Unpredictable talent Farhad Akhtar largely comes up aces as the eponymous "Karthik Calling Karthik."

Unpredictable talent Farhad Akhtar, a songwriter-cum-director (“Dil chahta hai,” “Don”) who’s recently turned more to acting, largely comes up aces as the eponymous “Karthik Calling Karthik.” This romantic mystery-drama — centered on an office nerd whose life is transformed by a series of phone calls from, uh, himself — is thinly plotted, but surfs on the likable chemistry between Akhtar and co-lead Deepika Padukone. Slightly offbeat debut by writer-director Vijay Lalwani opened OK in late February (beating Amitabh Bachchan-Ben Kingsley starrer “Teen patti”) but isn’t flashy enough to show strong legs.

Akhtar plays Karthik Narayan, a shy employee at a Mumbai construction conglom who’s bullied by his boss, Kamath (Ram Kapoor), and is secretly in love with confident, super-glam exec Shonali Mukherjee (Padukone). Per ochry flashbacks, Karthik was bullied by his older brother as a child, and still feels guilty over his brother’s death when he fell down a well.

Main plot turn arrives 20 minutes in, when Karthik, about to commit suicide in his apartment after being pinkslipped, gets a phone call from a voice claiming to be himself — and even providing personal info to prove it. “Karthik” starts calling every morning at 5 a.m. and, after getting his namesake’s trust, schools him in standing up for himself and showing more confidence.

Soon, Karthik has an office of his own and is romancing the leggy but leery Shonali. But then he breaks the golden rule in his pact with “Karthik”: Never tell anyone about their 5 a.m. chats.

With not a great deal happening in part one, aside from the two leads falling in love, it’s largely thanks to Padukone’s peppermint-fresh personality that the zero-to-hero story holds interest. Beneath the standard high-flying femme character, there are all kinds of hints (largely left unexplored) that Shonali is far from conventional.

After the intermission, the acting baton passes to Akhtar, as Karthik, seeing his new world potentially implode, tries to convince everyone, including his shrink (Shefali Shah), that “Karthik” exists. Final revelation of the mystery is clever but not oh-wow, and the final section lacks the dramatic punch to repay two hours of emotional investment in Lalwani’s shaggy-dog script.

Still, with its chamber-story construction (focused on the two leads for much of the time) and its sliding between genres, pic reps an attempt at something fresh within mainstream formulas.

Akhtar is fine in a low-key way as the conflicted Karthik, but it’s the uncomplicated ingenuousness of Padukone, who hasn’t lost the bloom she showed in “Om Shanti Om” and “Love aaj kal,” who helps make the tall tale convincing.

Tech package is fine, and soundtrack songs for montages are pleasant enough.

Karthik Calling Karthik

India

Production

An Eros Entertainment release of a Magic Beans Films, Excel Entertainment production. Produced by Ritesh Sidhwani, Farhan Akhtar. Executive producer, Miriam Joseph. Co-producers, Amit Chandra, Vijay Lalwani. Directed, written by Vijay Lalwani.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Sanu John Varughese; editor, Aarti Bajaj; background music, Midival Punditz, Karsh Kale; song music, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy; lyrics, Javed Akhtar; production designers, Rachna Rastogi, K.K. Murlidharan; costume designer, Niharika Khan; sound (Dolby Digital), Baylon Fonseca; visual effects, Magic in Motion; assistant director, Paran Bawa. Reviewed at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue 1, London, March 1, 2010. Running time: 135 MIN. (I: 72 MIN.; II: 63 MIN.) (Hindi dialogue)

With

Farhad Akhtar, Deepika Padukone, Ram Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Vivan Bhatena, Vipin Sharma, Yatin Karyekar, Umesh Tonpe. (Hindi dialogue)
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