The camera is like a restless minstrel in 88 Antop Hill. Roaming in and out of fragmented lives as though it were looking for something it cannot really find.
Hari Nair's sepia-splashed frames scream their coded messages at us in debutant director Kushan Nandy's thundering and assertive whodunit. 88 Antop Hill abides by every law of the thriller. And yet it's a law unto itself.
Unstructured in look, 88 Antop Hill is unlike any other whodunit in Hindi cinema where suspects are made to stand like errant schoolboys for the denouement. Young Nandy's flurried film, full of sound and fury, slams the grand finale on us.
The camera captures the sweaty, reeking-of-cologne characters in their south Mumbai milieu, as though it disapproved of their lives and is yet allowing them to be who and what they are: scummy souls on the lookout for love and lust.
Stylised to the core, 88 Antop Hill is a spinning tale of desire and damnation told within the prescribed parameters of the suspense genre. And yet Nandy and his cast bend the rules to a point where the murderous intentions of the plot begin to seem like an alibi for illimitable
The shot compositions are intimate yet enigmatic. The sets are brooding and forbidding. The film wears a vintage look that defines the contemporary setting with delicious irony.
From the opening shriek of protest, when the protagonist Pratyush (Atul Kulkarni) loses his wife and daughter to needless suspicions, 88 Antop Hill creates a web of virgin tension. The shots are like scaffolds, squeezing the breath out of characters as they wheeze and groan through
For this reason, the acting often appears amateurish. The actors don't seem to be playing characters, but playing at being the people they're supposed to be. Hence Shweta Menon is the seductive hooker who invites bereft Pratyush into her lewd lair, offers oral sex and then dies on him.
From this predictably unpredictable beginning, Nandy goes deep into the crevices of his characters' depravities without losing the momentum in the narration. His screenplay is frenetically paced, often so at the cost of coherence so that that his web of deception finally wears thin. You wish there were less talk (more so since Ashish Deo's dialogues are only sporadically funny) and more action.
Although the characters function ably within the thriller structure, 88 Antop Hill finally delivers less than it promises. Which is not such a bad thing after all.
Having amply demonstrated his complete eschewal of narrative rules Kushan Nandy builds a mood that reinvents Alfred Hitchcock's rules of filmmaking.
Nandy's film exudes more emphatic energy and fuelled fury than the whodunits of the past. But finally it's felled by the too-much-style-not-enough-substance malady. The performances ought to have been far more accomplished.
Apart from Atul Kulkarni and Rahul Dev who bring a sense of sweaty doom and swaggering savvy to their roles of the petrified suspect and cool cop respectively, the rest of the cast behaves as though it's part of a play rather than a film.
Especially disappointing is Jasmine who expresses fear rather blandly. And looks at the body in the refrigerator like meat on a mildewed loaf.
Also, the film could've avoided some of the overt atmospheric effects like thunder, lightning and doors that open into cavernous shrieking corridors.
The darkly lit sets are underpinned to the feeling of achy suspense by Rajesh Roy's music. The saturated soundtrack doesn't allow the suspense to get eerie.
The sense of complete involvement that distinguishes a truly accomplished whodunit eludes Nandy by quite a margin. But there's enough evidence here for us to suspect that he could be the Houdini of the whodunit if only he breaks free of stylised narrative devices.