A cunningly intricate first film from India, Monsoon Shootout combines the best of two worlds – a ferocious Mumbai cops and gangsters drama, and a satisfyingly arty plot that turns in on itself to examine the outcome of three possible choices a rookie cop might make when he confronts a ruthless killer. Three times the story returns to a key moment: a boy with a gun uncertain whether to pull the trigger. Though the idea of Dirty Harry meeting Sliding Doors may sound abstract, writer-director Amit Kumar pulls it off gracefully, without losing the sense of heightened drama that earned the film a Midnight Movie slot in Cannes. The Fortissimo release should make good headway in territories open to India and exotic genre fare and put Kumar on festival radar.
The film opens coolly and cruelly in chaotic Mumbai when a big car and an oxcart block each other’s path in a narrow alley. It’s not just a case of India’s ageless poverty confronting its new millionaires: it’s a mortal trap for the rich building constructor in the car, who is promptly hacked to death by the Axe Man. This gruesome hit man, a.k.a. Shiva (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), works for an elusive local boss called the Slum Lord.
First scenario: Adi (Vijay Varma), an idealistic rookie who lives with his mother, receives his first assignment under the tutelage of Khan (archly played by an icy Neeraj Kabi), who knows the only way to make sure a killer is brought to justice is to put a bullet in his back. When he first witnesses Khan murder two suspects, the cadet is shocked; by the end of the film, summary justice is one of his three options. Adi’s big moment comes when he corners Shiva in a dead-end alley, but in the first story he hesitates to pull the trigger. Shiva slips away and continues his murderous rampage, which ends with wreaking a dreadful revenge on Adi’s beautiful girlfriend Anu (rising star Geetanjali Thapa, who brightens a functional role.)
In the second version, Adi returns to his moment of truth in the alley and pulls the trigger, killing Shiva, although he’s not sure the man is even a criminal. He could have been an innocent bystander who ran away in panic. Wracked with guilt, Adi makes an enemy of the dead man’s 10-year-old son, who gets hold of a gun and comes after him.
As Adi’s mother laughingly jokes, there are three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way, and the middle way. One would hope the third time around he’d make a choice without dire consequences. This time, he manages to arrest Shiva and escorts him to court for trial. But destiny is clearly at work here, and in a final unexpected twist, Shiva merges with the god his namesake, as the Destroyer.
Lending his strong face to the lead role, Varma projects a good mixture of vulnerability and naivete as well as scripted courage. Most memorable of all is Siddiqui, who is every inch an unstoppable force of nature, and lucky we are that so much of the violence he wreaks happens off-camera.
The India-U.K.-Dutch coproduction has an international look in its clean, easily readable images, but it’s still so packed with colorful things it’s hard to mistake it for anything but Indian. For example, Kumar takes full advantage of the pouring rain of the title to create a very specific film noir-ish feeling. The high-powered cinematography in movement is lit by D.P. Rajeev Ravi, who so brilliantly shot Gangs of Wasseypur directed by Anurag Kashyap, a coproducer on this film. Without being ridiculously intrusive and over-the-top, modern Indian pop songs by Indian-American singer and composer Gingger Shankar pump up the rhythm.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition), May 19, 2013.
Production companies: Yaffle Films, Sikhya Entertainment in association with Pardesi Films AKFPL, Dar Motion Pictures
Cast: Vijay Varma, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Neeraj Kabi, Geetanjali Thapa
Director: Amit Kumar
Screenwriter: Amit Kumar Producers: Trevor Ingman, Guneet Monga, Martijn De Grunt
Co-producers: Anurag Kashyap, Arun Rangachari
Director of photography: Rajeev Ravi
Production designer: Mayur Sharma
Editor: Atanu Mukherjee, Ewa Lind
Music: Gingger Shankarv Sales Agent: Fortissimo Films