The human mind is a very delicate topic to deal with - especially if one plans to weave an entire feature-length film around it. Not everyone takes to a psychological thriller very easily and this genre tends to be region-specific as far as our entertainment-masala-picture-loving country is concerned. What's more, because of recent exposure to internationally-acclaimed films by directors like M Night Shyamalan (RIP), Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan, the bar has been raised and the standards set, with many a Karthik calling Karthik falling by the desi wayside. A considerable breakthrough as far as low budget mind-over-matter thrillers are concerned- would be the cult-classic Memento where Chris Nolan expertly weaves a medical condition around a non-linear storyline of moral dilemma to successfully convince the audience of the sheer authenticity of the complex drama unfurling on screen. But then, of course, Ghajini happened. The rest, as they say, is braindead box-office history. See the pattern?
Hence, when a script like this (in a country like this) goes into production, one wonders whether director Prawaal Raman (of Darna Mana Hai fame) is aware of the sheer magnitude of the task at hand - especially when you consider the fact that psychological thrillers in India are more commonly known as cerebral horror attempts, and must follow certain rules that are central to a film's mere acceptance - forget success:
- Mysterious setting. Nothing ordinary- but still convincing enough. Previous deaths applicable.
- Mysteriousness of the characters typified by an unusually long STAY on faces or extreme CLOSE-UPS.
- Atleast one convincing actor. Shadiness- a must.
- Mentally susceptible protagonist.
- Deceptive motives of creepy side characters.
- Opportunistic soundtrack that parades as a story synopsis for the hearing-challenged.
- Random scenes to throw the audience off-balance, only to fool them in the end with Twist ending.
- Fancy science jargon to convince audience of authenticity. Preferably, medical setup.
- And of course, the age-old dilemma of science against alternative reality (read supernatural existence).
Now what sets this film apart from previously unsuccessful films of the last decade (handful, really) is the intelligent choice of a theme that forces every professional in this country to relate to the material: Ragging, as we know, has been a serious problem that plagues most hardcore institutions in this country. Films like Munna Bhai MBBS and 3 Idiots have effectively put forth lighter takes on ragging- and 404, as a film, captures the virus in all its peer-pressured glory, to an extent of sheer mental disintegration and denial. And as we all know, a case of ragging gone wrong can be very dangerous for everyone involved, thus supplying the crucial crux to this dark film.
As an audience, it is hard to understand why under-confident juniors decide to put themselves at the mercy of sexually-disoriented seniors looking for a false sense of power. But put them in a medical hostel with a dark past in the middle of nowhere and things start to make twisted sense. Abhimanyu (debutant Rajvvir Arora) arrives as a true idealist first-year student to dispel all notions about 'bhoothprets' and inane superstitions. Room 404 (with a gory past) is where he wants to live and he takes on history. Professor Anirudh (Kamath), a world-renowned specialist on the human mind, is a respected professor who believes that science is the only explanation for unusual happenings. Predictably, he takes an instant liking to his new student and supports the young chap through all the misgivings of overzealous seniors hell-bent on taking ragging to an all-new level. Chris (Imaad Shah) is the most notorious of all the third-year students- and there is evidently more to him than meets the eye. Eventually, the generally-cool Abhimanyu slowly starts to lose his mind with creepy hallucinations of the ex-student who had once lived in 404 (and committed suicide) with the Professor trying his best to rescue his ex-student from the depths of a possible bipolar disorder combined with the mindgames of the unusually devious trio of seniors led by Chris.
As stated, the rules mentioned above then begin to take effect and it is only the path to a predictable climax that really matters. Apart from a considerable amount of research that may have gone into the fleshing out of the script (evident from the superficial medical setting - a start, nonetheless), the filmmakers have done well to capture the downward spiral of the protagonist using effective theatrical tools that manage, to an extent, to keep the viewers alert.
Thankfully, the film aspires to be more than just a study on the limitless potential of a human mind gone awry and tries its very best to help us relate to the enigmatic characters on show. And that, unfortunately, is where the writers may have missed the plot a bit (no pun intended). The great Roger Ebert, after a particularly satisfying film experience, once wrote - "Despite jumping through deliberately disorienting hoops of its story, the movie has an emotional center, and that is what makes it work." That emotional centre - the basis of human psychology - is conspicuous by its absence in this otherwise-brave effort.
A wonderfully convincing performance by Kamath as the professor for all seasons is heartbreakingly overshadowed by the inevitable lack of depth to his character. Look out for the final 10 minutes of the film for an apt indication of this otherwise-talented-director's acting skills. But, the scenes where his own past comes back to haunt him are not entirely convincing and look totally out of place. Ditto for the shady character of prodigy Chris skillfully brought to life by the genes of Naserruddin Shah. Undercooked role or not, Imaad definitely makes his presence felt whether it be the lilting background score (of which he is, incidentally, composer) or his cool threads. Most importantly, inspite of a confident debut by debutant Rajvvir Arora, it is quite difficult to feel for Abhimanyu and his over-sincere personality. Having said that, he does have his moments and his sullen expressions work well for the film's climax. For fear of letting on more than needed (and being sued), I cannot possibly divulge further about the characterization (and hence, the plot).
After all, it's all in the mind.
With the 16 mm grainy look working wonders for the required atmosphere, cinematographer Savita Singh does a decent job of letting the camera drift along aimlessly to much effect only to be thwarted by disillusioning voiceovers of supposed conversations that are taking place simultaneously. Effective as an experimental style, we say, but reading between the lines is much preferred by us humble audience members. Technically acceptable for the limited budget at hand (evidently), there are stray moments of poor dubbing and out-of-sync dialogue, but nothing alarmingly RGV-isque about execution.
On the whole, a commendable effort by director Raman at an alternate execution that might provide some much-needed impetus to this fading genre (and hopefully courage to the 'bigger' filmmakers), it has to be said 404 is a step in the right direction and not only because it might predictably be compared to recent 'classics' like Ragini MMS and Haunted: 3D. The producers must be mildly applauded for sticking to the basis of the experimental script.
If only the tagline ("It's all in the mind") didn't have to succumb to the laws of B-gradeland (read subtlety ka the end!)- even the done-to-death poster would have made for interesting viewing.
- Reel Reptile