Stylistic movies in Bollywood are derivative. In other words, the breath of fresh air that they are supposed to bring ends up smelling a lot like something you'd encounter in Chembur. You may appreciate being in a new neighborhood but the scenery is familiar.
Be that as it may, in one of the previews I saw a character clutch a James Hadley Chase book - quite prominently. And having grown up a steady diet of the sheer pulpy decadence of those books, I couldn't resist watching the movie.
Johny Gaddaar is a double-cross caper. Its got a tricky script - a series of stacked coincidences power it that could easily have run the film aground. But a couple of things save it and end up making it a fairly entertaining ride.
First, director Sriram Raghavan (Ek Hasina Thi) develops the characters of his supporting cast with care and wit. He stages his scenes with a scattershot urgency - he can't seem to keep his characters or his camera still. Its reminiscent of the early days of Robert Rodriguez, back when Rodriguez had less faith in his talent. But Raghavan's ability to distill the humor from the sheer incredulity of the situation serves him very well. He has much fun with Dharmendra's aging smuggler Seshadri who Raghavan presents as a tough as nails crook with a lyrical heart.
All through Raghavan wears his love for movies like a badge - constantly referencing many in this film. The meat of the caper comes from a 1971 Amitabh Bachchan starrer called Parwana. The titular character's name is picked up from an old Dev Anand flick. The funniest one of all is when Dharmendra mutters "Its not the age, its the mileage" an oft-recounted line from this ground breaking film.
Second is the performance of Neil Nitin Mukesh. Its hard to say - without more data points - if Mukesh found the character or the role just found him. But his deadpan rendition of Vikram, aka Johny Gaddaar, goes a long way in holding up the credibility of the movie.
How so? This is a movie where deception lurks at every corner. And most of it is engineering by Vikram. Vikram manages to convince people close to him that he isn't a suspect. If Mukesh had tried to visibly milk any moral conflict out of a scene, you'd have wondered why his friends and associates couldn't see through him. (His costar Rimi Sen misses this point in a key scene in a restaurant and ends up jeopardizing it)
But instead Mukesh brings an easy zen blankness to the role - Vikram is opportunistic and seems to have a conscience that is easily (and repeatedly) overridden. But his actions are guided by a part of him that you can't fully fathom. This inability to grasp the character and the full complement of his motivation is fairly central to the success of the movie.
One final word on Johny Gaddaar - it has got patches of very gritty violence. I'm usually fairly wimpy about it - especially when its directed at women or children (and there is some of the former here), but I wasn't unduely horrified. Your tolerance - however - may wary.
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