Slickness. Spell-check tells us that that's not even a real word, but we'll have to invent it.
Slickness is what jumps out at you when you're watching Johnny Gaddaar. Is this what a Bollywood movie would look like if Tarantino made it?
Not quite. But if the Gettysburg Address was about Johnny Gaddaar, Lincoln would've probably said that it's a movie "about movies lovers, by a movie lover, for movie lovers". From the get go, it's apparent that Sriram Raghavan loves his movies, and Johnny Gaddaar is peppered with hat-tips and homage moments to a whole host of classics from Indian and world cinema.
As the tagline says, it's a "tingling tale of crime and betrayal, love and murder", so we can't give away too much of the plot. Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh), Seshadri (Dharmendra), Shardul (Zakir Hussain), Prakash (Vinay Pathak) and Shiva (Daya) are partners in semi-legal gambling adda operated by Prakash.
On the side, they engage in several quasi-legal and illegal businesses, one of which involves selling dope that the venal police inspector Kalyan (Govind Namdeo) provides them from police heists. During one such deal, Shiva is entrusted with carrying the partners' payment to Kalyan by train from Bombay to Bangalore.
Unbeknownst to the others, Vikram ke iraade nek nahin hain, and explicitly inspired by the 1971 Amitabh starrer Parwana, hatches a plan to steal the money. Vikram's affair with Mini (Rimi Sen) adds a twist of infidelity to an already dark and gloomy affair.
The first half is fast and gripping, and superbly done - a montage of set pieces, jump cuts and freeze frames and whatnot thrown in - and leaves you panting for more at the interval. Then the narrative sags a bit in the middle, but picks up the pace again towards the end, which isn't as much "climactic" as it is simply unexpected.
Neil Nitin Mukesh's debut outing is good, perhaps even very good, but scratchy in places, especially when he is pleading his innocence to various people. All said and done, a memorable portrayal of a young, ambitious and earnest go-getter's reluctant descent into treachery and casual murder.
Dharmendra is wonderful as a one-time smuggler (named Seshadri!), currently sentimental and idiosyncratic (he listens to his dead wife's voice on tape for time-pass), father figure to the others. They should've axed all his English lines, though. Except the wonderful "it's not the age, it's the mileage" bit that's in the trailers.
Vinay Pathak as the casino's manager with a gambling problem, and Zakir Hussain as the operator of an upmarket lounge, are also very good, and (surprise, surprise) if you keep the clothes on Rimi Sen and give her a decent role to play, she can more than stand and deliver.
Johnny Gaddaar is marked by way-above-par technical qualities. The titles in the beginning and the background score throughout the movie are used very effectively to impart a delightful retro '70s Hindi movie look and feel. All of which just take the slickness (there's that word again) quotient into the troposphere.
After what seems like eons, this isn't a movie about the actors or the characters or the music or the budget or the story. It's a director's movie; it's Sriram Raghavan with a tale to tell in his own very personal way, and there's no stopping him.
Johnny Gaddaar is far from perfect - there are inconsistencies and incongruity that will doubtless keep pickers of nits happy - but that shouldn't get in the way. It's better than your average multiplex movie and definitely worth a dekko for the taut storyline and the craftsmanship on display. If you know and love your movies, it moves from the "worth a dekko" category into the "don't miss it for anything" realm. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.