The Russian fable about the scorpion that stung the frog on whose back it was hitching a ride appears to be popular in Bollywood circles. The scorpion’s inability to abandon its fundamental destructive character at the cost of its own safety was a key motif in Jasmeet K Reen’s Darlings (2022). The deadly arachnid-amphibian dance similarly inspires characters and events in Aasmaan Bhardwaj’s directorial debut Kuttey.

There are other references to ancient wisdom in a movie keen on proving that it isn’t your average dog-eat-dog slugfest. But Kuttey’s provenance lies elsewhere, in the movies of Quentin Tarantino and mid-career Martin Scorsese by way of the director’s father, Vishal Bhardwaj, and his crime thriller Kaminey (2009).

Apart from reworking his Kaminey earworm Dhan Te Nan for Kuttey, Vishal Bhardwaj has composed some lovely tunes for the new film, including a cheeky title track that sets Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s words to the refrain “Bhow Bhow”. Bhardwaj Sr has also contributed to Bhardwaj Jr’s screenplay, an untidy heap of gun-fights and diverse characters corralled into a frame.

Kumud Mishra and Arjun Kapoor in Kuttey (2023). Courtesy Vishal Bhardwaj Films/Luv Films/T-Series.

Most of the characters are the cousins of the nihilists from Kaminey. These include a pair of corrupt police officers trying to swindle their crime overlord, another grubby-handed cop, a young couple, and a bunch of Naxalites, led by Lakshmi (Konkona Sensharma).

Gopal (Arjun Kapoor) and his partner Paaji (Kumud Mishra) desperately need a lot of money very fast. Poonam (Tabu) is their influential colleague with a side hustle. Lovely (Radhika Madan) and Danish (Shardul Bharadwaj) are also chasing a pot of gold.

Paaji has an early run-in with Lakshmi in 2003 – an event that is supposed to make Kuttey some kind of a political allegory but ends up being an excuse for yet another massacre.

Weapons are as easily available as cliches in this film’s fictional geography. Mumbai is imagined as a depopulated place where carcasses pile up like garbage heaps and nobody is any the wiser. The Maoists, depicted at one point in a crimson silhouette like characters in an anime film, have even managed to travel seaward from the interiors of Maharashtra.

Konkona Sensharma in Kuttey (2023). Courtesy Vishal Bhardwaj Films/Luv Films/T-Series.

It’s not all blood and overflowing guts. You’re supposed to be having fun watching thoughtful actors swagger about like Navy Seals and swear like sailors. Nearly every actor is given a gun and asked to spray away, which they gamely do.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s background score includes a musical piece that comically sounds like an ogre at the bottom of the ocean clearing his throat. There are in-jokes too, from a cult Hindi filmmaker getting the rough treatment to a thespian complaining that his lights are out.

Might there be something more to Kuttey than a very familiar parade of crime-induced venality? Might the relentless carnage be a state-of-the-nation commentary – it’s a dog’s life with no hope of any treats in store kind of thing?

That thought perishes like so many of the characters, some of whom randomly appear and disappear. The future of the republic is indeed imperilled if people are dim-witted enough to target the very man who holds the key to their fortune.

Aasmaan Bhardwaj at least does well by his sprawling cast, which includes stellar actors trying to look serious while wielding assault rifles. Of the lot, only Arjun Kapoor appears to be the most comfortable channelling his inner Rambo.

Konkona Sensharma’s fiery Lakshmi has a brilliant scene with a killer line about the state’s relationship with its subjects. Seasoned scene-stealer Tabu, as Poonam, has a bullet for a locket, a few flat jokes and some of the film’s most plausibly cynical moments.

Kuttey (2023).