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Neeyat review: Witty ensemble makes up for second-hand mystery

Nothing about Anu Menon's Neeyat feels particularly original, but a droll cast and light touch keep it afloat

A still from 'Neeyat'
A still from 'Neeyat'

Hindi films should really stop spoiling their own surprises. Not for the first time, a brief but significant appearance is clearly indicated in the opening credits of Neeyat. A thank you in the closing credits would suffice, and have the advantage of not tipping alert viewers off. Having seen the name at the start, it was always in the back of my mind. I didn’t know whether it would be significant, but I knew there was something—and in a murder mystery, something goes a long way.  

Ashish Kapoor—AK to his friends, though that’s a slippery concept—is hosting a party on a remote Scottish isle. Played by Ram Kapoor with huckster charm and flashes of menace, he’s modeled on Vijay Mallya and other Indian billionaire fugitives. His flagship company, AK Cyber, has gone belly up, employees haven’t been paid for two years, and he owes the government 200 crore rupees. So it’s a mild surprise when, in the midst of his birthday celebrations, he announces that he plans to sell his assets, return home and take his chances in court. 

Also read: Konkona Sensharma's The Mirror is one of the finest Hindi films in years

Soon AK will turn up dead, pushed off a cliff during a storm. Since the staff has been sent home and there’s only one outsider, mouthy maître d' Tanveer (Danesh Razvi), Neeyat becomes that most comforting of genres, the locked room mystery. And in keeping with the genre’s conventions, the suspects are… everyone. There’s Noor (Dipannita Sharma) and Sanjay Suri (Neeraj Kabi), old flame and friend of AK’s respectively, and their camera-toting son, who stay in a Kensington mansion belonging to AK, which he was planning to sell. There’s Jimmy Mistry (Rahul Bose), his flamboyant brother-in-law. There’s his cokehead son Rayan (Shashank Arora), who’s brought his girlfriend (Prajakta Koli). There’s AK’s own girlfriend, Lisa (Shahana Goswami); her niece Sasha (Ishika Mehra), whose school fees AK pays; his tarot reader, Zara (Niki Aneja Walia); and his loyal assistant, Kay (Amrita Puri).

Into this vintage Agatha Christie scenario, Menon and her co-scenarists introduce a Poirot—sort of. CBI officer Mira Rao (Vidya Balan) is nothing like the Belgian dandy—or like Benoit Blanc, the loquacious sleuth in the Knives Out films, which Neeyat borrows a lot from. She’s diffident, has panic attacks and is easily overpowered, barely speaks, barely smiles. A better comparison might be with GK Chesterton’s mild-mannered Father Brown, unimpressive except for his remarkable powers of deduction. It’s a clever counterintuitive idea to have an uncool, uncharismatic sleuth, and Balan, all scowls and nervous glances, dressed in a dowdy orange sweater, is perfectly cast. 

There’s too much Knives Out and Branagh Poirot in Neeyat for it to not seem derivative. Even the final twist—which I didn’t see coming—is similar to a revelation in Knives Out 2 (I’m also reminded of Chris Evans’ much-discussed sweater in the first film). But if you can put questions of influence aside, there is enough in Neeyat to divert and amuse. It’s a relief to have a Hindi film that isn’t an eyesore. Cinematographer Andreas Neo introduces noirish flourishes every now and again, including a confrontation wreathed in dramatic shifting shadows. 

It’s always fun when actors with a sense of mischief—Kapoor, Goswami, Arora, Kabi—are put in a confined space and made to bounce off each other. Arora's Rayan in particular is strangely touching, a rich asshole easily moved to tears, the only one who seems genuinely moved by AK’s death, even though he hated him. The whole cast chews scenery, most of all Bose, who doesn’t have a sane line reading in the whole film. It’s slapstick fun, directed with a light touch by Menon, though a couple of subdued performances might have added some heft (Razvi’s Tanveer feels like it’s pitched higher than it should be).

While I wish Neeyat was more its own film, it’s nice to see Balan continue to work regularly and well, on what seem like her own terms. She starred in one of the best Hindi films of 2021, Sherni, and one of the best of last year, Jalsa. In an industry where most actors are operating from a place of calculation and fear, hers will be a second and third innings to watch.  

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