Monsoon Shootout begins rather ominously – at least from a viewer’s point of view. An assassination scene that looks straight out of the ‘90s plays out against the backdrop of a loud Mumbai festival (Janmashtami). The culmination of a daring human pyramid is intercut with a predetermined murder. A wealthy builder is trapped in his car by undercover beggars in a narrow lane. They set the stage for the “boss,” a hooded hitman, axe in hand, who appears as if he were bridging the stylistic divide between Indian underworld thrillers and Hollywood slasher flicks. The intended transition: a smashed human skull to a smashed festival pot.
For the next two hours, we see a number of similarly theatrical transitions. A lot of blood and gore and action are suggested through choppy, dated techniques. At times, they jolt. But they mostly leave us disoriented and irritated, as if it were unfurling in a low-budget Anurag Kashyap film-verse.
Director Amit Kumar’s film was ready in early 2013. It’s hard to say how it might have been received then, but it does bear the look and sound of a movie that seems to have aged during the long wait. The neo-noir design is punctuated repeatedly – through incessant rainfall, suspenseful music and characters that behave like they know how dark and futile their existence is. Perhaps the obvious lack of financial resources may not have justified this obviously showy approach.
Yet, ironically, it’s not the iffy visual genre but the writing – the bare-boned idea behind what seems like an average cop-versus-killer drama – that makes Monsoon Shootout an oddly thought-provoking film.
For starters, there’s the ambitious narrative, which isn’t quite gimmicky for the heck of it. A rookie policeman named Adi (Pink’s Vijay Varma, in what was supposed to be his acting debut), under orders of a veteran Crime Branch officer (Neeraj Kabi, as Khan), finds himself in a “moment”. The kind of proverbial life-flashing-before-eyes moment, except he looks ahead instead of behind. This moment is turned into an entire film.
On a particularly stormy and wet night, a secret plan to nab the axe killer, Shiva (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, doing his best pre-Badlapur “silent violence” impression), goes awry, and Adi chases Shiva until he points a gun at the criminal in a dark, flooded alley. It’s Adi’s first week on the job. He is bright, but perhaps too bright for the grey ethical conflicts and politics-law nexus that routinely turn Indian cops into soulless gatekeepers like his boss, Khan. Millions of thoughts must surge through his young, inexperienced mind here. But they are distilled down to three distinct ones, on basis of what his late father once taught him: the wrong path, the right path, and the middle path.
This microscopic moment then branches out into three fictitious narratives – a domino-effect consequence-filled series of future events – that internalize these loaded choices. They add up to create a strangely complete and occasionally clever story, one that highlights the “academic” psyche of a man operating in a field that usually discards complexities and conscience. For all matters and purposes, it also explores the egotistic rifts of a professional generation gap – the practicality of youth threatening to dilute a traditionally old system, and the boy attempting to suffocate the man within him.
As a result, Monsoon Shootout ends up being a rare psychological thriller that doesn’t advertise its high-concept form purely as a filmmaking tool; there are deeper questions of morality and humanity addressed through what is essentially an engaging character portrait lodged within the realms of a desi Dirty Harry universe.
The world is so fraught with uncertainty and deep-rooted corruption that a youngster is forced to explicitly imagine the consequences of his decisions even before he takes them. He is forced to consider the perils that exist in his own half instead of the cold-blooded killer opposite him. He thinks of the cocked trigger as kick-starter of various destinies instead of it as a simple weapon of self-defense. The last thing on his mind, of course, is the obvious danger of the situation – a very cinematic allegory for the kind of armchair-activism era we currently occupy.
The three movies within the film are built upon the foundation of distrust and artificial encounters. They involve characters that will affect the outcomes in different capacities – Shiva’s angst-ridden wife (Tannishtha Chatterjee), his traumatized son, a sultry sex worker, a noble nurse, a Dharavi drug lord, a taxi-driving sidekick, a morally ambiguous lady inspector and a shady constable. Either way – whether it assumes the contrived rhythm of a generic coming-of-age tale or the inevitability of a doomed story of missed opportunities – the filmmaker communicates that there may be no such thing as a “happy” ending once innocence is lost. And this is a valid line of thought, especially subversive in context of the naturally indulgent crime/detective genre.
That’s not to say Monsoon Shootout is consistently penetrative – it indulges in an awkward romantic track in pursuit of a love story that is supposed to define Adi’s decision. But there’s no aura, and little depth, to this character-shaping romance. It’s in weak phases like these that we notice how effective actor Vijay Varma’s subdued tone is. In contrast to the film unfolding around him, he remains temperamentally neutral – a boy on the brink, a lover on a leash, and a student amidst brash educators and illiterate principles.
There might have been the indie temptation to make him the flashy Raman to Nawazuddin’s perpetual Raghav, but Kumar constructs him on a fundamentally humane level. The writer remains true to his own curiosity. And maybe this aspect – an exploration of storytelling without compromising on expression – is what keeps Monsoon Shootout relevant and interesting, irrespective of when it was shot.
It can’t have been easy for Kumar and Varma to wait for their film (which played at Cannes 2013) to see the light of day on home shores. They must have questioned their own artistic vision with respect to independent Hindi cinema’s constantly evolving language. But now that it’s out, it feels like more than just closure. It’s a competent film, even in 2017, and perhaps in 2020 too, that might hopefully serve as a springboard – a necessary trigger – for technically sophisticated efforts in the future. They won’t need to think thrice before pulling this trigger.