Somewhere in the middle of Dhamaka — a Netflix film that released on November 19 — a television news anchor with a bomb in his earpiece, blood on his shirt and a terrorist on the phone is, understandably, falling apart. He’s shaking and snivelling when his hardboiled boss calls out from the other side of the camera: “What is an anchor?” she asks, persistently. The anchor finally barks back a memorised reply, an expected reply, an indoctrinated reply: “An anchor is an actor.”
Before diving into Ram Madhvani’s film, I must confess that line gave me pause. If news anchors are indeed to be judged as performers — and indeed they are expected to be compelling, charismatic and credible, all tools out of the acting playbook — then when appraising India’s shrillest news anchors, we should perhaps commend their commitment to the part instead of decrying their journalistic ineptitude. Popular newsfolk read scripts handed out by the propaganda machine, putting their own (often alliterative) spin to make their broadcasts memorable. In this context, the misreading of words like “Bounce” and “Blast” isn’t idiocy, it’s stagecraft.
Dhamaka is a remake of 2013 Korean film The Terror Live, where a news anchor gets a phone call from a terrorist who has bombed a bridge, and while the terrorist seeks an apology from a politician, the anchor is trying to leverage this exclusive access to regain his primetime chair. In the Hindi version, this has been changed to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, but my fundamental issue with Dhamaka is that Madhvani really needed to localise the channel more.
Indian news channels are bizarre, hyperventilating creatures and Dhamaka, in its attempt to keep things crisp, sadly forgoes the endless epilepsy-inducing tickers and the hysteria appropriate to a channel declaring anchors as actors. The boss of the fictitious TRTV channel (Amruta Subhash) mercilessly checks ratings, but doesn’t appear to know how Indian news works. During their broadcast a TRTV reporter heroically rescues a little girl from a falling car, and the channels we know would rerun that moment, boastfully and endlessly, on loop with shehnais and bugles in the background, maybe even Vande Mataram. Later a man is assassinated live on their channel, but even this isn’t being treated (and repeated) as an exclusive. Whither slo-mo? It’s enough to break an anti-antinational anchor’s heart.
An accurate Dhamaka would have blurred the line between the movie’s background score and the one piped in by the channel. This is just a lukewarm — and therefore, dull — take on our media circus. (We have louder clowns.)
Kartik Aaryan plays disgraced newsman Arjun Pathak, demoted to a radio show and so preoccupied with his imminent divorce that the divorce papers are the only papers he ever has on hand. Despite the film’s implausibility, Aaryan is compelling and believable in the lead, from his slovenly look for radio to the practiced deployment of his TV-smile. He is on screen for each of the film’s 100 minutes, and manages to flesh out a panicked, desperate character who is admirably far from heroic.
The voice on the other end — claiming to be that of Raghubeer Mhata, a labourer who worked on the Sea-Link but has now rigged it to explode — wants an apology from a minister. It is this voice, unheard and under-represented, that feels righteous even when misguided, a voice scorning the government for lying about progress: he spits out “Vikas” like a swearword. A voice that unwaveringly demands one word, a “Sorry,” a simple gesture showing a political being held accountable. In response, the minister’s assistant calls him “gutter-chhaap.”
There was potential to make this politically potent, but I guess we’ll have to wait for a Malayalam remake for that kind of thing.
Dhamaka — set in one studio and shot during the pandemic in less than a dozen days — starts out crisp, on track to be a tight thriller. Rhythm is everything, and even when things get far-fetched, a racy film shouldn’t allow time to notice or question. It is indeed promising to see Aaryan deliver an assured, confident performance far from his comfort zone. He’s speaking to his boss when an audio technician keeps interrupting him for a sound-check, and Aaryan irritatedly snaps back that talk is sound, and that should be enough. Later, when explaining that “truth needs time and the audience doesn’t have any” he sounds suitably matter of fact, like a man used to passing the blame in order to do his job.
The last stretch of the film, however, is waylaid by overblown sentimentality. It’s enough to cut the cord and bring our suspended disbelief crashing down, much like news-channel ratings the day after a superstar’s son has been granted bail.
In the context of the TV newsdesk, the usage of “anchor” comes from relay racing, where the fastest, most capable member is given the pivotal “anchor leg” position. By the 1950s, the term was being deployed to single out the most prominent reporter on a panel. Now there are far too many panels and too many faces jostling for that prominence, and while many of these men and women may be strong performers, we must constantly remind ourselves they are only pretending. The ship is already aground. Anchors, away.
Streaming Tip Of The Week
This week, a selection of eleven Satyajit Ray films has landed on Amazon Prime Video, including Abhijan, Aparajito, Ashani Sanket, Chiriakhana, Hirak Raja’r Deshe, Pather Panchali, Seemabaddha, Sonar Kella, Shatranj Ke Khilari, Charulata and my eternal favourite, Jalsaghar.