Karthik Calling Karthik: A Review

Karthik Calling Karthik – Dir: Vijay Lalwani; *ing: Farhan Akhtar, Deepika Padukone, Shefali Shah

If Karthik Calling Karthik had been made, say, ten years ago, it would probably have starred Salman Khan in a double role as a set of twins – one timid, one ‘bold’ – with bawdy, mistaken-identity  hijinks aplenty, as the meat-pack of a shirtless wonder muscled his way from song to song while creepily romancing a pair of  never-to-be-heard-from-again Aishwariya Rai lookalikes. Fortunately for us (though unfortunately for Sallu fans), that was then and this is now. Now being when Bollywood is aspiring towards going all high-concept drama (No Smoking, Dev. D), and high-concept comedy-with-a-cerebrum (Khosla Ka Ghosla, Bheja Fry). Karthik fits in somewhere between the two ‘high’ roads, and if one were pressed to identify a fraternal twin for it, the most obvious (and surprising) answer would be last year’s criminally overlooked Ranbir Kapoor starrer Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, both being narratives in which workplace cruelties instigate life and career altering changes in the title character. But where Rocket Singh gave savvy comedy about a man wrestling control of his professional future, Karthik is more of a mood piece, a character study in which a man struggles to gain and maintain power over his own self.

Karthik (Akhtar) is a painfully introverted, put-upon cog-in-a-wheel at a real estate/construction company, as invisible to his fellow workers as the endless glass panes that divide their cubicles. Bullied by his boss, sneered at by his colleagues, exploited by his landlord, and ignored by the girl of his dreams (Padukone), Karthik decides to end it all with a fistful of pills, but is literally saved by the bell. The telephone bell, that is, with the voice at the other end of the line calmly informing him that it is Karthik calling – himself. And therein lies the high concept. The Karthik who calls is the Other, the alter ego, the id, the man to Karthik’s mouse, and he sets about fixing his life, giving him confidence and moxie, an existential makeover if you will. And for a time, it works; Karthik gets the girl, the promotion, the works. But at the first sign of perceived insolence towards his benefactor, the Voice turns on him, systematically tearing to pieces the apparently perfect but utterly fragile construct of his life, and his personality.

At this point, from intriguing drama, Karthik enters the realm of psych-horror and delivers some well-crafted moments of eerie discomfiture. Overall though, Karthik works better in theory than in execution, being let down by a clumsy, ho-hum script and a see-it-coming-from-a-mile-away denouement that makes the near-fatal mistake of ‘explaining’ everything to death, or at least to a coma. For here is one instance where one wishes the mystery had been left at least partially unexplained instead of wiping the plate clean, having fed every last morsel to the audience in a neat bite. Like the Rubik’s cube used in the film as a symbolic motif to mark the puzzle that is Karthik, you get the distinct feeling that the filmmaker has not worked and sweated his way to the solution, rather that he has simply peeled off the sticky pieces and re-stuck them on the appropriate squares to achieve the final, neat whole.

Still, there is plenty to recommend the film, including the moody cinematography by Sano Varghese, the haunting background score by Medieval Punditz and Karsh Kale, and a terrific, nuanced performance from Farhan Akhtar, who is fast shaping up to be a dynamic performer as well as a thrilling presence on the screen. See it for that, and the fact that it so easily could have been Judwa Part 3(000), but chose not to be.

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