Hindi cinema seldom makes films about unapologetically amoral characters. The protagonists in director Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan are a group of five wayward youngsters who snort cocaine, get drunk, and drive around recklessly through the streets of Mumbai. This is a group of mostly ‘poor-little-rich-kids’ who’re emotionally estranged from their families. When they mow down two innocent people in a rash-driving accident, they must come up with big money to close the case. Going to their parents is not an option; hence one of them, Amy (played by Kalki Koechlin), an NRI with unresolved mommy issues, suggests that her friends fake her kidnapping so they can demand ransom from her dad. Expectedly their plan spirals wildly out of control, and that’s when the devil inside each of them decides to rear its ugly head.
First-time-feature director Nambiar tells his story confidently and stylishly, and uses various narrative devices like voice-overs and flashbacks-within-flashbacks to keep things from getting predictable. One of the film’s most exciting sequences is a shootout and subsequent chase in a crowded chawl cut to a remixed version of the classic song Khoya khoya chand.
But Nambiar punctures the narrative repeatedly with Kalki’s visions of her mother, and those flashbacks serve no purpose but to justify and apologize for Kalki’s eccentric personality, which in turn is a disservice to the very bravura of this film. It’s hard also to connect with these characters or empathize with their condition when Nambiar seems to be putting all his effort into distracting you with his fancy technical skills.
He has more luck when he shifts his focus to the track involving the tightly wound cop (played by Rajeev Khandelwal) who remains unfalteringly committed to his job, even as his marriage is coming apart. There is a smoldering intensity to those wordless scenes in which Khandelwal watches his wife leave their home, or when he loses his patience with a bureaucratic officer in the divorce court. Khandelwal is easily this film’s biggest strength, and even his tiniest moments have something to offer – like that scene in which he kicks a resistant auto-rickshaw driver into action.
The film’s other key weapon is its remarkable soundtrack that is credited to as many as five composers. Nambiar uses music cleverly to maximize dramatic impact. Of the central cast, the three boys – Neil Bhoopalam as Zubin, Shiv Pandit as the rakishly charming Dash, and Gulshan Devaiya as KC – get a better shot than the girls at realizing their characters. But the film itself goes south post intermission, with giant loopholes in the plot and repetitive scenes, not to mention that cop-out climax. What could have been a terrific, thrilling film is ultimately an impressive first-time feature. Nevertheless, Nambiar makes a confident debut and delivers a brave, engaging film that shouldn’t be missed.
I’m going with three out of five for director Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan. It isn’t as daring as Anurag Kashyap’s debut Paanch whose themes it clearly mirrors, but it’s got many moments that’ll surprise you.