I already put up my No Spoilers review, and this film is such a fun ride, I encourage you to read that one and leave this one until after you have watched it. Unless you can’t handle violence, can’t handle thrillers, or for some other reason will never be able to watch this movie.
Whole Plot in Two Paragraphs:
Ayushmann is a blind pianist, living in an NGO in Pune and practicing for a big competition and trying to raise money to go to it. Radhike Apte bumps into him on the street, feels bad and buys him coffee, then hires him to play at her father’s popular Pune bar. He is a big hit, and he and Radhike slowly get closer and start to fall in love. But, the audience learns ten minutes into the movie, he isn’t actual blind. He removes the fake contacts he has been using in order to see Radhike for real and never puts them back in. Meanwhile, Tabu is married to Anil Dhawan, an much older former film star. She seems possibly bored with him, but it is hard to read her. Anil hires Ayushmann to come play piano for them, Ayushmann goes to their house and Tabu doesn’t want to let him in, but finally does when she notices the lady across the hall watching. Ayushmann sees Anil’s dead body on the floor but doesn’t react. And he still doesn’t react when he watches Tabu clean up and her boyfriend Manav Vij stuff the body in a suitcase and take it out. He leaves safely, and immediately goes to the police, where he learns that Manav is a police inspector. He has no other choice but to commit to his fake blindness even though he is torn by guilt. The neighbor tells the police she remembers seeing another man go into the apartment, and Tabu kills her by throwing her off a balcony, coincidentally just as Ayushmann arrives for a piano lesson for her daughter. Ayushmann decides to tell Radhike everything, but while he is waiting for her, Tabu comes to his house and tries to catch him in a lie, seemingly fails, and then he realizes she has poisoned him and he collapses on the floor seemingly dead. INTERVAL
Post interval, Radhike has come to the house. And Tabu answers the door wrapped in a blanket to show her passed out Ayushmann laying on the bed naked and confesses that she turned to Ayushmann for comfort in her grief. Radhike is furious, especially because the little boy who lives in the building just showed her proof that Ayushmann isn’t blind. Ironically, Ayushmann wakes up to discover he IS blind. Ayushmann escapes only to land with a team of organ harvesters. He buys them off by promising even more money for blackmailing Tabu and Manav. They kidnap Tabu and trick her into confessing while they record it, and then they call Manav and arrange the money exchange. Tabu is left tied up in the organ clinic, but Ayushmann is surprised and tied up by his conspirators too. Tabu convinces him to work with her so they can both escape. But it is a trick, she tries to kill him just as the doctor is arriving. Ayushmann and the doctor manage to pacify her and throw her in the back of his car. And then the doctor reveals that Tabu is a perfect match for a rare blood type, he can sell her liver for millions to a Sheikh who’s young daughter is dying. He can harvest her corneas at the same time and restore Ayushmann’s sight. And cut Ayushmann in for some of the money. Ayushmann has qualms, says this is wrong. And then we jump forward two years. Radhike is traveling in Europe and sees a sign for Ayushmann singing in a bar. He sings a song about her, and she goes up to him afterwards. He offers to take her out for coffee and tell her the whole story. And then he tells her the end, that the doctor stopped the car to check the trunk, Tabu killed him and came around to the driver’s seat herself without Ayushmann realizing. He continued his argument to save her life, and so she let him go. And then in a random coincidence, a stray bullet from a farmer trying to shoot a rabbit hit the car and killed Tabu. Radhike is impressed with the whole story and indicates she might be willing to see Ayushmann again. And then he strolls away, casually kicking an empty can out of the way with his cane, leaving open the question of whether he is blind or not and whether the ending he told Radhike is true, or did he take Tabu’s corneas and the money.
There is a lot that happens! Far more than I could include in that summary, at least not all the details of it. But none of it, ultimately, means much. There is no justice, no truth, no love or beauty in this world to be saved. Ayushmann is not a very heroic hero. And Tabu is not a very villainous villain. Even Radhike isn’t a completely innocent innocent. The film looks at this characters from a slight distance and invites us to see them the same way, from a slight and slightly cynical distance. For instance, there is a moment during their courtship when Radhike and Ayushmann are caught in the rain and she asks to borrow a shirt to change into. Thinking he is blind, she begins to change in front of him and he gets a glimpse of her undressed. This is almost the exact same scene as in Baadshah, and I am sure many other movies, where the hero pretends to be blind and catches a forbidden look. What is different is that a moment later the film flips it, Radhike sneaks up on Ayushmann changing in his bedroom, clearly intentionally in order to get a glimpse of him without him being aware she is there. The message is clear, don’t assume anyone is innocent, and don’t assume an advantage cannot be turned into a disadvantage a moment later.
This is also a very cleverly built film for the way it doesn’t directly tell us who is good or bad and leaves it to us to fill in the clues. And fill in when they are lying. In the same conversation where Tabu declares that her husband shot himself by accident, Ayushmann declares that he was pretending to be blind as an artistic experiment. Only, that doesn’t fit with our knowledge that Ayushmann was getting his apartment for 500 rupees a month thanks to his “blindness”, or that Tabu worked awfully hard to cover up her husband’s death. A close watcher of the film learns to put together their own clues and see through the characters’ lies.
The great genius of it though is in the interval flip, one of the all time greatest uses of the two part structure of Indian film. In the first half, the twists come because Ayushmann is a man who can see that everyone thinks is blind. In the second half, the twists come because Ayushmann is now blind in reality. And at the end, we aren’t sure if it is one or the other.
It’s also a great way for Sriram to have the best of both worlds. He came up with this brilliant concept of a man pretending to be blind witnessing a murder and now having to absolutely convince the murderers that he is blind. And then he gave it a slow build, seeing that Ayushmann practiced his blindness with fake opaque contact lenses for months before love and temptation made him remove them, seeing all the little advantages he enjoys and tricks he plays, before finally the greatest challenge to his poker face, wandering into this murder scene. And then all the variations of this trap, Ayushmann can’t tell the police the truth because they think he is blind, and he can’t let the murderers think he ISN’T blind. He is torn by fear and guilt, and the mindgames between him and Tabu escalate as she tries to find evidence that he isn’t blind after all.
But then there is the challenge of actual blindness. Being trapped in a room just because you can’t see well enough to find the door. Unable to see that your hostage is escaping. Unable to see that the wrong person got in the car with you. This structure lets Sriram have both at once, with the added complication that a few people think Ayushmann is still faking even when it is now true.
(Sriram and Ayushmann also did some real research for this, visiting a home for the blind. Ayushmann does a wonderful job, especially contrasting the sighted man wearing opaque contacts versus the sighted man pretending not to see, versus the man who is actually dealing with the shock of blindness)
The interval flip and all of Sriram’s little games are clever, but they only work because of the cast. Ayushmann plays his usual friendly every man type, but with a bit of a darker edge, someone who is just pretending to be an every man in order to achieve his own ends. Radhike plays something completely new for her, bubbly and kind of charming and innocent in her own way. Intelligent, modern, all of that like usual. But also a little smile-y and silly when around the boy she has a crush on. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, everyone from Manav Vij’s nagging wife to Tabu’s dead husband. But it is Tabu that really stands out.
At first, she appears to be just the some what bored aging actress wife of an even more aging star. And then when the murder happens, we see her as an anxious woman who is thinking fast under pressure. And clearly in charge of her muscle-bound boyfriend, there is a wonderful moment when she signals that she wants the watch from the body, and he unzips the suitcase just enough to pull out the hand, she takes the watch and then struggles for the ring, he reaches out and snaps the finger out of rigor in order to get the ring and then hands it to her like a little love offering, and she practically rolls her eyes at him. Even in this moment of high drama, she has the time to be frustrated with the slowness of those around her.
As the film goes on, we realize that we should never think we can predict Tabu, or understand her. She is driven by fear and selfishness and her own crazy impulses, there is no planning and that is what makes her dangerous. And that is what makes Ayushmann able to defeat her, because he falls into that himself, his constant need to improvise drives him to the same unpredictable place she is in, she never would have expected him to escape Manav, be captured by another gang, and then turn them into allies. In the same way, he didn’t expect that she would trick him into removing her blindfold just so she could cut herself free and try to kill him.
That’s what keeps us watching, the cat and mouse game between the two, what begins as a bad woman versus a classic Hitchockian “man who knew too much” becomes two amoral slightly insane individuals locked in a crazy duet.
That’s what makes the suggestion that Ayushmann helped kill Tabu after all and took her corneas so as to restore his sight so tempting. Because it makes it literal that what we have been seeing all along, Ayushmann has started to see the world the way Tabu does, created for him and all the people in it merely playthings.