R. Balki’s Chup: Revenge of the Artist opens with the gruesome murder of a film critic; he’s found sliced in multiple places, and dumped unceremoniously on the toilet seat in his house with an oddly drawn triangle on his forehead. The man who unleashed this brutality, it is revealed within minutes, is a florist – he tenderly picks up a caterpillar struggling on the ground and places it on a leaf. He lives in his own Eden, surrounded by flowers and exulting in nature. These may seem like incongruous images – why would a man who clearly nourishes and respects life, take it away from another?
But the serial killer’s profession isn’t just a quirky inversion of who he really is. It is inspired – or one can even say necessitated – by the film’s grand design. It’s an homage to director, producer and actor Guru Dutt whose last film Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers) was rejected by film critics and the audience alike. Though Kaagaz is hailed as a classic now, its brooding melancholia didn’t sit well with viewers back in the day. Dutt never recovered from the blow and died a few years later, a disturbed and depressed man.
Chup is both an investigative thriller and a satirical rant on the state of film reviewing and its troubled relationship with the film industry. As a thriller, the film has quite a few inconsistencies, stumbles and stutters. As a satire, it is often funny, entertaining and insightful – even when it is showcasing gut-spilling violence. For instance, a critic who is sliced into two by a train after he complained that the second half of the film goes off the track. It’s probably a madman’s fantasy that’s occurred to many actors, directors and producers who’ve read an unkind review of their film. To see its literal interpretation on screen is darkly amusing.
Dulquer Salmaan plays the curly-haired florist, known as Danny. He talks aloud to himself, as if there’s two of him; he begins the day by drinking two glasses of tea; he orders two plates of food when he eats out. He is probably blessed with supernatural metabolism since we never see him exercising to deserve those muscles. An entertainment journalist, Nila (Shreya Dhanwanthary), walks into his shop in Bandra one day. She seems to be talking to herself too, and Danny is instantly smitten. She loves cinema, lives with her visually impaired Tamil mother (an adorable Saranya Ponvannan), and her home has a plaque with ‘Woody Allen is Innocent’ on the wall.
Nila is Danny’s dreamgirl in every sense. There’s a lovely interlude between the two, when real life transforms into the magical because both are thinking of it happening cinematically – in slow-mo shots and with background music. But Danny’s true love is cinema, and his arch enemy, therefore, is the film critic who rips apart movies he likes week after week. He allows himself to be serenaded by Nila but it doesn’t come in the way of his killings.
As an investigative thriller, Chup leaves much to be desired. Sunny Deol and Rajeev Ravindranath play police officers who offer comic relief more than building any suspense in the chase. It takes three horrific murders and the threat of the CBI taking over the case for Deol’s Arvind Mathur to even think of calling in an expert (Pooja Bhatt) who can put together a profile of the killer. The only clue they’re obsessed with until then is a plastic wrapper with laurel wreaths that’s found at the murder scenes (one happens in a cricket stadium and yet, there’s no CCTV footage). Zero stars to the police force for such a shoddy investigation and five stars for their comic timing.
But forgive the rather convenient bending of facts to the killer’s advantage, and you see an inventive discourse on film criticism. What it is and what it ought to be. Do we need star ratings for movies (“Why 3.5 stars? Why not open your heart and give four?” a whimsical Danny asks in one scene)? Can a film review determine its success at the box-office? What is the difference between film critics and people who trash talk a film on Twitter? Chup is co-written by Balki, Rishi Virmani and Raja Sen who is known for his acerbic reviews (he also makes a blink-and-miss appearance). There is, therefore, a delicious back-and-forth in the arguments being placed before the audience.
Dulquer is earnest as Danny, and is at his finest in the interval block, looking directly into the camera and speaking as the avenging angel of cinema. Shreya, too, delivers a convincing performance as Nila. ‘Jaane Kya Tune Kahi’ from Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa has a constant presence in the film, lending it a sorrowful romance even when it is at its bloodiest. The background score is conscious of the mood that the film wants to achieve; when Danny isn’t on screen, and the camera is focused on his hapless victims, you see the crimes for what they are (kudos to the makeup department). When he’s present, the scenes transform into his ‘performance’ and you’re able to bring yourself to enjoy his ‘artistry’.
In contrast to the first and second acts, the denouement is disappointing. It unfolds, fittingly, in a studio reminiscent of the first scene in Kaagaz Ke Phool, and for once, it is the critic who is under the spotlight. The metaphor is on point, but it is a rather tame end to a serial killer chase and borders on the improbable.Chup translates to ‘be quiet’ but that isn’t really what the film (and its unhinged hero) demands from film critics. ‘Be mindful’ is more like it. A well-made tribute to cinema, even if it isn’t the best you’ve seen in the serial killer genre.