White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Hindi Movie Review: Kadak Singh has its pleasures, but it’s at best a TV-caliber mystery

A still from the new Hindi movie "Kadak Singh," starring Pankaj Tripathi, here reviewed by White Guy Watches Bollywood.

Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Kadak Singh plays so much like a paperback mystery, it’s a little hard for me to believe that the film comes from an original screenplay and is not, in fact, based on an obscure airport novel. It has many of the trimmings we’ve come to expect of knockoff Agatha Christie: a fortuitous case of retrograde amnesia, an apparent suicide attempt that may not have actually been a suicide attempt, a highly unlikely chance encounter between two parties that is extremely compromising for both, a “trust no one” style of storytelling, and so on and so forth.

As Kenneth Branagh has realized with greater acuity in each successive Christie adaptation he has made, most notably this year’s A Haunting in Connecticut, such hokum can make for a fun cinematic ride as long as it isn’t taken especially seriously. Chowdhury and the filmmaking team behind Kadak Singh didn’t necessarily get that memo, as they consistently try to sell the viewer on the credibility of each preposterous plot point. I don’t know about the average mystery B-movie viewer, but I’m personally more likely to cut the filmmakers slack in terms of plot holes when they dispense of them with a friendly wink.

That said, while Kadak Singh is definitely far too pulpy to justify the level of self-seriousness with which it is assembled, it does still make some fun contributions to the mystery genre. Chief among them, the way the movie handles a classic “man with amnesia” storyline is rather nifty. Certainly, it owes more than a little to amnesia thrillers like The Bourne Identity and Liam Neeson’s Unknown where memory-challenged men try to cobble together the details of their sordid pasts. But whereas those stories were largely propelled forward by the state of danger that their protagonists found themselves in, Kadak Singh is more about a man’s instinctual need to prove that he was, in fact, a good guy and not a bad guy in the mystery surrounding his supposed suicide attempt.

The storytelling itself is also fairly clever, with a “Rashomon-lite” approach to fitting together the puzzle pieces. The main character, AK Shrivastav (played by Pankaj Tripathi), effectively investigates the mystery of what led him to end up in the hospital with significant memory loss by receiving an independent accounting of events from each of the key people in his life. These include his daughter, Sakshi (Sanjanna Sanghi); his secret girlfriend, Naina (Jaya Ahsan); his boss, Tyagi (Dilip Shankar); and his subordinate at work, Arjun (Paresh Pahuja). Because these people all had different perspectives of AK’s activities as an officer in India’s Department of Financial Crimes – and some may have their own agendas that make them unreliable narrators – their testimony must be second-guessed.

Deceitful suspects are the norm for movie detective interrogations, but rarely are they directly connected to the investigator’s own life, which adds a layer of intrigue here. Also further contributing to the uncertainty: at times, we wonder if all these characters could be conspiring to construct a complete alternate reality for AK, as he doesn’t remember anything about them, including their existence. This also encompasses that his children apparently referred to him as “Kadak Singh” due to the joyless rigidity with which he approached life and parenting following the tragic death of his wife.

Background sob-story for his character aside, In the lead role, Pankaj Tripathi is the only one who seems to understand the playful spirit that best suits this kind of cheap thriller. He even occasionally appears to take a beat to simply revel in the suspenseful nature of the mystery that engulfs his character, with a giddy sense of physicality for a guy who spends most of the runtime stuck in a hospital bed. The rest of the cast, however, are purely no-nonsense and functional in their performances, not unlike the ensemble of a random episode of a network TV procedural like NCIS. As AK’s daughter, Sanjana Sanghi is awfully stone-faced given her expressed emotional investment in getting to the truth of her father’s complicated professional dealings and questionable off-the-job endeavors. Others, like Dilip Shankar as Tyagi, seem to be playing things in an overly understated way in an effort to not tip their hands when it comes to the central mystery.

Unfortunately, by the midpoint, it’s pretty obvious to any viewer paying even a modest level of attention where the mystery is going to end up, regardless of the supporting cast’s restraint in this regard. This makes the second half of the film a bit of a slog, given that the filmmakers don’t really attempt to deliver the kind of fun tone and embellishments that would keep things entertaining despite the plot’s predictability. Tripathi does his best to sustain the energy level as the title character, but there’s only so much he can do in such a flashback-heavy story.

Kadak Singh no doubt comes across as a “potboiler” in the classic sense – a paycheck thriller if I’ve ever seen one – but it also could provide a new, equally apt definition for the term in the streaming era. It’s an elementary mystery that doesn’t really require the viewer to hang onto every detail in order to follow along, so one could easily abandon one’s TV a few times to put on a pot of pasta water, boil it, add the pasta, and strain without really missing anything. Perhaps rice would be a more fitting boiled grain analogy for a film aimed chiefly at the Indian audience, but in either event, nothing could be as high-carbohydrate, low-protein as Kadak Singh itself.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Kadak Singh is now streaming globally on ZEE5 (free for subscribers).

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