Nothing is what it seems to be, Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar wants to tell us. Promising young private bankers are actually bilking the system. Suspended cops and counterfeiters have hearts of gold. Sandeep is a woman while Pinky is a burly policeman.

Just like its characters, Dibakar Banerjee’s first feature since Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015) suffers from a similar identity crisis. Is it a criminals-on-the-run thriller, an observational drama about crime and redemption, or a dark comedy about late-stage capitalism? It’s often hard to tell from the screenplay, written by Banerjee and Varun Grover.

Pinky (Arjun Kapoor) is a suspended Haryana policeman who hopes to get back his job by carrying out a crime for his corrupt handler Tyagi (Jaideep Ahlawat). Pinky’s assignment is to kidnap Sandeep, who has fallen out with her boss-boyfriend over a scam at their bank that she has helped engineer.

Pinky ends up fleeing with Sandeep when he realises that Tyagi intends to get rid of him too. They make their way to a village on India’s border with Nepal. Here, the mostly cold and unfeeling narrative gets some much-needed warmth and humour in the form of a constantly bickering couple (played by Neena Gupta and Raghubir Yadav). Getting the runaway duo to bump into the couple is pure scripting contrivance. But the grumpy mood relents somewhat and characters are permitted to break into a smile or two.

As Sandeep and Pinky weigh their options, the possibility of a character study emerges. Thrown together as a pretend-married couple, these denizens of different worlds reach an uneasy truce. At least in these sections of the movie, the otherwise limited and inattentive Arjun Kapoor gets more interesting as the policeman betrayed by his own kind and stuck with a parcel without a clear destination.

Paradoxically, the more we learn about Sandeep, the more opaque she becomes. What could have motivated this self-declared gold medallist in mathematics and business school product to canoodle with her superior and swindle lakhs of account holders? Sandeep’s character arc and Parineeti Chopra’s performance are ultimately too enigmatic to solve this important piece of the puzzle.

Without a sense of urgency or a clear understanding of how the characters are evolving between various crises, the 125-minute narrative moves stiffly from one scene to the next. Needlessly grim for the most part and jaunty when least expected, the movie ignores Pinky’s advice to Sandeep to “use head not heart”.

The supporting cast snatch the show from the leads, who appear ill at ease with the script’s demands. As the all-flesh-and-some-blood Pinky, Arjun Kapoor is better off than Parineeti Chopra’s robotic banker.

Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (2021).