Man proposes, God disposes. What, then, of mortals who are trying their best to… dispose?
Director Paresh Mokashi’s delicious Marathi crime-comedy Vaalvi (streaming on Zee5) explores the messiness of murder. The best laid plans come with invisible spanners, and this taut thriller features criminals who meticulously check and double-check their schemes but are forced, by circumstances, to improvise. The three protagonists, however fastidious and thorough, are not killers by trade. The idea of getting away with the perfect murder, therefore, is soon supplanted by the much more urgent need to survive.
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I was thematically reminded of the Coen Brothers’ inch-perfect 1984 debut, Blood Simple, where much blood is spilt and mopped, but Vaalvi (which translates to “Termite”) is its own unique creature. For one, the beginning evokes K. Balachander’s 1986 romance Punnagai Mannan, as we meet a husband and wife, each holding a gun to their heads, squeezing the triggers in unison. Bang, yes, but not bang bang! One gun doesn’t shoot.
Mokashi, best known for 2009 film Harishchandrachi Factory (now streaming on Netflix), has written Vaalvi with Madhugandha Kulkarni, his wife, and given how excellently they have plotted this bloody film, I assume the two writers could get away with many a crime. Thankfully, their characters are less masterful and conniving. They are, in fact, like most of us.
Aniket (Swapnil Joshi) is having an affair with dentist Dr Devika (Shivani Surve) and the lovers have concocted an elaborate plan to eliminate Aniket’s wife Avani (Anita Date-Kelkar). Aniket and Devika rehearse the whole thing multiple times, impressively taking into account CCTV cameras and witnesses, coming up with foolproof alibis and spending several days on groundwork ahead of the murder, making sure loose ends will be tied up and that all looks convincing. We don’t know about the characters or their romance but we can see that Devika has clarity and Aniket is eager, and the smartness of their plan makes us want it to succeed. We are rooting, if not for them, then for their efficiency.
Murder, of course, rarely follows a prepared syllabus. Avani is not as predictable and boxed in as Aniket assumes and she has created a whole world of troubles—and troublemakers—for the lovers, even without meaning to. A desperate psychiatrist, Dr Anshuman (Subodh Bhave), is somehow added to the mix, and the film features these three characters trying their hardest to keep their heads above water.
At some point, as if to mirror the grisly goings-on in our newspapers, the three of them discuss chopping up a corpse and disposing of it piecemeal. It seems tempting, but which of them can actually hack a human being into pieces? “You’re both men,” says Devika immediately, the usually assertive character suddenly eager to step back. “You’re both doctors,” counters Aniket, equally eager to avoid a proactive role. This is sharp writing. The fact that none of them has the stomach for something we read about so frightfully often makes them a touch less monstrous. They might be doing very bad things but are they very bad people? We relate to them even as things get bloodier.
The best scene I’ve encountered in this context is in a Hindi pulp novel. In Ved Prakash Sharma’s fantastically titled Laash Kahan Chhupaun?—inadequately translated as “Where Do I Hide The Corpse?”—the protagonist, having cut up a body, decides to distribute its pieces across the city, far from himself and culpability. To test the efficiency of his plan, he takes a finger, puts it in his pocket and boards a bus, intending to throw the finger at some garbage dump several stops away. Except there is a scuffle on the bus. A pocket has been picked. The bus is halted. And now all the passengers will have to be searched. A magnificent predicament.
Murder is about the unanticipated. At one point, Devika, wondering if Aniket’s maid is trying to blackmail or entrap him, asks him if he always pays her on time and hopes that he doesn’t keep insulting her. This is basic decency but it has assumed deeper, deadlier meaning given their current situation. All the moving parts matter.
I’m not getting into story details because it would be criminal to spoil Vaalvi. This is a clever, crisp and tight film—just over 90 minutes—and it’s all plot, with no room for fat. The obvious comparison, in terms of genre and theme, is with thriller director Sriram Raghavan, but he uses smoke and mirrors. Raghavan is a stylist who creates outrageous characters, and, in his films, individual moments—and their cinematic treatment—disguise plot indulgences and contrivances. Vaalvi’s characters are solid but unremarkable (though Surve’s fiery Dr Devika is a riot, and memorably fatal to eve-teasers). This approach is cleaner, and Mokashi leaves himself no room to hide.
At one point, Dr Anshuman starts munching on potato chips. This exasperates Aniket, who asks him to stop, but the psychiatrist reasonably explains that times of high anxiety are when we turn most readily to junk food. Later, during a dialogue-less sequence, the silence is broken only by Aniket and Devika eating chips noisily. Well played. What these films point out is that no matter how masterfully conceived and immaculately carried out, the perfect murder can’t be an isolated event. Murders, in a way, are like potato chips. No one can stop at one.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.
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