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Chup Revenge of the Artist: R Balki’s massively entertaining movie has nothing but love for film criticism, but it hates critics

Post Credits Scene: Director R Balki's Chup: Revenge of the Artist isn't a slasher horror or a serial killer thriller; it's actually a parody of those genres, with lots to say about the state of films and film criticism.

chup revenge of the artistDulquer Salmaan and Shreya Dhanwanthary in a still from Chup: Revenge of the Artist.

At regular intervals in director R Balki’s deliriously enjoyable new film Chup: Revenge of the Artist, a cinema-obsessed serial killer lectures film critics about their job seconds before murdering them. The killer is in many ways a mouthpiece for Balki himself. Through his film, the director slits the throats of not only critics, but also his own colleagues, the audience, and society at large. His feelings are unambiguous, and his opinions are delivered with the force of a punchline in a ‘70s era Bollywood film.

But there is a larger point that Balki is trying to prove about contemporary film culture, and he doesn’t do it in the film, but outside it. Right at the end, Chup practically predicts its own future, which includes renewed interest on streaming and a critical reappraisal after a lackluster theatrical run. All of this is to say that Balki probably knew that Chup would be misunderstood, at least initially. He’s commenting on this age of knee-jerk film criticism by offering his own movie as a sacrificial lamb. And he’s right. After weeks of hearing people describe it alternately as a serial killer thriller and a slasher horror, I was surprised to discover that Chup is actually a parody of those genres. But nobody said anything.

It’s like watching Wes Craven’s Scream films and then judging them for not being scary enough.

What gives it away as a parody, you might ask? Well, for starters, Sunny Deol yells ‘bastard!’ at the top of his lungs in the climax, moments before leaping out of an open window and and landing safely four floors below. The music swells, the camera closes in on his face, and Deol delivers a look so ‘ghatak’, you could be ‘ghayal-ed’ by his expression alone.

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But this happens right at the end, when you’re already chuckling along with the cartoonish plot, the exaggerated performances, and the tongue-in-cheek dialogue. In one of his first scenes almost two hours prior, Deol’s character — a police investigator named Arvind Mathur — examines a crime scene with the gravest of expressions, and then observes that the victim was found on the ‘potty’, doing ‘potty’.

Later, seemingly at his wits’ end while tracking the pesky killer (whose identity every last audience member knows already) he enlists the services of Pooja Bhatt’s criminal psychologist character. She runs a ‘psychopath society’ or something. Along the way, we hear gems like ‘prakriti ki tokri mein chokri’ and watch gleefully as Dulquer Salmaan’s vengeful killer is tickled by the ghost of Guru Dutt in a basement shrine that he has built in the great filmmaker’s honour. Danny believes that clueless critics alone were responsible for Dutt’s death, and not his well-documented issues with substance abuse and mental health.

It’s all very deliberate, and (barring the Dutt stuff) consistently funny. Consider the first ‘kill’ that we’re shown on screen. Danny abducts a sell-out critic for praising a bad movie, and proceeds to murder him in the most gruesome manner. The cinematography in this scene makes Danny look like the evil lovechild of Jack the Ripper and Jack the Dripper. But it is in the moments directly preceding this stylised kill sequence that Chup reveals what it’s really bothered by.

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Deep down, the film has an equally romantic outlook towards film criticism as it does for towards film itself. Danny expects nothing but the utmost sincerity from the professionals who’ve been given the privilege to perform this job. To him, the corrupt critic (who accepts expensive gifts from film producers for animated ‘reviews’ that basically function as box office predictions) is indistinguishable from a doctor who sells kidneys on the side. “Audience ki aankhein khol, unka taste upgrade kar, entertainment ki quality badha. It’s your bloody job,” the idealistic Danny seethes at him. “Film kya business karegi yeh tera business nahi hai. Business hai film ko mehsoos karna, logon ko film ki gehrayi dikhana.

It’s important at this point to note that there are different categories of film critics around us, and every producer worth their salt knows which kind to rely on for different sorts of feedback (and services). Every good publicist, for instance, likely has excel sheets filled with names of critics separated on the basis of their tastes, reputation, and influence.

They also know who among them can be bought. People like the dude that Danny kills wouldn’t exist had they not been birthed, quite literally, by film producers with deep pockets. These ‘critics’ aren’t answerable to organisations; they work independently. They’re hired guns. For revenue, they rely on AdSense and brand deals, not on salaries and basic freelance rates. It’s unfair to slot them with the other critics, because they’re not critics at all; they’re influencers. Pooling everybody with an opinion on films together is the equivalent of an actual film critic watching a 30-second Vimal commercial and declaring that Bollywood has forgotten how to make action movies. The only difference is that the second scenario would never happen.

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Even if Balki doesn’t, Danny should know better. He loses all hope when Nila — the equally idealistic entertainment reporter played by Shreya Dhanwanthary — compromises on her principles under pressure. Prepared to kill her for not spotting an act of plagiarism, he tells her that she’s doing “Chor ki chori ki tareef,” and that the movie that she loved is actually a “Mongolian film ki copy.”

Nila represents a different class of critic — she’s writes and thinks in English and has edgier sensibilities, but, perhaps because of her age, is undone by a looser understanding of film history. Her only crime, at least according to Danny, is not being able to spot a copy-paste job on screen. You’d be surprised to know how common this is.

Gone are the days when directors like Sanjay Gupta would straight-up steal the plots of international films and pass the plagiarism off as original work. Directors these days are more discreet. For instance, three Bollywood films in 2022 alone have ‘paid homage’ to Woody Allen (of all people). In fact, Chup is one of them. The other two — Gehraiyaan and RK/RKay — can qualify as rip-offs, to the point that if they were uploaded on YouTube, the algorithm itself would strike them with a copyright claim before Letty Aronson could. But should these films be entirely disregarded because of this? Must they not be considered independently? Should reviews of these films not highlight their merits, as well as their thievery?

The short answer is yes, they should. Because what is hanging if not state-sponsored murder, and what is a plagiarised film if not an unofficial remake?

But in the same way that some producers have been empowered to purchase positive reviews, others have discovered that they can simply hoodwink the gatekeepers of good taste if the source material that they’re stealing from is obscure enough. The blame cannot rest entirely on critics, or influencers, or whatever on Martin Scorsese’s green earth that you want to call them; it rests on the rich elite who control the narrative by throwing wads of cash around, simply because they’re too lazy to actually respect themselves and their craft by doing good work. They’re the ones who’ve created this monster. And now they’re complaining because it wants food.

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Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

First published on: 30-11-2022 at 08:05 IST
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