Bruce Dern is getting worked up. He’s recalling, in a documentary called A Decade Under the Influence, on American cinema in the '70s, how he and his contemporaries had to contend early on with the best roles going to established stars like Brando and Newman. “Why should they have a corner on the market? We can act! Yeah, we don’t look like they do, we’re not handsome like they are” —here Dern fixes the camera with a memorable glare—“but we’re fucking interesting.”
Jaideep Ahlawat is about as far from a matinee idol as Dern was. Yet, he’s endlessly interesting. His face has craters and crevasses and shadows. It has the texture of granite, like the visages of Eddie Constantine, the American who became a cult star in France, and the towering Hindi film actor Sheikh Mukhtar. His voice is another curious thing, somewhere between the nasal inquiry of Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the harsh rasp of Om Puri. There’s a sadness that clings to him, but he also seems to carry at all times the possibility of explosive action. He could play Dr Frankenstein as easily as he could the monster.
A nebbish schoolteacher stands in front of a mirror trying on different, more confident personae for his next conversation with his next-door neighbour. Of course, when Naren (Ahlawat) does speak to Maya (Kareena Kapoor Khan), his voice doesn’t rise above a whisper. It’s no accident Jaane Jaan has this scene—almost an acting exercise—in the first minutes. This is a film built around roleplaying, with personalities assumed and probed and discarded. And the most precarious role is played by Maya, café owner and single mother to teen Tara (Naisha Khanna). Maya, it turns out, is Sonia, a bar dancer who escaped an abusive relationship and started a new life in Kalimpong.
But then Maya’s old life shows up, in the odious form of Ajit (Saurabh Sachdeva), her ex-husband and pimp. There’s a chilling meeting at her café, and another at her home. A little later, Maya and Tara are faced with a bigger crisis than when the evening started. And an even bigger problem is on a Kalimpong-bound train: inspector Karan (Vijay Varma), on the trail of Ajit in an unrelated matter. If Naren is introduced as a man of thought, Karan’s first scene—an energetic spar with a colleague—shows us he’s a man of action. Though it’s also one of the film’s pleasures to have this flipped, to see how quickly Naren can act and how sharp Karan’s reasoning is.
In a strange coincidence, one of the better Hindi films of the year for two years running will be based on a novel by Keigo Higashino. His Heart of Brutus was the source for Vasan Bala’s Monica, O My Darling last year, and Jaane Jaan is an official adaptation of The Devotion of Suspect X. The latter has already been made into Japanese, Korean and Chinese films (the Malayalam film Drishyam, and its Hindi remake of the same name, are, to put it mildly, cut from similar cloth). If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that the events described above are only a prelude to the elaborate mind games that enmesh cop, suspect and teacher. Both men fancy Maya, but she isn’t a femme fatale like the title (or the trailer) suggests, just a frantic mother who’s a little more resourceful than the two men give her credit for. Khan, who's deft throughout, is allowed just one scene to relax and do movie star things—it involves a karaoke bar and the shadowy 1969 song that gives the film its title. It’s a lovely scene, funny and sexy, and you’re not sure whether you’ve seen a seduction or someone dropping their guard.
It’s been 11 years since Kahaani, during which time Sujoy Ghosh has made a couple of thrillers, a few shorts and a web series, and written assorted others. Nearly all these ventures have had hints of Kahaani, but only Jaane Jaan carries through on its promise (while not reaching its heights). I was a bit worried when there were two fake-outs in the first 15 minutes—it felt like Ghosh reaching for his favourite trick too soon (there might be some Decision To Leave in the detective’s recreation of probable scenarios). But Jaane Jaan soon finds its own register, aided by Ahlawat’s melancholy turn and the effective use of misty Kalimpong. In one scene, Naren, momentarily overwhelmed, goes through his jujutsu routines on a deserted street at night in a quest for balance. This is Ghosh at his best, eccentric detail tied to emotion.
Ghosh doesn’t mess with his source material—which is fine, because Higashino’s novel twists and turns to a delicious ending. The disadvantage, of course, is that Drishyam, a considerable hit in both languages, stripped that book for parts. They’re not the same story, but they’re similar enough that audiences who’ve seen one might guess where the other is going.
It doesn’t seem to matter if he’s playing an abusive husband or a serial killer or a clean-cut cop, Vijay Varma’s ability to unsettle in any scenario is unmatched. Something as simple as Karan asking for three pastries with his coffee at Maya’s café had my antennae up—it's an unusual order for a thin, athletic guy, but I probably took notice because it was Varma and I expect something to happen when he’s onscreen. He’s perfectly matched with Ahlawat, who is better than any actor alive at looking unimpressed. And yet, when Naren tells Maya “Main phas chuka hoon” (I'm already entangled), there’s a wealth of feeling in Ahlawat’s mumbled delivery.
Throughout the film, Naren is challenged by one of his students to a sleight-of-hand game. Each time he wins, he scolds the boy for concentrating on him instead of the coin. Then, one day, the student triumphs. Naren is visibly delighted. We don’t know it then, but it’s a clue to the film. Naren doesn't mind losing. He just wants the people he likes to win.
Jaane Jaan is on Netflix.