The 1930s British play Gas Light gets a contemporary airing via the Ramayana in Prakash Kovelamudi’s Judgementall Hai Kya, and the results are as in-between and all over the place as might be expected.
The Telugu director’s Hindi-language debut, based on a shambolic screenplay by Kanika Dhillon, borrows a few ideas from the famous English drama, in which a man psychologically manipulates his wife to deny her suspicions that he is a murderer. The stage production gave rise to the term “gaslighting”, and it initially appears that Judgementall Ha Kya’s heroine Bobby (Kangana Ranaut) is the latest victim of the tendency of men to undermine women who stand in their path by questioning their sanity.
Had it ended there, we might have had a smart and taut thriller on our hands. But this isn’t the kind of movie that likes to keep matters simple. Bobby is compromised to begin with. She has some kind of mental illness – what it is, exactly, is never clear – and displays a range of behaviours that are eccentric at their mildest and schizoid at their extreme.
When Bobby accuses her tenant Keshav (Rajkummar Rao) of having offed his wife Reema (Amyra Dastur), nobody is convinced. The always-hungry investigating officer (Satish Kaushik) reaches for yet another packet of chips, crunching down so hard that his lapel mic shudders in protest. Keshav looks stricken and accuses Bobby of rubbing salt on his wounds. Bobby’s grandfather (Lalit Behl) sends her back into therapy.
Two years later, Bobby is in London (also the setting for Gas Light), where she discovers that the world is really small, so tiny, in fact, that her cousin Megha (Amrita Puri) is married to Keshav, who now goes by the name of Shravan.
What does this say about the grandfather’s control over the members of his family? Since the character disappears from the movie, we will never know.
Did Keshav actually murder Reema? Is Bobby so obsessed with Keshav that it is she, in fact, who killed his first wife and now has designs on his second? Are we in Gothic fiction territory, where the line between reality and the imagination is nebulous and perception is coloured by neuroses?
Kanika Dhillon’s screenplay recklessly introduces a new and unwelcome element – a contemporary staging of the Ramayana epic. In this play within a movie that is always struggling to define itself, Bobby’s quest acquires epic dimensions. But since her efforts involve a Google search in a public library, it doesn’t take Sherlock to solve the situation.
The tonally inconsistent 121-minute movie careens between black comedy and murder mystery. The humour is so rarified that it evades the viewer and ends up being a private joke between the filmmakers and the actors. Despite this, there’s at least one good condom joke that will outlast the movie.
The lack of attention to basic narrative logic is most glaring in Bobby’s characterisation. She is pretty off-kilter when we first meet her, holding down a job as a dubbing artist and renting out part of her house to Keshav and Reema. Even when it appears that Bobby is losing her marbles, her fashion sense remains impeccable. Costume designer Sheetal Sharma’s artfully mismatched costumes for Kangana Ranaut are a welcome diversion from the dreary proceedings.
The leads are always on point in a movie that never is. Kangana Ranaut is in great form as the harum-scarum Bobby, moving smoothly between madcap and tragic and investing enough depth and feeling in her character to ensure that Bobby is never a caricature. Rajkummar Rao is excellent as Keshav, who is either a victim of Bobby’s twisted fantasies or a modern-day Bluebeard. Rao’s nuanced performance ensures that the guessing game is played all the way till the end.
The scenes between Ranaut and Rao have the necessary crackle, but the movie is too sluggish and distracted to notice. Ranaut also has some lovely scenes with Jimmy Shergill, the director of the Ramayana stage production who briefly touches Bobby and shakes her out of her borderline Asperger’s syndrome or whatever it is she has.
Neither whodunit or even whydunit, Judgementall Hai Kya is never quite able to match its ambitions. Buried somewhere in the rubble is the ghost of a movie about why madness is sometimes the only sane response to violence.