burned in the still smouldering fumes of childhood trauma that she repeatedly relives, and which is exacerbated by her escapist coke-snorting. She tumbles into a kind of Alice in Wonderland with her new-found group, sinks into a psychedelic horror-haze and loses all vestiges of sympathy for her terror-stricken friends.The radiant joy that her young face glows with in the early stages,is potently contrasted with the burnt-out shell in the end. AKFPL films have a knack of eliciting brilliant acting from Koechlin.  As Tanya, Kirti Kulhari displays nuanced acting - watch her innocently playful expressions as she asks for strawberry, apricot and kalla-khatta-flavoured condoms from a blushing pharmacist. 

Shiv Pandit has a handsome young face which sometimes sports a glint of sly intelligence (cf. Tamil actor Siddharth). He ably enacts Dushyant, a drug-dealing hustler who doesn’t have the wealth of his friends and yet holds his own. And then there’s the frank evil which jumps unpredictably from the intensely charged performance of Gulshan Devaiah. Playing Karan Chaudhary, a rich brat prone to brutal outbursts, he may very well represent the title’s hidden essence. Emboldened by his father’s wealth and his own good looks, he dives with wolf-like fervour into Bombay’s moneyed playgrounds. Whether it is leaping half-naked from balconies after servicing married women, sobering down to placate a cop or gleefully beating a man’s face to pulp, he powerfully embodies the edgy animal that prowls glitzy jungles. 

As the fiery young cop, who’d rather tear into his targets rather than burn his self-respect, Rajeev Khandelwal is in tightly coiled form. His first scene, shot in POV style with an escalation that ends shockingly, is the stuff of wolf-whistles, complete with the final shot that stylishly reveals his face. He essays Arvind Mathur- an inspector who assaults amoral corporators among others, and risks losing his job owing to his righteous rage. To add fuel to fire, his marriage is on the rocks and his nerves are on the edge when he is commanded to instantly present himself before the commissioner, in order to crack a case the complexities of which intensify by the minute. Hours slide by, the under-pressure commissioner is breathing down his neck, the case sprouts a new twist every now and then, two gorillas wait for him with machine guns, he will have to complete a marathon chase through slums, railway station, festival throngs, bylanes.... Mathur, it steadily seems, is destined to get the full load of sadistic love from what is known as Maximum City. Keenly handling both the rare moment of inadvertent comedy and overall asphalt-tough attitude, Khandelwal is always in top gear . Check out his dead-pan wallop, especially when he gifts the Indian kick-ass cop treatment to an accused youth who asks for his lawyer, or to a Bombay auto-wallah who refuses to go to Vasai.

I had hoped that this pic would redeem itself by a relentless depiction of a flashing netherworld, but even the full kick of that infernal chill was denied to me. A film like this is powered by the strength of its disaster, not by mitigation. I hoped for an ascension into hell, like that unstoppable trip in "Requiem for a Dream", but ’Shaitan’ skids short because of a pull on the bridle of imagination. That giant leap of inspiration and poignancy which can lurk in the climax is missing, but things are redeemed to an extent by a ’run into the arms’ sequence that cleverly mirrors and cracks the suspense from a hazy event of the past. 

It needs to be noted nonetheless that Shaitan does have its doses of pure wickedness. At a crucial juncture in the story, when we anticipate doors to be heroically broken down and honour to be salvaged at the last minute, the script chooses to slickly buck expectations and split craftily into two tracks. Employing slow-motion action choreography, whose orgiastic style is further enhanced by a satiny lounge-remix of the vintage ’Khoya Khoya Chand’, the film intercuts one sequence of escape from a terrace, with a shoot-out in a cramped room. It may not guarantee a ’wow’ from the Wachowski brothers or Park-Chan Wook but it certainly brings a voluptuous lyricism to all the hectic action. Couple this with the intoxicating goofiness and slyly sophisticated instrumentation of that ’Bartender’ remix and you have a absolute blast of a sequence that comes close to narrative genius.

Musically, there’s some good fun to groove to. That afore-mentioned remix of the Burman-Rafi 1960s original  takes the black-forest. The chilled-out beats and bohemian rhythms of ’Josh’ again become more effective when heard as background for the visuals that show the group painting the town red. ’Hawa-hawai’ - a modern doff of beach-hat to the 1980s number,with its languid impishly sung vocals and cheery intrumentation, is also an audio-visual hoot.

Ranjit Barot, a sincere composer who superbly jazzed up Anu Malik’s music for 'Ashoka' and 'Aks', and composed the terrific ’Mere Watan’ for 'Fiza', indulges in overkill here. The background music concocted by him does have its inspired moments and achieves many vivid variations and blends of Indian and Western music, but often it is unashamedly profligate.

 Be it zooming into the hedonistic revelry of the lead players, recording a car race or a man-to-man chase, snappy P.O.V shots or slow-mo visual poetry amidst the frenetic action, R Madhi's cinematography breathes zingy life into the frames of Shaitan.

It is understandable why director Bejoy Nambiar & producer Anurag Kashyap choose to ultimately go soft on this frankly ’hard’ story. ’Paanch’- Kashyap's directorial debut, which is the template film from which Shaitan is re-fashioned, never got a release from the chop of the censors who felt that it was too hard-core and would send a wrong message to Indian society. Apparently, candy-floss which lulls audiences into a false state of security is fine, but sobering doses of reality are taboo (after all, you have to give ’paisa vasool’ entertainment to our tired life-worn people). Kashyap after years of struggling to make his debut film,the story goes, slipped into depression and would aimlessly wander the streets after Paanch’s arrested delivery. Perhaps for ’Shaitaan’, he sat down with Nambiar and worked out a compromize, wherein the new script would dilute its potent poison before it got out of hand, and eventually end with roses smoothing out the graves.



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