Towards the end of Parvarish (1977), Vinod Khanna, holding a gun and looking fetching in a dark blue scuba suit with a yellow oxygen tank, turns up to rescue his dad, who’s being held on a submarine. Just as he asks “Where’s Mangal Singh?”, Amjad Khan turns up behind him and asks him to drop his gun. But then Amitabh Bachchan turns up behind him with a gun. And then Kader Khan turns up behind Bachchan, at which point they stop standing in single file.
The same stick-em-up impulse runs through Aasmaan Bhardwaj’s directorial debut, Kuttey. Time after time, characters think they have the upper hand, only for someone to turn up from out of nowhere and make their life hell. What’s fun and mildly campy in Parvarish is presented as impossibly edgy in Kuttey—but that’s not the real problem. After a while, you start to expect the gun from behind. The film’s unpredictability becomes predictable.
It begins in the jungles of Maharashtra, where policeman Paaji (Kumud Mishra) escapes with his life after an encounter with a Naxal outfit (there’s no reason for the Naxalites to be there in the film, except it’s convenient to have a large group with guns to chuck into the mix at a later stage). Thirteen years later, Paaji has teamed up with the thuggish Gopal (Arjun Kapoor) in Mumbai. They’re tasked by drug kingpin Bhau (Naseeruddin Shah) to wipe out one of his rivals, which leads to a poolside action scene as gratuitous as it is unimaginative. It’s also unsuccessful, a huge problem because the two are cops. Pammi (Tabu), an inspector, offers to help them reverse their suspension—but it'll cost them a crore each. Gopal finds an ATM supply vehicle to rob. One ambush later, Kuttey goes full Parvarish.
Kuttey radiates brash first film energy. Early on, there’s an action sequence in the style of Kill Bill, with shadows against a red background; it has absolutely nothing to do with the way the rest of the film looks (more Tarantino, this time Pulp Fiction, in the story Pammi tells, of a man shot on the toilet). There’s a juvenile quality to the writing, as if getting Tabu say variations on –chod is transgressive after a decade of cussing heroines. It’s unusual to encounter a dud Vishal Bhardwaj script—he’s co-writer with Aasmaan—but Kuttey lacks both the corrosive wit and the linguistic flourish of his best work. It's even more rare to see Tabu defeated.
Around the halfway mark, two new characters are introduced: Bhau’s daughter, Lovely (Radhika Madan), and his employee, Danny (Shardul Bhardwaj), whom she’s in love with. They’re the only ones in this ensemble with some soul, which is largely down to Madan’s no-bullshit acting style and Bhardwaj’s jumpier performance. The writing, again, does them no favours; in moments of excitement, Lovely has nothing more memorable to say than ‘bhenchoood’. There’s too much Vishal in this film, not only his writing and music ('Dhan Te Nan' from Kaminey is dusted off) but many of his past collaborators (Tabu, Gulzar, Naseeruddin Shah, A. Sreekar Prasad). A father will, of course, call in favours for his son, but here it obscures any sense of Aasmaan’s directorial personality.
There’s an annoying tendency among Hindi directors and writers to end films with a big messy gun battle. Vishal Bhardwaj isn’t immune to this—Haider, Ishqiya and Kaminey all ended in this fashion. But even though I’d have preferred other resolutions to each of these films, at least their shootouts had characters I wanted to see come out alive. Who would that be in Kuttey? Lovely and Danny, perhaps, but I couldn’t care less about who shot whom among Paaji, Pammi, Gopal, the Naxals and assorted others.
Bhardwaj might insist he doesn’t want us to feel for them, that they’re each worse than the other. Anurag Kashyap did this in Ugly, but that was a different kind of film, openly antagonistic to its viewers. Kuttey doesn’t want to turn off its audience, but it can’t make the personal stakes seem as high as Ugly. It all feels quite effortful. This is the sort of dark comic thriller that’s been releasing directly on streaming platforms these past few years. While it’s nice to see the genre return to theatres, I wish it wasn’t with this one.