Russian roulette is not the same without a gun,
And baby when its love, if it ain’t rough, it isn’t fun.
- Poker Face, Lady Gaga
7 Khoon Maaf is a love story, or rather, seven attempts at one. The seventh attempt could be regarded as a success depending on how you choose to see it. Critics have been decidedly divided on the film with several middling reviews. However, in my humble opinion, this is a deranged masterpiece; one of the boldest, most inventive and yet, inexplicably poignant film to come out in recent years in Hindi cinema; and a testament to the fact that Indian critics know little, if anything, about cinema. It is a powerful exploration of the masculine and the feminine; of attraction, love, romance and betrayal. It is dark, macabre, vivid and comical in a very unique way. Certainly not for the conservative or the faint hearted, this is genre bending, boundary pushing Bollywood at its finest. Quite honestly, it is a film experience that will not be forgotten easily.
The story is of Susanne Anna Marie Johannes (Priyanka Chopra) and is told by Arun (Vivaan Shah) a boy who grew up with her; watching, idolizing, coveting, and ultimately, unconditionally loving her. It is about Susanne’s quest for love and her appetite for murder as she marries 6 times: first with Edmond Rodrigues, the army man (Neil Nitin Mukesh), Jimmy, the rock star (John Abraham), Mohammed, the poet (Irrfan Khan), Nikolai, the Russian (Aleksandr Dyachenko), Keematlal, the cop (Anu Kapoor) and finally Madhusudhan Da, the doctor (Naseerudin Shah). Along the way, she is assisted by a butler, a housemaid (Usha Uthup) and a one eyed jockey. However, this is a story of Susanne’s seven husbands, right? For that, you have to see the film.
As a storyteller, Vishal Bhardwaj takes huge risks in his sixth outing. This is an ambitious film, even by his self-imposed standards and he delivers spectacularly at every step. He somehow manages to maintain a strength and consistency in the narrative despite the disparate elements and characters. The various parts come together remarkably as a whole. Vishal also successfully walks a very fine line between exercising restraint and going crazy. In terms of writing, the dialogues are alternately, hilarious and haunting in places. The characters are clearly defined irrespectively of the screen time they get. The use of expletives is natural , a first for Hindi cinema, and intimacy is depicted carefully, with due deference to aesthetics and emotions. Literary references are peppered throughout the script and range from Leo Tolstoy to Anatole France; from Ruskin Bond to Shakespeare.
Vishal's exploration of the relationship between Arun and Susanne is arguably, the finest segment of the enterprise. He captures the conflicting maternal instinct and sexual tension with the required maturity, humour and complexity. Basically, this is strong storytelling at its finest and is Vishal’s best work since Maqbool. There are a few flaws in the film, particularly in the penultimate reels. There are some problems of pacing as well. However, these are minor flaws in an otherwise exquisite and flawless work of art.
Technically, the film is superlative. The art work and costumes are excellent with a remarkable sense of time and place. The photography, particularly in the portions set in Kashmir, is breathtaking. The makeup is good and age transitions look natural. The music and background score fit perfectly with the content. Particularly worth mentioning is the sound recording and mixing which add extensively to the impact of several moments, both, gorgeous and grotesque.
Priyanka Chopra shows an absolutely riveting return to form after several less than mediocre projects. She is wickedly tantalizing, an unstable vixen and yet, an object of sympathy and pity. She submits to the methods of Vishal and is transformed into a formidable actress. The other actor who deserves credit is Anu Kapoor who finally gets a role that allows him to showcase his talents. He is an absolute delight to watch and like Richard Jenkins in The Visitor and Ronit Roy in Udaan, may finally get the recognition due to him after years of hosting Antakshari on Zee TV. John Abraham is gives an uninhibited and fearless performance as Jimmy and Vivaan Shah makes a confident and memorable debut as Arun, apart from looking, in the words of Asma, "so, so cute". Usha Uthup is endearing in a small role.
Ultimately, 7 Khoon Maaf plays like a Freudian dream; a fascinating exploration of Oeidpus and Electra. It is an exercise in surrealism, not meant to be seen from a cold, clinical viewpoint. Those looking for plausibility and a clear logic behind the murders, miss the point entirely. It is not a thriller but rather a deft blend of black comedy and grand tragedy. It is an eccentric masterpiece; a delightful little mindfuck; as bizarre and irrational as it is stirring and intelligent. It's not for everyone, but it definitely was for me. It’s early, but I think I may have just seen, what I think will be the best Hindi film of 2011.