The action-thriller is a genre that was relatively rare in Indian commercial cinema, Bollywood, Kollywood or any other, until the new millennium. Though the 1958 film Madhumathi is based on a murder and its unravelling, it can’t be classified as a thriller (its described as a paranormal romance).
Most Indian movies from the 60s afterwards could be loosely called thrillers in the sense they involved a love triangle, countless plots, fights and sometimes murder. But the Western-style film noir or detective thriller with the central character taking on crime syndicates or artful killers came into its own and became a bankable genre in India relatively recently.
Films such as ‘Raees’ 2017, ‘Mardaani’ parts 1 and 2 (2014 and 2019), ‘Gangster’ and ‘Jism 2’ show that Indian filmmakers can turn out exciting thrillers that can transform the usual Bollywood ingredient of melodrama into a competent cinematic device. These films are sophisticated and deliver on the key elements of acting, direction, scriptwriting, editing and background music.
What the Indians have done is to take the Hollywood formula and give it an Indian flair without falling back on the fistfights, song-dance sequences and jokes which fuelled Indian commercial cinema for so long. Melodrama is used in scripting, but under better control than in the past.
Note that Hollywood too, sometimes falls back on some of these elements, such as comedy, in their thrillers. The black cop-white cop combination films (such as the Lethal Weapon series with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) or The Heat (2013) which brought together Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as two female buddy cops are good examples.
Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees borrows more from the conventional Hindi film format than any other mentioned above except Jism 2. It’s said to be based on real-life gangster Abdul Latif (Raees Alam in the movie)who terrorized Gujarat until he was killed by the police in 1995. If so, it’s a mellowed down version of the man responsible for 64 murders and linked to the 1993 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
But the versatile Sha Rukh Khan manages to pull it off. It’s a cat-and-mouse game between the gangster and a top cop who relentlessly hunts him down. Shah Rukh Khan doesn’t flinch away from showing the police executing Raees by the roadside. Give credit to Indian filmmakers for this kind of realism (in Mardaani 2, the police use torture to extract confessions) while no Lankan filmmaker has had the guts show this unpleasant reality (D. H. Nihalsinha tried in Welikatara and Maldeniye Simion) of our law and order situation (nor would the censor board have the guts pass it if any film dared show it).
Mardaani 1 is a fast-paced thriller directed by Pardeep Sarkar with Rani Mukherji acting as inspector Shivani Shivaji Roy. The sequel Mardaani 2, was released in December 2019. In Mardani 1, Inspector Roy learns about a criminal cartel involved in drug trafficking plus kidnapping of teenage girls to be sold as sex slaves run by a sophisticated mastermind (played chillingly by Tahir Raj Bhasin).
The versatile Rani Mukherji acts with a great deal of elan and is a superb example of the new generation of Indian film actors who swear by restrained underplay, Hollywood style, in contrast to the Bollywood tradition of emotional performances. Her steel-grey eyes work in tandem with her gravelly voice, which has a sandpaper-like edge to it, to reassure viewers that here they have a woman who can take on whatever they throw at her.
The film, being commercial, plays on the voyeur angle, including scenes of the kidnapped girls being forcibly bathed, though cut discreetly. It was not screened in Pakistan after the producers refused to meet that country’s censor board demands. But in India, Mardaani 1 was a box office success and three Indian states granted it tax-free status because of its positive impact on women.
"‘Gangster’ was directed by Anurag Basu, while Bhatt’s daughter, actress Pooja Bhatt, directed Jism 2. The story of Gangster involves Daya (Shiney Ahuja), a gangster with a heart of gold trying to go straight, and his troubled love affair with Simran (Kangana Ranaut), an alcoholic bar singer. When Daya is forced to flee India and take refuge in South Korea, Simran looks for emotional support and begins an affair with Aakash (Emraan Hashmi), a singer "
Mardaani 2, was given very positive reviews. This time, Superintendant of Police Shivani is faced by a formidable opponent – a 21-year-old psychopathic killer played with chilling reassurance by Vishal Jethwa. The film also showcases sexism in the Indian police force, which puts it above the average Hollywood thriller which depends much on gunfights to keep the tension going.
These films demonstrate that in all key areas of film making Indian cinema is now on par with Europe and the United States. Mardani 1 employs a minimalist score by Julius Packiam with an Indie-rock style theme song by Salim Sulaiman. Mukherji researched her role well and trained in a self-defence method of Israeli origin called Krav Maga.
‘Gangster,’ and ‘Jism 2’ was produced by actor-turned producer Mahesh Bhatt and demonstrate the same level of sophisticated film making, though relying more on traditional Indian cinematic elements such as songs and melodrama. Both follow similar storylines – instead of the police being cast in the traditional hero mould, Bhatt turns them into villains who use unsuspecting females to lure their targets into the open. Thus, they have more of a film-noir approach.
‘Gangster’ was directed by Anurag Basu, while Bhatt’s daughter, actress Pooja Bhatt, directed Jism 2. The story of Gangster involves Daya (Shiney Ahuja), a gangster with a heart of gold trying to go straight, and his troubled love affair with Simran (Kangana Ranaut), an alcoholic bar singer. When Daya is forced to flee India and take refuge in South Korea, Simran looks for emotional support and begins an affair with Aakash (Emraan Hashmi), a singer.
What she doesn’t know is that Aakash is an undercover policeman with orders to use Simran as bait to lure Daya out of hiding.
Jism 2 follows a similar storyline and cinematic treatment. Kabir Wilson (Randeep Hooda) is an Indian ex-intelligence officer gone rogue. He is hunted by the intelligence team of Aayan Thakur (Arunoday Singh) and Guru Saldanha (Arif Zakaria). They hire Kabir’s former girlfriend Izna (Sunny Leone), a jet-setting porn star to lure them into their hands. But the plot takes another turn when Thakur, who has to pose as Izna’s boyfriend, actually falls in love with her.
It is ironic that Sunny Leone, a former Canadian porn star who made the quantum leap into mainstream Indian cinema, was hired by Mahesh Bhatt to play an adult movie actress in the film. When Jism 2 was released in 2012, Bhatt compared it to Bernado Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris.
It’s nothing of the kind. Last Tango in Paris (1972) is not a thriller. Its sex scenes were controversial even for European cinema, but Bertolucci’s exploration of the erotic dreams of a middle-aged man (Marlon Brando) haunted by his past and his brooding, emotionally hamstrung but physically keyed up the affair with a young woman (Maria Schneider) who overestimates herself and underestimates her opponaent-lover was a high tension study of people who willingly throw themselves into emotional meat grinders.
Jism 2 doesn’t reach those artistic heights. Nor does it have any sex scenes except some nice calendar shots of Sunny Leone. But, within its limits, it’s well-made, with excellent performances by the main actors as well as a couple of good songs.
In all these films, the acting is excellent with Randeep Hooda, Shiney Ahuja, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Shah Rukh Khan and Vishal Jethwa bringing a brooding sense of menace to their roles as the bad guys, and all three female leads bringing a kind of depth to their acting which the screenwriting did not provide for.
All three were commercial successes, which is hardly surprising. By contrast, Sri Lanka is struggling at many levels to make a good commercial film. It’s hamstrung by high minded postmodernist influenced filmmakers who eschew commercial cinema at one end, and incompetent commercial directors at the other.
The last thriller of any quality one can think of is Chandran Ratnam’s ‘Janelaya’, and that was way back in 1990.
No one seems to remember Lenin Moraes’ Abhirahasa in the black and white 1970s. it was a really good thriller and this generation of filmmakers can learn something from his lighting and shot compositions. But he was a ‘cameraman’ who turned director and no one thinks much of him anyway. It’s terrible when you think that back then, we could turn out a thriller which was as good as anything made in India, while today we are lagging so far behind you wonder whether we can ever catch up.