Sunday, October 14, 2012

Menacing Visitor

Once upon a time in India, a woman was visited by the oddest man...

When Christopher Lee hosted Saturday Night Live back in 1978, he explained that he no longer did horror films because of their diminished quality. He proceeded to show three fake trailers, performed by the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, as examples of the decline of modern day horror. The faux movies had such humorous titles as, The Island of Lost Luggage, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Rogers. The other fake trailer, The Thing That Wouldn't Leave, concerned a clueless houseguest, played by John Belushi, who had overstayed his welcome at a young couples home. As he obliviously ignored dropped hints he should leave and instead asked for more chips, a horrified housewife, played by Jane Curtain, screamed in terror. 

It's not really the most funny or terrifying premise in the world, but Bollywood director Ram Gopal Varma actually manages to wring humor, suspense and horror from the same concept in the 1999 Hindi thriller Kaun? (Who's There?).

The strikingly beautiful and perky Indian actress Urmila Matondkar plays a never-named, young woman who is apparently home alone with only her cat for company. Early on, a television news report of a recent murder committed by a serial killer in the vicinity causes the young woman anxiety which is subsequently amplified by the appearance of an unexpected and unwanted visitor.

Manoj Bajpai plays the clueless lost visitor, Sameer, who manages the near impossible feat of being obsequious, goofy and menacing all at the same time. It doesn't become obvious until near the end of the film whether Sameer's ingratiating plea of "Ma'am, Ma'am" is meant as the slightly servile begging of a stranded traveler, or the cat-and-mouse taunt of a serial killer. At times, the credibility of this character is stretched as when he exclaims he hates cats in one breath, then picks up the woman's cat and begins fawning over it. But, overall, Bajpai does a great job of making Sameer a harmless, cheese-sandwich-loving buffoon in one scene, and a dangerous menace in the next while still maintaining believability. To really appreciate Bajpai in this role, one need only see him in a more conventional movie like Satya where he quite credibly plays a savvy gangster leader.

Initially, the woman will not let Sameer into the house, despite his pleas and a steady downpour outside. Eventually though, he is allowed in and immediately turns up the creepiness. Things get more complicated and suspenseful when yet another uninvited house guest subsequently shows up.

The ending stretches the plot a little beyond reason and nearly changes the story to an urban legend-type fairy tale, but it was a large part of the fun for me. With all the previous twists, I knew one more was coming and it did. Some will have issues with it, but I liked it despite the associated logic problems.

Besides the credible acting, there are a couple of other elements that help the film immensely. One is the economical length (by Bollywood standards) of 100 minutes which serves as more than enough time to introduce the characters, set the mood and execute the twists. The short runtime does come at the expense of the usual obligatory musical numbers save for the opening and closing title song which is actually a nice little hip-hop-like ditty that fits the film's tone. Another aspect that boosts the film is the set decoration and design. With only three characters (outside of a dream sequence crowd) the film invariably would carry a stage-like feel, but the incredible set design and decor vest it with a very photographic, cinema friendly atmosphere. The woman's house is filled to capacity with stunning art and furnishings and it really gives the camera and viewer a lot of colorful things to look at when the story slows. The beautiful interior is accentuated by the constant, steady rain outside that can be seen on the windows or creating shadows on the walls. 

Overall, Kaun? is an aesthetically pleasing, well constructed and evenly acted thriller that also brings some humor courtesy of Manoj Bajpai's performance. The story is not the most original and maybe has one too many twists and the music has the typically overbearing horror cues but the film is otherwise executed so well that these minor flaws are easily overlooked. 

Final Score 7.5/10

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