Ittefaq! Really well-made movie. Not the greatest movie ever, but very very well-done. Worth revisiting.
It was time for this kind of film. Not a big ambitious blockbuster, but a small interesting film with good performances and good script and good directing. And NOT a “western-style” film. Ugh, I hate that phrase!!!! Just because you take out the songs and the romance doesn’t make it “western-style”. And just because you put in a twisted plot and clever dialogue doesn’t make it not-Indian. It’s from BR Chopra films, made by BR’s grandson, and it is in the BR Chopra style. BR Chopra, Vijay Anand, even Mahesh Bhatt in some of his films. Heck, the movie itself name checks Gupt. Some of them have songs, some of them have romance, but they are all films that use a simple mystery to explore society. That is the tradition this film is from, not the “thriller” tradition of western films, but the mystery-which-is-social-drama Indian tradition.
The original Ittefaq, as I said in my review, is exploring social assumptions. Do we trust the respectable married woman? The forces of the state? Or the radical passionate young artist?
But that was Indian in 1969. India in 2017 is different. Now, the forces are class, NRI versus local, and still (always and forever) man versus woman. That is what this film is about, not “who did it”, but how people are blinded to “who did it”, only see what they want to see. Whether it is the witnesses who convinced themselves they would be interviewed on TV camera not by the police. Or Mandira Bedi (so happy to see her again!) declaring that Siddharth is too handsome to be guilty. Or the audience, coming up with our own theories as the film goes on, trying to make what we see onscreen match what we think is the answer.
What we see onscreen is really remarkable. It lives up to the heritage Yash Chopra gave in the original. It’s not showy, it’s not splashy, but it is quietly excellent. There are a few moments that stood out for me. A little thing, Akshaye entering a room while looking at his phone, and the blue light of the phone gently reflecting up on his white shirt. The rain starting over the skyline of Bombay, and then drops suddenly appearing on the camera screen. And, like the original, the use of space is phenomenal. The apartment, where we see the 3 rooms over and over. The stairs, up and down and up and down. And the police station, the holding room, the cell, the office, and the stairs again, up and down and up again. And the doorway, the place of transition, where new ideas suddenly occur and decisions are taken.
This is the other way the film is timely. It is timely because it is time for Abhay Chopra to make this movie. With his name and his connections, he could have made his first movie ten years ago. It could have been a huge thing, produced by Yash Raj (run by his cousins), starring Ranbir Kapoor (his best friend since kindergarten), and everything with a massive budget (BR Chopra films ten years ago was riding high on Baabul and Baghban money). But instead, Abhay waited. He worked as an AD for a variety of other directors, he made his own short films, he took his time. It could have been because he didn’t have the talent or vision to risk anything at a young age, that he was jockeyed into making this film by other more dominant personalities. But this film is not just well-made, it is intelligently made, there is a clear mental power behind it, an intelligent force creating it. Abhay proved himself and more. He certainly could have made a good movie even earlier. But instead he waited until he could make a great movie.
A great practical movie. It’s a rich world of characters, and wonderful actors embody them. Akshaye Khanna in particular is predictably the best part of the film. Siddharth Malhotra is surprisingly good. Sonakshi is acceptable. But beyond those 3, the rest of the cast is similarly brilliant. But they are not famous actors. Not expensive actors who drive up the budget and make the schedule that much more complex with the only advantage being a tiny bump in publicity. It’s a world with wonderful sets perfectly used. But only a few sets. The whole movie is just plain clever that way. It never feels cheap, and yet it is. It was built to be cheap, to be practical, to be cautious.
And now is the time for that. After a depressing several months at the box office, it is time for a small clever film that will make back it’s budget and then some, get people talking, get people remembering what it was like to come to a movie and enjoy themselves. And it is time for BR Chopra Films to come back. Movies about class and society and men and women and a lot more than silly slogans and superficial romances. Movies that make you think, not just feel.
Whole plot in three paragraphs:
We open with a car chase and a crash. Siddharth stumbles out of his car and runs away, ducking into an apartment complex. Then we move to watching the police, they are trying to set up a police cordon, and then start searching each nearby building. While they are talking to a guard, a woman suddenly runs down and stops their car, then directs them up to her apartment where they find Siddharth standing over a body. Siddharth is arrested and detective Akshaye Khanna is called in. Akshaye talks Siddharth, and then to Sonakshi, and to the old man who has already filed a case against Akshaye for causing the suicide of his daughter, and various other witnesses. He puts together a story of it all. Siddharth is a writer, his first hit book was based on the true story of a rape victim. His next book failed, but this third one is selling well partly because of buzz around the release of the name of the rape victim the first book was based on. After her name was released, she killed herself. Siddharth says it was his wife, the white British publisher, who leaked the name to help him. They were seen arguing because he was angry with her for doing it. He came back to their hotel room to find her in the bathroom, dead, with a head wound. He called the police, who seemed to suspect him, he panicked and ran away, stumbling away from his car crash to Sonakshi’s apartment. She listened to his story and offered to help, said that her husband was a lawyer, if he just stayed a little longer her husband would be home and could help. Siddharth believes that her husband was already dead and he was being set up all along. Sonakshi’s version is that he burst in and held her hostage, forced her to have a drink with him, to send away the maid. And when her husband finally came home, he fought with him, she ran out the door and grabbed the police, and when they came back, her husband was already dead.
Akshaye investigates further and finds more data, including photos from a private investigator of Sonakshi and another man. Sonakshi was having an affair with her husband’s colleague and friend. Siddharth explains that he showed up later, Sonakshi pretended he was her husband, but Siddharth realized the truth, the man attacked him and knocked him out, he woke up to find a dead body next to him and the police coming in. Sonakshi says she was having an affair, her husband caught them earlier that evening, they fought, he left. Her boyfriend came back later that night but did not come in, she warned him away with Siddharth holding her at knife point. The affair is unrelated to the murder of her husband. But Akshaye finally finds the evidence that proves her guilt and the guilt of her boyfriend, clean shoes on her husband’s body meaning he did not leave the house alive after the rain started. Siddharth is exonerated of his wife’s death as well, she died from her heart condition, hitting her head as she fell. Siddharth and Akshaye have a heart to heart about his feelings of guilt, the body is released to him and he cremates her, then prepares to leave the country.
At which point Akshaye stumbles on the final evidence, the heart pills were doctored, Siddharth had killed his wife. He tries to stop Siddharth on the way out of the country, Siddharth calls him and explains, now that it is too late to stop him. He had leaked the name of the rape victim, his wife found out and was horrified and ready to go to the police. He started poisoning her then, waiting for her to die. But while he was talking to the police, her phone that he had stolen got a message, he saw it was from a lawyer she was working with who had all the proofs and would make sure he was punished. He ran, planning to get to Sonakshi’s house all along to kill her husband, the lawyer. He held her hostage not by coincidence, but so he could look through the papers in her husband’s office for the proof. And to wait for her husband to get home. Once her husband was home, he killed him, switched shoes, and made sure the police would find the photos from the private investigator of the affair, photos he found while searching the death. And then he played on Akshaye’s sympathy to make sure his wife got a quick cremation before the lab reports were final. And now he is strolling away, back to London, where they will not let him be extradited without a massive push and much more evidence.
It’s a brilliant brilliant movie. Not because of the twists (although they are wonderful as well), but because of what it reveals about society. Let’s take, for instance, Sonakshi. She is a faithless wife. A beautiful rich woman who does nothing useful. We hate her, naturally. She is even played in a way to make us hate her. I don’t know if they purposefully cast an actress who tends to be a bit false, or if she was directed to be that way, but either way it works! Sonakshi keeps seeming slightly “off” somehow. Too perfect in her protestations of innocence, too delicate with her little griefs.
The styling helps as well. Her make-up and her hair is slightly too much, overly fake, hair that is never that straight, make-up that is too dark and false. It’s unpleasant to see, the mind shies away from this much falsehood. Her clothes too, loose and casual, but also thin and sexy, hard to get a handle on them, hard to understand the message she wants to send. We naturally dislike and distrust her.
And we are never really supposed to “like” her. She is never redeemed by the film, there is never a moment when she suddenly appears more real, her make-up is wiped off, anything like that. Yes, she had an affair. Yes, she is an unpleasant selfish person. But that doesn’t mean she is guilty of anything. And it doesn’t mean she “deserved” what happened to her. It doesn’t even mean that her grief is fake, that she didn’t truly love her husband.
The film gives us the same challenge over and over again. Especially with men versus women. We don’t like Sonakshi, because she is faithless and false. And we don’t like Siddharth’s wife because she is white, she is rich, and she is foreign. But does that mean we should not believe them?
When the trailer came out, I rolled my eyes quite a bit at that glimpse of Siddharth’s dead white wife. Yet another disposable white woman, personality-less, thrown in just to make the film look “cool”. But no!!! She HAS to be white. The relationship of an NRI to a white woman is what this whole thing was about.
Akshaye is our audience stand-in, the one who is torn between all these stories as are we. And he makes an immediate connection with Siddharth because they speak the same language, literally and metaphorically. Siddharth may have been raised abroad, but he speaks good Hindi. Well, “Hinglish”. When the police first come for him, the constables use Hindi slang and make fun of his English, joke that he will be speaking Marathi by the time they are through with him. But Akshaye is different, Akshaye reads English language books and moves between English and Hindi as easily as Siddharth. They are the same class, the same intelligence. And the same gender.
When Akshaye looks at Sonakshi, he sees her as “false” because her reactions and emotions are not what he would feel. He resists seeing her as the simple “grieving widow”, knowing enough to see that her simple grief is false, but he is also not capable of fully understanding and appreciating the layers of what else she is feeling besides grief. But that does not mean she is lying, it just means she is a woman and he is a man.
We see that over and over, the gap between genders in this way. Akshaye and his wife Mandira Bedi have a delightful happy healthy marriage, but it involves him appreciating how often her remarks surprise him, and vice versa. They know they are not the same and enjoy that. The suicide victim and her father have a similar gap between them. He cannot help her, cannot fully understand the damage that “sympathy” is doing to her. And she cannot explain it to him.
(Also, Mandira Bedi is really good in the film. And looks great with short hair! I like to think it is Preeti from DDLJ, who moved to Bombay, cut her hair, and met and married this cool outside the box thinker husband)
That is what throws Siddharth into confusion, when he is not able to predict his own wife. He is surprised that she sides with the suicide victim. She places gender loyalty, and loyalty to the right thing, over loyalty to her husband or the chasm between culture and experiences and everything else that separates her and the suicide victim. This is perhaps the first time he has been surprised by a woman, or by anyone. We see in a flashback from the perspective of the suicide victim’s father, how he first entered their life. Sweet, kind, trustworthy, told them he wanted to tell her story in order to help others. And then once he had it, he did not even seem to know them, walked passed them on the street. A manipulator. But he cannot manipulate his own wife.
His wife, who is the owner of the publishing company that is publishing his book. Presumably another woman he has used in the years past. And now he cannot use her any more, she has surprised him, he is driven to the wall and forced to try a desperate stratagem. He is just as desperate with Sonakshi, resorting to pure violence to control her. Man’s ultimate weapon, physical strength over women. But once he is arrested and placed with Akshaye, he can recover. He knows this enemy, he knows how to direct his mind in the way he chooses, to use their shared prejudices to his advantage.
It’s not just gender, it is also class. Our constable characters are purposefully disgusting. We first see the police in the person of “Tembe”, the laziest lowest stupidest of them all. Over the course of the film, he sleeps on duty, he steals food, he jokes with the private detective about being able to watch his own private sex show, he is gross. We don’t want to think of being like him, we (the audience) want to be like Akshaye. And Akshaye, in the film, doesn’t want to be like him either, wants to be like Siddharth. So when Siddharth says he was afraid, because Tembe told him 95% of the time it is the husband who kills the wife and they will question him, Akshaye (and the audience) sympathizes with him.
(You also want to be like Akshaye because Akshaye is super cool)
It’s easy to relate to the well-spoken intelligent handsome upperclass man. Easier than to the false woman, or all the lowerclasses who leap to assuming guilt based on silly things like “it’s always the husband”. And so he is the one we come to like, just like Akshaye does.
When he cremates his wife, it is a lovely moment of the native returning home. He may have lived overseas, but we can believe he is now returning to his roots. He has given up his white wife, chosen the poor Indian woman suicide victim over her. And now he is cremating her, finding peace in his traditional identity. It is easy to think that he is good at heart, it was all that foreign travel, white wife, that was what ruined him.
But he is using ALL OF THIS!!!! Siddharth is gently indicating to Akshaye that he is the only one he can trust, the two of them are “better” than the other police. That the two of them are honest and straightforward, unlike the scheming women around them. The two of them are Indians together, with the same sense of values and morality and everything else. He is tricking Akshaye and the audience is listening in and being tricked as well.
And the film isn’t cheating us. There are little clues there all along, a head wound that had to be made by a taller man which is never fully explained. A fresh blister indicating shoes that don’t fit. That moment of turning away from the suicide victim before her death which isn’t fully explained by his argument of putting it all on his wife. It is on the audience if we ignored those clues.
Like Akshaye, when we realize the “truth”, it is not just a matter of solving this mystery, it is a matter of confronting our own weaknesses that were taken advantage of. Our assumption that the wealthy white woman had less conscience than the sincere nice young desi author. Our assumption that a wife who cheats on her husband could just as easily kill him and seduce and frame someone else to take the blame. Our assumption that the lower class disgusting police officers must be wrong in their belief that a husband always kills a wife. We were taken in by the false values of society, placing those values over the truth. Embracing the fantasy, the “coincidence”, because it was easier. Even though the evidence was right in front of us.
That is the true point of the film. To make us look into ourselves and question how often in life we believe the story rather than the truth, because it is convenient, because it is easy, because it makes us feel like we are on the “right” side.