7 Khoon Maaf is “easily Vishal’s worst film,” said my friend Anil once we left the theater. Anil’s a film buff from way back, with an encyclopedic knowledge of ‘70’s and ‘80’s Hindi cinema.
I had been thinking the same thing since early in the film, which appropriately kicks off with a death. The larger narrative, while hinting at issues of class, gender and power relations, does little to explore beyond empty gestures and symbols. The screenplay is shallow, treating characters as vehicles for the story, which moves in fits and starts without ever gaining momentum.
Most readers know that there are successive murders in this movie, with one culprit: the promotions make no bones about the deaths of the lead’s “hapless husbands.” However, there’s no attempt to flesh out people or relationships in much detail, not Priyanka Chopra’s character Susanna (and her various alter egos), or her numerous husbands. It begins to feel like a perverse Groundhog Day (1993) remake. Can’t the guy just die already?
A weak screenplay can sometimes be shored up by masterful acting, and it’s a heavy load Chopra is not ready to shoulder as an actress. Her “different” avatars all appear loosely the same. I shocked myself by thinking at one point that What’s Your Raashee (2009) was more entertaining and varied. Her Sweety in director Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009) had a level of desperation and vivaciousness that added to the story, and here she seems a vapor, lacking the ability to convey what’s going on under the surface to humanize her character. Tabu, or another beautiful and seasoned actress who could conceivably have played this role, might have been able to illuminate the character, while Chopra appears numb.
And she’s not helped much by her co-stars, especially those who appear early on. Neil Nitin Mukesh plays a textbook bitter war-disabled military man like he’s in rigor, with a face like he just ate a lemon, suit too big and no indication of what appeals about his character. I was praying to meet husband number two.
I soon regretted my wish after John Abraham, another wooden actor, follows as, er, Johnny Stetson (really!), a classic rock musician (including Salman Khan’s plaid wardrobe from 2009’s London Dreams and a very cheap looking disheveled long blonde wig). Of course Johnny has an attendant need for rehab. Next!
As Susanna ages through husbands in succession, the ill-detailed story is punctuated by clunky references to current events to let us know the decade. The men are largely and quickly insufferable ogres: we are in a hurry for their deaths.
The screenplay by Matthew Robbins and Bhardwaj seems amateurish, including flashback narration by Susanna’s protégé Arun, played by Naseeruddin Shah’s son Vivaan, who looks about 15 years old throughout the film, though for the majority of the time his character is married with a son. Arun’s intrusive voiceover tells us both what’s going on and characters’ emotional states, which adds to the disjointed feel and renders it difficult to access the characters, especially the increasingly grotesque house staff.
The music, by Bhardwaj with lyrics by Gulzar, is not particularly engaging. Ranging from unmemorable to overly swoony instrumentals swamping the visuals to overblown and trite rock ballads (two in one scene, including the lyrics “ek meow-si larki”) to the mind-infecting “Darling,” an update of the 1860 Russian folk song “Kalinka.” The film’s “hit,” it may stay in your brain like the Barney The Dinosaur theme: unwelcome and annoying.
Visuals, especially early, are dense and lush. I found myself looking at wallpaper and knickknacks when the characters seemed uninteresting. As the film progresses, the scenery is dominated by the dark and confining, which may have been intended to mirror the mood. Bhardwaj’s no novice. There are elements that remind the viewer that there’s skill at play, and the film also feels like it was made on a rushed schedule without much time to look at the big picture.
The film could’ve been more sharply edited, especially given the small arcs of the repeat storylines. Had it concluded with more mystery about Susanna’s end, it could have been a richer watch. Instead Bhardwaj opts to tell the audience her future in a sappy final dance sequence and then reveal exactly how all the husbands died. This seems like a serious rookie error.
I’ve seen descriptions of the film as a black comedy and I here report that the only comedy I witnessed appeared to be unintentional. Anil summed things up well: the scenes were ineffective at the fault of the screenplay and Bhardwaj usually elicits better performances from actors. He speculated that Bhardwaj may not have directed.
The movie gestures towards a greatness that it’s never able to approach for all of the weights loading it down. Had I not committed to reviewing, I would’ve gone home early.