Juggling three versions of the same scenario a la “Run Lola Run,” “Monsoon Shootout” is a racy mash-up of Tarantino-esque ultra-violence and-gritty but-hip contempo Indian actioners. Tyro helmer Amit Kumar invests a schematic police-thriller structure with a compelling moral dilemma hinging on a standoff between a cop and his suspect. The rain-drenched Mumbai setting contributes to the pic’s noirish allure, which will ease its access into festivals, especially with fest darling Anurag Kashyap on board as co-producer. Theatrical prospects, however, may largely be confined to Hindi-speaking markets.
On his first day as a police constable, Adi (Vijay Varma) is reminded by his mother of his late father’s axiom that there are three paths in life: “the right path, the wrong path and the middle path.” To which doe-eyed idealist Adi replies, “I’ll find my own path.” Paired with hard-headed cop Khan (Neeraj Kabi) with orders to bust an extortion campaign run by local kingpin the Slum Lord (R. Balasubramanian), Adi is told to track down a hitman, Shiva, nicknamed the Axe Killer, who could lead him to their target. He sees a suspect (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and chases him down an alley, where he must make a snap judgment whether to shoot him (without any evidence) before he escapes over the wall.
That moment, shot in dazzling slow-motion as if frozen in time, is repeated in three different versions, which could symbolize the aforementioned three paths in life. Each roughly 30-minute segment boasts the same set of characters, and certain scenes are replayed in all of them. For example, Adi runs into old flame Anu (Geetanjali Thapa) at the hospital where she works as a nurse, and he asks her on a date, but always ends up keeping her waiting at a church. Adi has repeated encounters with Shiva’s wife, Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee, “Brick Lane”); their son, Chhotu (Farhan Mohammad Hanif Shaikh); and Shiva’s mistress, Geeta (Sreejita De), but each time, the character dynamics vary.
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Alternate endings and open-ended plots are nothing new, but Kumar’s writing and helming smarts are apparent in the way he plays around with variables and constants, maintaining a continual element of surprise while elaborating on the seamy underbelly of Mumbai society that serves as his canvas. Corruption is a clearly recurring theme, as Adi’s decision whether or not to pull the trigger ultimately has no impact on the collusion among police, politicians, businessmen and gangsters; Adi’s proud claim that, for a cop, “the truth is simple” takes on the blackest irony.
Even as the characters shift motives and courses of action, the well-chosen actors manage to build and sharpen their personalities with each new segment. Each version includes an emotionally manipulative scene in which Khan rattles by-the-book Adi with his unscrupulous methods, such as framing a suspect. Yet as more facets of the police’s internal corruption are exposed, the rationale behind Khan’s cynicism becomes clearer, even more acceptable, thanks to Kabi’s nuanced performance, which allows some humanity to emerge.
Dominating the film is Siddiqui’s electrifying turn as Shiva, his savage physical presence making him an enigmatic, amoral force of nature befitting his god-of-destruction namesake. Despite his brief appearances, Balasubramanian is commanding as the crime lord, whose white hair, naked torso and white loincloth make him stand out amid the dark, soiled turf and raggedy slum denizens.
As the sullen Chhotu, young thesp Shaikh is silently intense in a role that ambiguously exudes innocence as well as lethal menace. Although he’s the lead, handsome, clean-cut Varma doesn’t add many layers to the rather stereotypical role of wide-eyed rookie cop, and his performance doesn’t quite convey the agony of his numerous conflicts of interest.
Capturing Mumbai’s badlands during the monsoon season, Rajeev Ravi’s slightly underlit lensing under torrential rain sometimes makes the violent, sinewy action choreography look too chaotic, and tighter editing could have lent the intricate plots greater continuity. Still, the dark, tempestuous mise-en-scene serves to underscore the story’s moral confusion. American-born Indian composer-singer Gingger Shankar’s tensile score moves fluidly between heart-pounding and lyrical.