Johnny Gaddar has been mischaracterized as a "thriller" a bit too often for my liking. It just isn't one. What it is, is a product of pulp and the sort of sensibility that characterized the "small film" of the 1970s, dressed up in contemporary multiplex garb; and director Sriram Raghavan pays overt homage to both parents by means of multiple shots and references to the James Hadley Chase novel The Whiff of Money, and 1971's Parwana, another film featuring a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. That is, one would do well to take seriously the repeated shots of Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh) reading the Chase novel, for they illustrate an important distinction between the world of Parwana and that of Johnny Gaddar: in the older film, Kumar (Amitabh Bachchan at his lankiest) murders a man he is fond of, and frames a rival, for the sake of love. Johnny Gaddar on the other hand is set in a world where, as the film's title song urges, zindagi jua hai khel yaar. . . matlab hai bas asli yaar. In a word, the protagonists of the film, Vikram, Seshadri (Dharmendra), Shardul (Zakir Hussain), Prakash (Vinay Pathak), Shiva (Daya Shetty), and Kalyan (Govind Namdeo) are all after money. Specifically the money from a planned deal that goes missing after one of their own decides to make off with all of it instead of a one-fifth share. This is not to suggest that the film's characters aren't susceptible to the tug of heartstrings -- they are, as Vikram's love for Mini (Rimi Sen), Prakash's affectionate relationship with his wife (Ashwini Khalsekar), and Seshadri's wistfulness for his departed (or dead) wife, attest. But virtually every such relationship in Johnny Gaddar is compromised by lies or violence (Seshadri's isn't, but then his wife is, fittingly, not around, and we only hear her on tapes from long ago, in a sentimental evocation of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape). It takes no genius to figure out that these folks are headed to a Very Bad End indeed.
Sriram Raghavan is what I would call a fan of the Little Film. Not in the esoteric, "I've seen more movies than you ever will" way that Quentin Tarantino incarnates, but in the sense that for Raghavan, the spirit of the film industry he clearly loves so much appears to reside in the marginal, yet accessible, film that the 1970s produced in greater measure than perhaps any other decade. This vision was intermittently discernible in Raghavan's first film, Ek Hasina Thi, and thoroughly informs his latest offering -- which offers a far more consistent narrative (although somewhat less virtuosity) than Raghavan's previous film -- from the film's title (in Hindi and Urdu no less!) to the role sheer luck plays in the plot's twists and turns, to the somewhat moralistic ending. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable two-hour ride, and a lean, focused film without much fat, and one that deserves a larger theatrical audience than it has received.
A film like Johnny Gaddar rises or falls with its cast, and the film does not disappoint on this front. Dharmendra is wonderfully evocative in his brief role as an ageing racketeer, and Govind Namdeo memorably brings a lifetime of experience playing baddies to his role as a corrupt and thoroughly nasty cop determined to find out who the ghaddar of the film's title is. But the film's most impressive performances come from Zakir Husain, Vinay Pathak, and Ashwini Khalsekar, playing the sort of "character" roles that typically get only a few minutes in the typical star-logged Hindi film. Here, however, the "character" actors are the main event, and seem to relish the spotlight, pithily etching vivid character sketches, each reminiscent of characters we have seen before, yet fresh for all that. Neil Nitin Mukesh performs creditably on debut, and did enough to make me want to see more of him -- having said that, I couldn't shake the feeling that his role required more verve and experience, and I found myself missing Saif Ali Khan's stylishness, not to mention his ability to effortlessly summon up ruthlessness on-screen. Rimi Sen's role does not have much scope, but reminds us that she is too good to be relegated exclusively to the likes of Golmaal, Dhoom or Phir Hera Pheri (the sequence where she scrawls 2,50,00,000 on a bathroom mirror with her lipstick - then rubs out the "2" - is the pick of her scenes, revealing a wistful whimsicality that is too fragile to portend happiness in this film). Perhaps dropping an "m" will help.
Perhaps all such "retro" films run the risk of pointlessness, as it isn't always clear what purpose is served by the constant allusiveness, the conjuring of tropes from years past. This is as true of Raghavan as it is of Tarantino or the Rohan Sippy of Bluffmaster!, yet the criticism, while valid, might miss the broader point. Films like Johnny Gaddar aren't so much about the stories they tell as about cinema itself, about the extent to which who we are and what we do is post-cinematic: stated crudely, had there been no Parwana, the lives of the protagonists in Johnny Gaddar would have turned out very differently (though perhaps no "better"). Cinema, that is to say, does not simply entertain us; it conditions us, insinuates itself into our dreams, and determines who we are, and who we can be (although it has virtually no power to make us "better" or "worse"). In the face of this reality, more importantly the wilfull forgetting entailed by a paradigm that views films as merely consumable and/or diversionary, the Raghavans of the world might be seen as taking it upon themselves to remind us that after cinema, even our dreams and pathologies are no longer our own. And if Raghavan, in playing it "straight", misses the humor and the ironies of other filmmakers who have gone down this path, possibly laying himself open to the charge of indulging in tricked up nostalgia and nothing more, one can nevertheless forgive his directness, because at least it is uncompromised by the sort of cleverness that might have dissipated the point even as it led to a superior film. And what could be less Bollywood than that?