A movie is not a clothesline: It needs to have much more than a hook.
R. Balki’s latest, Chup, does have a great hook though. A serial killer murdering…film critics, carving stars on their foreheads. No murder is same as the previous. One critic is killed in his house, the other on the railway tracks, the third on a cricket ground. Not all of them are murdered for panning a film, either. The fourth critic is killed because he praised a mediocre film.
Most critics I know, including me, wonder and worry about the lack of readers. Writers are like dogs: We love attention. And here they get a reader so discerning that he’s become a serial killer. Trust me: many critics would kill for getting murdered.
The hunt for the serial killer runs parallel to another story. A young florist (Dulquer Salman), “Danny” (not his real name, but saying anything more would be a spoiler) meets an entertainment reporter, Nila (Shreya Dhanwanthary). Danny is eccentric; he talks to himself. The film justifies his behaviour later, but this ‘device’ – anything kooky can be a device (or metaphor) – simply doesn’t work, for it seems clichéd and explanatory, almost always telling us what to feel.
The narrative cross-cutting elicits initial intrigue, but it’s later undercut by the bland investigative track. Even when the dead bodies start to pile, Chup lacks palpable dread, suspense, and urgency. The investigating cop, Arvind (Sunny Deol), is a flat conception; the actor’s insipid performance makes him flatter. His sleuthing is so basic – yet carries an air of self-congratulatory significance – that it feels like reading Nancy Drew on the left page and Hercule Poirot on the right.
So, you shrug and try to engage with the Danny-Nila segment. No such luck, for Balki’s utter inability and bizarre reluctance to stay with an original moment dilutes any shred of promise. Whenever you feel that they’re about to share something specific, Balki plays a Guru Dutt song (Jaane Kya Tune Kahi). Not just the song, though, it also plays as a background score. Not just the song and the background score, we even get a small scene, where Dutt keeps a jacket on Waheeda Rahman’s shoulders, like Danny does on Nila. Yes, we get it, sir, that you’re paying tribute to a great filmmaker – the movie literally begins with that line – but there’s a difference between fan and fawn.
The embarrassing servility persists. Dutt on the left, Amitabh Bachchan on the right. The second disclaimer card – for no good reason – reads: “110 years of Hindi cinema, 80 years of Amitabh Bachchan” followed by a request that the song at the end is composed by the star, so please stick around. Wedding cards sound less desperate. Balki’s Bachchan love is no secret. He, after all, made an entire movie on it, even forcing a bizarre Bachchan cameo in Ki & Ka. We get something similar here. Bachchan appears as himself before the release of a drama called Third Umpire, commenting on the recent death of a critic, saying why film criticism is important (but, of course, preceding it with a line that says “box office” matters more).
The Dutt obsession is worse. Balki goes on and on – and on and on – about Dutt as if he’s championing an obscure or a controversial director.
Chup may like to believe that it understands, even respects, film criticism, but it doesn’t.
In one scene, there’s a hard implication that Dutt killed himself because critics panned his last “most personal” piece, Kaagaz Ke Phool. Balki almost seems to be saying that some films – such as Pyaasa or Kaagaz Ke Phool – are above criticism. Let me then say this straight: No movie, no matter how reputed, is insulated to well-informed criticism. These scenes indicate that Balki is marking his turf, issuing diktats, and still feeling insecure.
That mindset also informs the filmmaking style. When Danny gifts Nila paper flowers on her birthday, you admire the ingenuity: Ah, Kaagaz Ke Phool. But no, it must be repeated again and again, in subsequent dialogues, till you get it. Or that stretch where all murders appear in detailed flashbacks, barely adding anything new.
Or the Bachchan and Dutt fixation (right till the end where a character stretches his arms like that iconic scene in Pyaasa). Or that moment of ‘bro cinephallicia’: a small board declaring “Woody Allen is innocent” in Nila’s living room which, tucked in a corner when it first appears, recurs in two more scenes, becoming bigger and bigger, as if rubbing itself with childish glee, asking, “Did you notice how edgy I am?” Then checking: “Did you?” Then pleading: “You did, no?”
The final attempted murder makes so little sense – exacerbated by a distracting background score – that it feels like it was retrieved from a Word file named Outtakes_RandomIdeas.docx. But more importantly, Chup lacks an expansive idea.
Just like how not all story ideas translate into a book – some can be magazine pieces – in the same way, this movie befits a click-bait listicle (punctuated by Guru Dutt GIFs). That explains the needless repetitions, because Balki doesn’t have much to say. We find out the killer’s identity around the first hour mark; the mystery then is the motivation.
Take a wild guess: Who would want to kill a film critic and why? It is that basic a movie, which keeps relying on a series of weak crutches that weaken it further: an expert in analysing psychopaths (a mediocre Pooja Bhatt) saying the most obvious things, a formulaic sob story of the killer (shot in as dull a fashion), the clunky depiction of his unhinged mind – it’s a long list.
I did enjoy its humour though. There’s a legit funny track featuring paranoid critics giving good reviews to sub-standard films. The banter between Nila and her snarky blind mother (Saranya Ponvannan) lands well every time. The movie revels in sharp wordplay: “Thank your stars, tum abhi tak critic nahin ho”, “situation itna critical hai”, “killer script”, and a few more.
But when it comes to the main meat, Chup barely surprises or moves you. Because this shallow disingenuous film says one thing, shows something else. For all its grandiloquent claims of ‘saving cinema’, it can’t even save itself.
Featured image: A still from R. Balki’s ‘Chup’.
This article was first published on The Wire.