Where is this terrace that Irrfan Khan keeps sitting on? I watched his new movie Blackmail on Saturday and he still seems to be sitting on the same terrace from A Wednesday. But whether he is moodily sitting on a terrace with his friend Anand or doing the very weird things he does at work, Blackmail’s Dev (Irrfan Khan) seems like quite a disturbed man from the get-go. Or does he?
According to the filmmakers, Blackmail is alternatively spelt Blackmale or Blackमेल. This gives you more than enough reason to think that this is supposed to be a comment on men and their minds, the way they think, the reflexive actions they take and the plans they make when confronted with various scenarios.
Maybe that’s why I, patently not a man, found Dev so bizarre. I will never understand why Dev regularly feels the need to steal photos of his colleagues’ wives to use as visual aids while masturbating in the office bathroom. But then again, perhaps this was just meant to be an edgy and complex addition to the movie and to Dev’s dark character on the part of director Abhinay Deo of Delhi Belly fame, and we cannot hypothesise on the instincts of men at large based on this alone.
You feel much more comfortable making judgements on the other thought processes that the movie lets you see. Dev seems to be very prone to graphic and murderous thoughts around the people who anger him, especially women. When he comes home and sees his wife Reena (Kirti Kulhari) in bed with another man, Ranjit, you’re shown his first instinctive reaction: He fantasises about smashing a heavy lamp into his wife’s head, and then about murdering the dude she’s with using a knife.
This is a thought process that, had he gone ahead and committed either of those murders by the way, would have received some sympathy from the courts and public. In many countries across the world, including our own, catching your wife in bed with another man is the textbook example of a situation that allows for a “crime of passion”. Murdering your wife or her lover in this situation is very likely to earn you a much lesser sentence than regular murder, simply because it wasn’t premeditated.
Meanwhile, India’s dusty old adultery laws ensure that in this situation, Ranjit was the only person committing the “crime” of adultery here at all, as only men can be found guilty of sleeping with another man’s wife (because you know, women have no agency and always belong to some man).
Perhaps this is why, when Dev settles on the option of blackmail instead of murder as his preferred form of retribution, he decides to send Ranjit text messages asking if he was having an affair with a “shaadi-shudha” woman. This sets off an extremely complicated chain of events that there really is no point getting into here, so let it be enough to say that Dev blackmails Ranjit, Ranjit blackmails Reena, Dev’s colleague Prabha blackmails Dev, and then the private investigator that Ranjit hires also blackmails Dev.
Through the course of this complicated chain of events, we are shown the depictions of seven murders. Four of the murders take place in Dev’s mind, while the other three deaths occur in reel life. Of the seven, one imaginary victim and one in-reel-life victim are male. The others are all women, murdered in reflexive male anger. One woman’s body, that of Ranjit’s wife Dolly, is dragged across a room and stuffed into a fridge. The shot is taken from above, allowing you to see a long, wet, u-shaped smear of blood adorn the breadth of the very large room. A little while later, you see the corner of Dolly’s dress hanging out of the fridge.
When I saw these scenes, I was immediately reminded of the British author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless. Back in January, she started the Staunch book prize for thriller novels “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. This is her attempt to clean up movies of glorified misogynistic violence, by addressing their usual source material, books. Lawless would give no prizes or money to the makers of Blackmail. Here, the majority of the murders depicted don’t even happen in the movie’s actual plot and can’t be said to serve as some larger plot device but happen only in Dev’s own imagination. They exist either simply for their own sake, or as tools to show Dev is a true hero by not succumbing to these feelings and also not committing any murders himself. Three cheers, hurrah and a yippee for Mr Dev!
The shots of women’s bodies in Blackmail, especially poor Dolly’s, have a different flavour and texture from what we see of men’s bodies. The few shots of male bodies and murders are much shorter, and somehow far less gory. We don’t see them laid out aesthetically on a table for ages, like Dolly, and we’re not shown the same gruesome frames again and again, as with Prabha. With the men, we’re shown just enough to know that they’re dead. With the women, you almost feel like we’re meant to see or appreciate something more, because we’ve sure as hell understood they were dead ages ago.
But in the midst of all this dubious imagery, there is one joke that’s so self-aware and hilarious when made by a bunch of dudes that it’s actually making me second-guess all the other problematic parts of the movie and wonder whether the filmmakers were trying to do something funny or clever there too. At least, we think it was a joke. When Prabha, blackmailer #3, is found dead, all the men in the movie, including the policeman investigating her case and the closeted gay boss at her erstwhile workplace, keep talking or yelling about how sad they feel that a virgin has died. This is offered up with no explanation and plenty of exaggeration, particularly when the boss asks Dev if he’s looking depressed today because Prabha was murdered and was a virgin.
The movie, as happy to shed female blood as it is, does offer up a few enjoyable moments like these. It also contains several boring cliches, like Dev’s hackneyed closeted-gay boss in the toilet paper company he works at (and all the juvenile butt jokes this combination can bring to mind), or a scene where Dev is sitting ponderously on his terrace and the billboard behind him flickers to show only the alphabets Life Sucs. Still, these are silly cliches we can put up with, in the larger scheme of things, but in 2018, we really don’t have any patience left for glorifying misogynist violence for its own sake, or to highlight the heroism of yet another man for not giving in to his violent urges.
Co-published with Firstpost.