Rajat Kapoor’s filmmaking career did not start on an auspicious note. Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One, made in 1997 after he graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India, was never released. It would take him six years to make his second feature, the crowd-sourced dark comedy Raghu Romeo. The movies have followed in spurts since, and Kapoor has carved out an estimable career in acting and stage direction on the side. Audiences in Mumbai finally have the chance to watch Private Detective at a free screening organised by indie producer Drishyam Films on January 27. The screening is the second in a series called The Masters, and follows a first-time public airing of Sriram Raghavan’s Raman Raghav.

Private Detective betrays the influence of Kapoor’s mentors, Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul. The stylised acting and shot taking, stilted dialogue delivery (the high-flown Hindi is by Kamal Swaroop), indirect narrative and unconventional genre treatment are all instances of Kapoor trying to straddle between the high-minded pleasures of arthouse cinema and the pulp thrills of noir.

Naseeruddin Shah as ‘Colonel.’
Naseeruddin Shah as ‘Colonel.’

The plot covers infidelity, betrayal, murder and blackmail – all par for the course as far as the genre territory is concerned. The central character, an ex-Indian Army officer referred to only as Colonel and played by Naseeruddin Shah, traces his lineage to the crooked shamuses of American noir. Colonel is shadowing Amrita (Kashmira Shah), the sultry wife of businessman Raj (Kenneth Desai). Amrita is two-timing Raj with a common friend Harish (Aly Khan), who is married to Meghna (Shambhavi Kaul). These are the “two plus two” of the title, and the “plus one” is, of course, Colonel, whose role in the affair gets complicated when Amrita is killed.

The cast includes cameos by director Saeed Mirza and Irrfan, in one of his earliest roles as a police inspector. Mumbai is equally a character in the movie, whether it is the grungy worlds that Colonel inhabits, including his modest apartment, his old-fashioned office and the dives where he meets clients, or the stylish abodes of Raj and Harish. The lack of privacy in Mumbai comes handy when Colonel has to collect evidence of Amrita and Harish canoodling. The movie serves several reminders of how beautiful the city was until before the government let builders loose on its precious few open spaces. A few scenes are shot in front of a sea-facing bungalow in Bandra in north Mumbai that is now better known as Mannat, the home of superstar Shah Rukh Khan. The previously open-faced bungalow faces the sea, and and has featured in several films, including Mr India. Its façade is now shielded by high walls, while the hill behind has been covered by buildings.

The bungalow now owned by Shah Rukh Khan and called Mannat.
The bungalow now owned by Shah Rukh Khan and called Mannat.

Private Detective invokes noir conventions but is also a commentary on the genre. In a hilarious sequence, Colonel tries to tail Amrita but loses her – noir is defeated by the logic of Mumbai traffic. The 130-minute narrative is not about the crime, and there is no mystery about who kills Amrita – we see the murderer. The movie’s interest lies in exploring the elegant unravelling of four inter-twined lives. Rafey Mahmood’s gliding, ever-present camera meticulously captures the piece-by-piece demolition of two marriages. Mahmood has shot several of Kapoor’s movies, including Raghu Romeo, Mithya and Aankhon Dekhi. He frames the characters beautifully in close-ups and mid-shots, especially in the sequence in which Meghna realises, by watching Amrita at a disco, that her so-called best friend is having it on with her husband. In another sequence after the murder, Harish looks at his seemingly timid wife with fresh eyes, suddenly aware of how things have changed for the both of them. Nothing, and everything, is said.

There is a lot of watching and being watched in this thriller for the brain. Even Captain’s tawdry photographs, in his view, are minor works of art. When he meets Amrita to bargain for a better deal than the one Raj is offering, he says, “I have been searching for a fan for my artistry.”

That line pretty much sums up the movie.

Amrita and Harish are caught on camera.
Amrita and Harish are caught on camera.