Chup: Revenge of the Artist review: An introspective film for critics, media and the film industry

Writer-director R. Balki’s disruptive desi noir psychological crime thriller hits dead centre.

By Xxxxx Xxxxxxx

The name of the reviewer is withheld due to security concern. Whoa! What’s wrong with the reviewer? Our readers would say. Well, a unique film merits a unique intro too.

Writer-director R. Balki is known for his unique stories and Chup: Revenge of the Artist [2022] takes the cake. Noted former critic Raja Sen has perhaps added more than just critical inputs to the Balki original. Here is a psychological crime thriller where the serial killer is targeting film critics. After claiming four victims – all brutally murdered, the critics fraternity is naturally fearing for its life. Dear readers, do you still want your reviewer to reveal his/her identity? Therein lies the beauty of Chup. When was the last time that an Indian film felt so immersive for any reviewer?

The gruesome murders beg the question who is this ‘critic of the critics? This critical conundrum is piling the pressure on investigating officer Arvind Mathur [Sunny Deol. Meanwhile, the once pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword critics have wisely chosen to put a lid on their pens/keyboards. Amidst these murders, one lonely Bandra florist Danny [Dulquer Salmaan] finds love in Nila Menon [Shreya Dhanwanthary], a budding entertainment journalist who longs to be a film critic someday. The atmosphere though is just not conducive enough to review.

Chup [2022] is no whodunnit, but it’s always best that viewers unravel the killer themselves. The motive though is always a subject of great concern. Balki’s killer believes his victims are getting their comeuppance for unfair criticism. S/he is a disciple of tragedy king Guru Dutt, the great actor/filmmaker who supposedly was left depressed by the failure of his last directorial Kaagaz Ke Phool [1959]. He died few later years later due to an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. He’d twice attempted suicide before.

Industry, society has long revered the great actor/filmmaker. Cinephiles have written many odes, but seldom has anyone reflected on Guru Dutt’s internal turmoil. Chup is no Guru Dutt biopic but Balki’s killer is of the view that it was unfair criticism of Kaagaz Ke Phool [1959] that eventually killed the great man. The killer finds parallel with his/her own depressing story. The motive immediately begs the question, is Balki and his killer seeking validation for every film? It brings into focus Balki’s disposition to the art of film critiquing? Where’s the grace? Critics will shoot back. It would be easy to dismiss Balki’s Chup as preachy, a vanity film where the filmmaker is trying to lecture the critics on how a film should be reviewed. However, objectivity bounds a critic to question what is it that Balki’s Chup is trying to say?

Keep the brutality aside, and assume Balki’s killer as a metaphor for film critiquing today. Film reviewing is strictly subjective. This reviewer is not one who likes to sit on a pedestal and preach. There never was, and there never can be a dogmatic approach to film reviewing. What’s important is to have an objective, unbiased perspective, and bring out the intent of the story.

A Chup examines contemporary critiquing in detail. It questions certain styles, choice of text, the inexplicable sentences in a review. If critics can comment on films, then critics, too, ought to be gracious enough in accepting a director’s perspective on modern day film critiquing. Any craft cannot grow without self-introspection. A Chup offers plenty of food for thought not just for film critics, but also for the media and film industry as a whole. Stoke the fear of the devil, and see how media and film industry trade barbs at each other. Journalism, film cannot thrive by sycophancy. A clear demarcation ought to be made between a film journalist and a sycophant. The devil in Chup sees reviewers shower a bad film with 4-5 stars. In the real world, the devil today is producer, corporate greed, and countless publications’ need. Balki’s film braves to have an honest conversation and calls for self-introspection on all fronts.

A reviewer’s ego will see him/her dismiss Chup [2022] as a director’s rant against critics, a mockumentary. Balki though subtly points fingers at his ilk too. Does the film industry lack grace in accepting constructive criticism?  Your film is worth one star if you [filmmaker/actor], too, have accepted that one star in your head. Nila Menon raises the valid question at the business end.

Shreya Dhanwanthary played the investigative journalist in Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta story [2020]. She steps into the shoes of an entertainment journalist in a completely different, gloomy milieu. Nila strikes you as a true cinephile eyeing that one big career break. It comes though in the most unusual circumstances. Dhanwanthary’s gifted tone is often matched by the requisite intensity to pull off such characters. For a sapiosexual, Nila is charmed by the aroma of Danny’s flowers and his aromatic conversations.  She is not rushed into this relationship, as the Nila-Danny affair blossoms like a flower. 

Popular Malayalam, South Indian actor Dulquer Salmaan impressed in his maiden Hindi film [2018] Karwaan [2018]. This was followed by the forgetful The Zoya Factor [2019].  Language will always be a challenge but the Christian roots justify Salmaan’s Bandra boy [Danny] accent. The popular, likable Salmaan displays a rare grey shade. Maybe, the intensity was a tad short in the early part, but Salmaan ups the ante in the second half. The Danny-Nila romance is filled with chivalry, puns and plenty of wit. The good old days of Indian cinema saw camera pan up to the flowers, trees, birds, when lovers shared an intimate moment. Balki and his cinematographer Vishal Sinha cleverly use the nursery to mask the intimate moments.

Seasoned actor Sunny Deol is a mass favorite for his action avatars in cult films like Ghayal [1990], Gadar [2001]. The ‘bastard’ dialogue triggers Ghayal nostalgia, but Arvind Mathur is largely a calm officer. Maybe, Deol diehards would be disappointed, but credit to the veteran for choosing to come out of his comfort zone. More than any brawn, Mathur uses his brain, analytical thinking to get to the bottom of the mystery.  In another marked change, Balki’s protagonist has an ego to him too. Under pressure from his bosses, state government, media, Mathur is peeved at the mere idea of the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] taking away the case from him. 

Years ago, this reviewer recalls a famous quote from 90s actor Pooja Bhatt where she said, “Why all good things in life are fattening?”. The seasoned heavyweight [no disrespect meant] actor makes a rare appearance on the big screen in a chunky role. Mathur seeks the help of Zenobia [Bhatt], his old friend and noted criminal psychologist to understand the mindset of the killer. Bhatt’s largely English dialogues might not appeal the desis. It is not the language, but the pacing [dialogue delivery] that could have been better. It appears as though Zenobia might lead the investigation, but eventually it is Mathur’s bold moves that help him nab the killer.

Zohra Sehgal-Amitabh Bachchan [Cheeni Kum], Vidya Balan-Amitabh Bachchan [Paa]. Most Balki films tend to have a bittersweet unique parent-child relationship. Malayalam actress Saranya Ponvannan makes her Hindi film debut with Chup. She is adorable as the blind but enlightening mother of Nila.  Through these characters, the filmmaker repeatedly calls for an open communication between parents and children.

Chup has a strong visual appeal, minimal but effective background score, in particularly the nostalgic tune. The Guru Dutt reference triggers golden era nostalgia for the purists.

As often with Balki’s films, his ideas are great, but the execution is debatable. Consistent engagement is a challenge for any filmmaker. Chup is partly guilt of it with the first half not building adequate consistent engagement. The odd contemporary romantic track must be a formulaic compulsion. We don’t mind a breather from the grim atmosphere, but the Gaya Gaya and the Mere Love Mein songs aren’t classic poetry. Some of the violent visuals maybe too graphic for the traditionalists, but it was needed to invoke the fear of the Critics Ka Critic. Besides, the film needed to live up to its A certification. Chup pulls up its socks in the second half with the gripping screenplay and the tension reaching a fever pitch.

A good film is one that is not necessarily judged by individual perspective, or box office numbers, but it ought to create a discussion. Though titled Chup, there’s plenty to ponder for critics, media and the film industry.

Hiding the reviewer’s identity up front was a safety measure, but it would be grave injustice to R. Balki if we stayed chup [quiet] on the rating.  Hey, why fear if we have been objective in our review.

Rating:  3.5 / 5

Reviewed by Mayur Lookhar

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