Saturday, September 29, 2007

Johnny Gaddaar: quick notes

Okay, to the film now (after the previous post about Sriram Raghavan). Can’t put a structured review here, because I’m doing one for Tehelka and that will only be published next week, but here are some notes.

- I thought it was a solid, very gripping film that, despite Raghavan’s wide range of influences, managed to avoid being “inspired” (in the euphemistic sense that that word is normally used for Hindi movies). It’s notable that the one time he did lift something directly, he not only acknowledged his source movie (the early Amitabh Bachchan curio Parwana) but let a scene from that source movie play for a while, to demonstrate the exact nature of the inspiration.

- There’s been speculation that Johnny Gaddaar is a whodunit – an “identify the mole” story a la Sanjay Gupta’s Kaante. It’s no such thing. We know who the “gaddaar” is right from the beginning (the Neil Mukesh character, Vikram). The suspense here is of the Hitchcockian variety – deeper, more satisfying than can be provided by a simple twist or revelation at the end. The tension comes from our knowing things that the characters onscreen don’t know, and from watching how this plays out: the cat-and-mouse games, the second-guessing, the chance encounters and tiny pangs of conscience that briefly (but crucially) lead to missteps.

- I liked the urgency Raghavan brought to scenes that are often treated as stock footage in heist/caper movies: like the one where the Zakir Husain character is tearing a flat upside down to find stolen money – his grunts of frustration (complemented by a sigh of triumph at the end), the palpable desperation of his movements, the way he knocks on the walls to check for hollow spaces or takes a bean-bag apart, spraying bits of Styrofoam all over the apartment.

- Also, Raghavan uses some inventive techniques to bridge unrelated scenes. For instance, there’s a scene where one of the conmen, Prakash (Vinay Pathak), is trying to convince his wife to sell her beauty parlour so he can help finance a “get rich quick” con-job. Parwana is playing on the TV screen at the time and Prakash makes an observation about how gawky the young Amitabh looked, but then pointedly adds – for his wife’s benefit – that the guy at least grabbed the opportunity he had to make it big. We then cut to Vikram watching a later scene in the same film and being inspired by it in a very different way.

- Among the performances, Vinay Pathak and Zakir Husain come off best. Dharmendra looks weary (as he has done in many of his recent films) but has his moments – I giggled when he growled the line “Go get a drink, you’ll be alright” in the middle of a very stressful scene. Impressive debut for Neil Mukesh, though time will tell whether he can sustain the promise in different types of roles. He’s perfectly cast here. I think I remember Raghavan saying in an interview that Vikram is meant to be similar to Patricia Highsmith’s amoral Tom Ripley. Though the characters in Johnny Gaddaar aren’t fleshed out enough to justify such comparisons, Neil Mukesh combines steely-eyed determination with confused vulnerability in a way that’s reminiscent of some of the actors (Alain Delon in particular) who have played Ripley onscreen. He’s sympathetic despite his misdemeanors and you genuinely want him to get away with most of what he does. (There’s even a car-dumping shot that briefly recalls the “root for the murderer” swamp scene in Psycho.) Besides, he’s a Grade-A hunk, as my slavering wife observed at least 12 times during the screening.

- Unfortunately, unless some serious word-of-mouth happens, this film could vanish in two or three weeks (the hall we saw it in – a first-day show, Friday evening – was barely 20 per cent full). Pity if that happened.


  1. I live in Bombay and here one of the reviewers Mayank Shekhar -- apparently he got a big prize for his writing etc -- gave this film a one-star rating... he says film looks good, but is shallow... and laughs hysterically at dharmendra's performance etc... very confused... while you have only nice things to say about JG, Shekhar seems to give it a thumbs down... surprisingly, he has given Dil Dosti a great review, because it reminds him of his DU days.... don't know which movie to catch this weekend... am a mum too and don't have that much time to spare... help!

  2. Great film etc... but why didn't the guy run away with all the booty when the task was accomplished? what was he waiting for? many twists and turns in the film, as one saw, just happened by chance while he didn't even have any concrete plan-of-action in mind. That's something I haven't been able to digest...

  3. Shreya: I can only repeat something I've said before on this blog many times before: despite being an enthusiastic review-writer myself, I'll welcome the day when people stop making their viewing decisions based on a review (or feeling confused because two reviewers have expressed diverging views, or feeling let down by a review that they don't agree with).

    That said, I appreciate your point about not having much time to spare and being forced to rely on reviews, so let me try and make this easier. You should avoid this film if at least two of the following hold true: 1) You don't care much for heist/caper films or have a feel for the genre, 2) You reflexively get put off by movies that have a lot of visual flourishes, 3) You frequently use the term "all style, no substance" while describing a film, 4) You believe Dharmendra should be debarred from speaking English onscreen.

    (Of course, it's theoretically possible that all four of the above hold good for you and you STILL end up enjoying the film - such is the unpredictable beauty of the movie-watching experience.)

    Clarification: I don't have "only nice things" to say about JG, I thought there were a few goof-ups too (including a couple of indifferently written/redundant characters, and loopholes in the plot if you examined it too closely - see Anonymous's comment above). But the weak points didn't come close to spoiling the overall experience for me, and the nice things were what I felt like writing about here.

  4. Anon: I was under the impression he came back to Mumbai to get the girl. Or maybe he realised that he had got himself in so deep after Shiva's accidental death that he came back to bide his time - not wanting to be on the lam for murder as well as for theft.

  5. thought i will tell you that i caught both the movies -- and both had their good and bad points. and, no, i don't make up my mind to catch a movie after reading a review -- after all it's subjective -- but just thought the views on JG by two reviewers were too diverse... it happens... i love caper films... love the Coen brothers... so on that count, i should have just walked into JG, I guess... and loved his Ek Hasina Thi too... so... now looking forward to No Smoking and the rest... but thank you so much for your comments.

  6. I read your review just after I had booked tickets for JG and heaved a sigh of relief when you didn't diss it.

    I rather enjoyed the movie and his little tributes to his influences. thanks for pointing those out. Would not have caught it otherwise

  7. Bhavani Iyer in passionforcinema mentioned on Neil Mathur's Johnny - if Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov had a face, this would be it’ n i kinda got thrilled by that comparision. How true is that!

    The end was a bit let down though. (spoiler ahead)firstly,before the last scene we NEVER saw Shardul wearing the jacket before.He was always in his bright, gaudy shirts.So to hinge the last killing only on the basis of the jacket n the car is a bit too far fetched. Secondly it seems to presumptious to think that Prakash's wife will pick up the gun to shoot Shardul when she now has a son to take care off.

    But the snags are pardonable compared to the flashes of brilliance in between.

  8. How can ANYONE go by what Mayank Shekhar says, considering he's from DELHI?????????? Has ANYONE here ever met an intelligent Delhiite??? ANYONE??? C'mon people, get opinions from other reviewers!!

  9. I think Shardul's wife was perfectly capable of doing that.. I always got a feeling that she loved her man - there was this subtle affection shown in moments between them. (cant recall the exact scene - well, that's what subtlety does to you)
    Second, shardul was always wearing gaudy clothes, so it's not surprising if he wore this equally gaudy jacket!
    I loved the movie! It was so fast paced that at times, i even forgot the previous scene!

  10. I think you mean Prakash's wife, Rusty. I loved the movie, mainly for its visual appeal and specifically the fantastic use of color in my opinion.

    Here is my review:

  11. Yes! I meant Prakash's wife. Sorry abt that.. got carried away! :)

  12. I liked your notes on the movie so much that I went to watch it. And it's the most entertaining movie I've watched in a long time. Thank you, you made my day(rather, week)!

    I've written here about what I thought of the movie, and linked to your post. ( Thanks, once again, I LOVED the movie! (Even though I winced at Dharmendra's English)

  13. To Ms. Shreya. Please go watch this movie, it's a completely cool thriller. I have seen Dil Dosti's promos on TV and it just seems like another run of the mill experimental, wannabe cool movie that will fail. JG is an experiment that comes out on top! It's a different genre too from Dil Dosti. It's not a happy go lucky movie with college politics thrown in or whatever. It's a crime thriller.

    To the anonymous poster talking about Delhiites, give me a break! You need a serious attitude readjustment, making such sweeping statements. I am from Delhi too and I find your statement ignorant while ironically you're trying to call Delhiites ignorant.

  14. Reviewscan: Please, please DON'T FEED THE TROLLS! That Anonymous regularly posts such comments and the only reason I keep them on is because they are fun to look at.

  15. Hey Arjun, I think u should check Namrata Joshi's review in Outlook - she also mentions the Hitchcok influence and what u said about Amitabh's Parwana - about 2 diff characters watching it and reactng. Think she might be "inspired" by ur review? ;)

  16. Rohit: just saw the Outlook review. I'm inclined to think it's coincidence - she's one of the better film writers around and I think she knows her cinema well enough not to have to pick up ideas from other places. Also, she's made a few good observations of her own - like the use of the song from Bandini, which featured the young Dharmendra. I didn't realise it was from that film.

  17. This movie kicked some serious ass man - like you said, the parwana sequences and shradul at the flat -the "Doob Jaa mere Pyaar Main" introduction - the five Pomfret being smeared in red masala - there were so manu gimmicks that worked so effortlessly in the movie - lovely film.
    I am surprised that more people aren't talking about Zakir Hussain - I thought he was simple amazing - I knew Vinay Pathak was a good actor - but Shardul totally blew me away.
    I wish Nitin Mukesh had done a better job though - I thought he kind of sucked - except for the fact that you somehow rooted for him despite him being the bad guy.
    Excellent movie.
    That said on a more serious note - wish your Naniji a speedy recovery.
    Best of luck with everything.

  18. Thank you for your reference to Tom Ripley. That was the only character I thought about when i saw this flick (and enjoyed it as much).
    Alain Delon with his blue eyed innocence .. now-steely-now-vulnerable in Plein Soleil is a delight to watch. I didn't mind Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley either. But looks play a very integral part of Patricia Highsmith's construct of the Ripley character. Unless you feel like forgiving the poor bastard the case is lost. And I think Neil did justice to the role despite his semi wooden gaze.
    In my opinion this flick is the best caper movie to come out of Bollywood in the last couple of years. It did justice in paying homage openly to its influences.. from the 70's revenge flicks to Tarantino-esque violence to Parwana and so on. And yes, the soundtrack simply rocks!

  19. Saw this movie today. Loved it. You mention about a tehelka review you were going to do for this movie. Can you send/post the link to it ? I am addicted to reading about movies I like after seeing them.

  20. Belated comment :)
    Checked out this film only recently. What a movie!

    I'm no Bollywood historian. However, I feel Johnny Gaddaar is one of the great Bollywood films, which deserves its status as a popular classic.

    Ofcourse, one could nitpick by saying the after all this is a heist movie, that the characters aren't well fleshed out. But it more than makes up for it with its extremely compact screenplay and some great visual flourishes that would've done Welles proud.

    I enjoyed this film even more than some of Hollywood's celebrated movies like the excessively talky Pulp Fiction or those insanely complex Guy Ritchie movies. Yet, while Pulp Fiction is widely regarded as the definitive film of the nineties, Johnny Gaddaar is probably a forgotten movie already.
    That's a shame.

    I thought J.G was a little too clever for its own good, which is probably why it didn't do great at the box office. It is a great exercise in style and terrific entertainment. However, it is possible that the viewer may get so engrossed in the details of the complex plot that he may not enjoy the numerous little things along the way.

  21. btw, someone remarked that you feel like rooting for Johnny throughout the movie. I didn't feel that way at all. Infact, a calculating cold-blooded villian like Neil Mukesh is more revolting to the senses than a hot tempered villian with a manic streak.

    Some of the villians I felt a great deal of sympathy for include Cody Jarret (played by James Cagney in White Heat) and Norman Bates (Psycho). Their mania is easier to relate to and somehow deserving of sympathy. As Bates remarks, we all go a little mad sometimes!

    However, the rational, assured villiany of Johnny G evokes unalloyed hate. That's probably another reason why this film received a lukewarm response.

  22. Shrikanth: it isn't just a question of what sort of character Johnny G is (likeable/ unlikeable/ cold-blooded etc), it's also a question of the manner in which the film sets up certain scenes and manipulates us to root for him. I remember one critic pointing out that we develop an empathy for Norman during the bathroom-cleaning job because he's doing such a good, tidy job (it helps, of course, that we initially think he's covering up for his mother's crime). Likewise, in Johnny Gaddaar, you can't help admiring the focused efficiency with which Johnny G goes about his work, covering up his tracks etc. There's also a kinetic energy about the way the scenes involving him are filmed, where we as viewers are sub-consciously encouraged to be on his side, to see how much he can get away with; he is, after all, our point of entry into the film for the most part.

    Also, take the scene where he's just killed Dharmendra but then finds he can't escape through the front door because the other two accomplices have just shown up: in that scene, there's no reason for us to want those two chaps to catch Johnny G - they are just as bad as he is (and nowhere near as hot!).

  23. This is not to suggest, of course, that all viewers should have standardised responses (that is, be sympathetic to Johnny G) - you can dislike him for perfectly valid reasons too. I'm just saying that in my view the film is mostly amoral and on his side.

  24. Not sure how exactly I felt when he was trying to escape after shooting Dharmendra. I guess the suspense overwhelms us more than anything else at that point. However, I definitely rooted for Shardul towards the end when he discovers the truth.

    Another thing I loved about the film was the portrayal of the Dharmendra character. Here's a bad guy who genuinely cares for his junior colleagues, insists on fairplay within the team and also apparently remains faithful to his dead wife. His face betrays no malice even after he's repeatedly shot. Seldom has a bad guy's finer qualities been portrayed so well. Brought back memories of Marlon Brando in The GodFather.

  25. Vikram didn't run away with the money for two reasons. 1 . He wanted to get the girl. 2. He was scared fearing that the team will hunt him down. He wanted things to settle down before moving to the next plan. Its an awesome movie. I think its the thriller of the decade.

  26. ...please where can I buy a unicorn?

  27. @ Jai

    Rather late in the day but I saw it again recently. You mentioned that Shardul & Prakash are as bad as Johny. I disagree. They wouldn't have killed a 'co-worker' in as ruthless a manner as Johny does. Prakash is just not that kind of man and Shardul doesn't even reveal to the poloice officer that the fake notes were given to him by Vikram.

    And I was awed by the acting of Govind Mamdeo. He played the role of Kalyan very well.