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Serial killer armed with an iron rod, femme fatale, avenging mom: Welcome to Bollywood’s heart of darkness

Here are top 10 Bollywood thrillers that will pull you in with their twisty tales. The compilation includes works by noir mavens like Vijay Anand, Anurag Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan and Navdeep Singh.

Written by Shaikh Ayaz | Mumbai |
Updated: May 5, 2020 1:27:58 pm
Bollywood thrillers In the second essay of ‘100 Bollywood movies to watch in your lifetime’ series, we explore 10 essential Hindi crime thrillers.

Any discussion about the Hollywood thriller starts and ends with Alfred Hitchcock. Nobody did more to spook audiences than the portly British director, who once defined the difference between ‘suspense and surprise’ as follows — A bomb goes off under a table, that’s a surprise. We know there’s a bomb under the table but not when exactly it will go off, now that’s suspense. Filmmakers around the world have tried to mimic Hitchcock’s approach to suspense. Bollywood is no different. Here too the Hitch rules, but it is homegrown noir pundits like the late Vijay Anand, Sriram Raghavan and Anurag Kashyap and their pulpy musicals that speak more to the palette of Indian audiences. ‘Goldie’ to family and fans, Anand made all kinds of cinema, but it is his thrillers, or noir to be more specific, that have become his enduring legacy. Starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman, the spiritually-minded Guide is usually cited as his tour de force, but the ones that inspire cult-like devotion are the breezy thrillers. You may have seen a few of them. There’s Jewel Thief, Johny Mera Naam and Teesri Manzil. What sets Goldie’s thrillers apart from others is not their adrenaline-pumping plot or masterful characterization — all good thrillers have that in common — but the way he conceived and shot songs. Known as a master of song picturisation, each Vijay Anand song, whether it is “Hoton mein aisi baat” in Jewel Thief that combines Vyjayanthimala’s deft dancing talent with ‘edge-of-the-seat’ suspense as the story hurtles towards its climax or the soulful “Tumne mujhe dekha” in Teesri Manzil that takes place in the club, moments before Asha Parekh, in an emotional outburst, unveils Shammi Kapoor (singer Rocky) as the elusive rapist and killer.

In short, Anand’s thrillers are catchy, filled with musical intrusions that somehow carry the story forward but more importantly, they are pure popcorn entertainment. Does that explain his enduring legacy? Is that all? Yes, but only partly. Bear in mind that to carry forward any legacy, you need heirs. Alfred Hitchcock, the ultimate suspense-meister, was a critical pariah in Hollywood and it was the French New Wave, most notably the French critic-turned-director François Truffaut, who helped reintroduce Hitchcock to America. That’s how Hollywood came to look at such classics as Rear Window, Pyscho and North by Northwest with renewed appreciation. In Goldie’s case, the heir apparent is Sriram Raghavan. A patron saint of pulp, Raghavan’s unashamedly mainstream noirs frequently doff their hat to the “God”, as the Goldie successors fondly address him. His 2007 breakout, Johnny Gaddaar, was duly dedicated to the guru. “You can see Vijay Anand’s influence even in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film,” Anurag Kashyap had once declared. “The 1942 A Love Story song of “Ek ladki ko dekha”,” he continued, “is influenced by Johny Mera Naam’s “Pal bhar ke liye.” Earlier, songs were a part of the narrative, for instance, the suspense built around “Hoton mein aisi baat” in Jewel Thief.”

Vijay Anand Vijay Anand made all kinds of cinema, but it is his thrillers, or noir to be more specific, that have become his enduring legacy. (Express archive photo)

Also, close friends who owe their break to Ram Gopal Varma, Raghavan and Kashyap are well represented in our list of top 10 thrillers (as part of our exhaustive ‘100 Bollywood movies to watch in your lifetime’ series). We have picked Raghavan’s Andhadhun and Badlapur over the just-as-finely-crafted Johnny Gaddaar. Sorry JD buffs, but we sincerely believe that Raghavan’s latest about a blind pianist and a femme fatale is the film that his career has been building up to — which is to say, all the hard-to-achieve elements of a thriller fall in line in Andhadhun. Motivation? Check. Atmosphere? Check. Tense pacing? Check. Director Guillermo del Toro once described suspense as being all about the withholding of information. Either a character knows something the audience doesn’t know, or the audience knows something the character doesn’t. It’s a tall ask, but Andhadhun goes a long way in “withholding of information.” Raghavan’s Badlapur comes a close second. Similarly, Anurag Kashyap’s filmography thrums with slick thrillers but on our thriller-o-meter, Raman Raghav 2.0 ranks higher than Black Friday and Ugly, both capturing the filmmaker in top form with their blend of gritty realism, high-tension drama and an overwhelming sense of dread. In Raghavan and Kashyap’s immoral universe, the hook is usually a psychopath/sociopath or serial killer navigating moral ambiguities in a pool of blood and violence. The lighting is dark, so is the mood which has led critics to bill these films as “noir.” From the RGV school, another inclusion in our countdown is Shimit Amin’s Ab Tak Chhappan, one of Ram Gopal Varma’s many erotic fetishization of cops, crime and mob violence in the golden age of Mumbai’s mafiosi. Then, there are other kinds of thrillers which aren’t noir but equally enjoyable. Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012) is easy to sum up in hindsight except that it was a totally unexpected mainstream fare when it first released. A heavily-pregnant woman (Vidya Balan) is out and about searching desperately for her missing husband. Ghosh’s breathless ode to the city of his birth, Kahaani brings Kolkata alive in all its grungy beauty. (Satyajit Ray should be proud).


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What’s common to the roundup of these Bollywood thrillers is the element of human motivation and crime. It is sad but not entirely surprising to find that top stars who can bring so much heft to a juicy thriller typically avoid this genre. No self-respecting superstar with a mass following can risk his image by playing a bloody murderer. So, the dirty job goes to the usual suspects. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Kay Kay Menon or Manoj Bajpayee. Someone like Shah Rukh Khan who once sunk his teeth into “K-k-k-iran”-slurring anti-heroes today hews closer to crowd-pleasers. But whenever a leading man throws caution to the wind, from Ashok Kumar in Jewel Thief (though in his defence, it wasn’t something new for Dadamoni whose Kismet and Sangram, among more, went a long way in glamourizing crime) to more recently Varun Dhawan in Badlapur, the audience is in for a treat. So long as you aren’t taking what’s happening on screen seriously. A far safer bet for big stars is the spy caper, a popular sub-genre in Hindi cinema thrillers. From Dev Anand and Jeetendra to Saif Ali Khan and Salman Khan, everyone has tried their hands at it. Taken together, our guide to the top 10 thrillers will give you a fair idea of the fun Bollywood capers to watch. Many thrill-seekers may have already seen some of these films. Hopefully, the accompanying write-up may encourage you to view them in a new light. You will notice that the “psychological thriller” and “political thriller” are missing from the list. Why? Simply because that’s the ilk Bollywood doesn’t do often. For now, we leave you with our pick of 10 essential Hindi crime thrillers. It will do well for readers to remember that Bollywood’s forte is pulp thrillers with chartbuster music, unlike Hollywood that has over the years perfected the brain-twisting, genre-bending capers. Join us in this thrill ride.

Andhadhun (2018)

‘What is life? It all depends on the liver’ — Prologue

Andhadhun Radhika Apte and Ayushmann Khurrana in a still from Andhadhun.

It’s not about how you start. It’s about how you finish. And as far as endings go, Andhadhun is delectably open-ended and mysterious — triggering more questions than it answers. Spoilers ahead: Is the half-blind rabbit who opens the film a metaphor for Ayushmann Khurrana’s character? Does blind pianist Akash have partial vision? Has Akash taken Tabu’s eyes? Has the rabbit become Akash’s stick? Whatever the meaning of the ending and fanzine-fuelled wild theories around it, Andhadhun is Sriram Raghavan’s most enjoyable caper, yet. The noir specialist (maker of Johnny Gaddaar and Badlapur) far exceeds expectations this time. Set as usual in Pune, an unsung backdrop for most Raghavan films, it follows Akash (Khurrana), a blind pianist, who’s called by a former Bollywood star to perform at his home. Once he arrives for the private concert, he is in for a surprise. So is the audience. As the femme fatale, Tabu (the gleefully unrepentant Simi is a hat tip to Subhash Ghai’s Karz) makes you fall in love with her once again. Why doesn’t one of Hindi cinema’s most gifted performers do more films? She, along with an unbreakable Khuranna who gets tossed around and the director’s trusted ensemble (bit players like Zakir Hussain and Ashwini Kalsekar) make Andhadhun the most engaging and fun caper Bollywood has produced in a long time. Explains Andhadhun’s new-found appeal as a fan favourite.

MOM (2017)

‘Bhagwan har jagah nahin hota, DKji’ — Devki

‘Isliye toh usne maa banayee hai’ — DK

sridevi iifa award for best actress Sridevi in a still from MOM.

Sridevi’s swan-song (though her last appearance is in Zero), MOM is a riveting portrait of revenge — best served cold, in this case. This is the ‘unsafe-for-women’ Delhi we all read about, with dread. Director Ravi Udaywar films the opening with frenetic energy. Your heart’s in your mouth. More troublingly, you know where all this is heading. Young Arya, Devki’s (Sridevi) step-daughter, is in harm’s way. Less than half an hour into the film and Arya is lying in a pool of blood, brutally raped and left to die. When justice is denied, Devki switches on her Durga-Kali mode. “God isn’t everywhere,” she tells DK, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Bholenath-invoking gumshoe. “That’s why he made mothers,” he quips, before promising to help her in the case. Channelling her inner goddess, Devki goes about systemically cleaning out her daughter’s rapists. Hot on her tail is a Ray-Ban-wearing CBI officer (Akshaye Khanna) determined to nab her. While MOM keeps you on tenterhooks what works are the performances. Khanna is extraordinarily restrained while Siddiqui, with his partially balding get-up, adds the right amount of excitement. But MOM is Sridevi’s show all the way. Vulnerable and vengeful by turns, the late actor is a delight to watch.

Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016)

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Raman Raghav 2.0, Nawazuddin Siddiqui Raman Raghav 2.0, Nawazuddin, NAwaz, Raman Raghav 2.0 movie, Entertainment news Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a still from Raman Raghav 2.0.

These days, Anurag Kashyap oscillates between romance and crime. He follows the dusty hinterland crime capers with a dark vision of Mumbai. Many critics have drawn a connection between That Girl in Yellow Boots, Ugly and Raman Raghav 2.0, bracketing them into a loose trilogy. Look closely and the connection does become apparent. All these films are based in present-day Mumbai, painting and tainting the underbelly with the darkest shade of black. Those feeling lucky can also add Black Friday to that list. If Ugly was about a kidnapping, Raman Raghav 2.0 is a disturbing account of a serial killer (based on a real-life criminal who terrorised Mumbai in the 1960s). No prizes for guessing that the reliable Nawazuddin Siddiqui fills in the rubber chappals of the infamous killer. Ramanna (Siddiqui) kills without motivation. It’s the only thing he knows, as he lumbers around with an iron rod looking to add unsuspecting pavement-dwellers to his tally. Kashyap contrasts Ramanna with the coke-snorting cop Raghav (Vicky Kaushal). Raghav forms the second half of this thriller’s title. He kills for pleasure and to feed his sadistic needs. Kashyap places this duo side by side, nudging the audience to make a choice between the morally worse of the two. There’s no doubt that the cop and criminal are alter ego/splitting images of each other. The question is, who’s the one most undeserving of your sympathy.

Badlapur (2015)

varun dhawan was appreciated for his performance in badlapur Varun Dhawan in a still from Badlapur.

Macabre, twisted and unflinchingly dark, Badlapur once again has director Sriram Raghavan in terrific form. The title is taken from an industrial suburb near Mumbai but metaphorically points to revenge. Where there is revenge, there is redemption. Badlapur opens with a heist-gone-wrong. Raghu’s (Varun Dhawan) innocent wife is killed in an accident, a totally unavoidable crime for which perpetrator Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) will pay for the rest of the film. Raghavan artfully subverts the idea of bad and evil (an intriguing counterpoint to the conventional good and evil). Surely, the low-life Liak is bad and goes behind bar. But he tries to redeem himself in jail. What’s shocking is to discover average-Joe Raghu, a so-called educated professional who loves his family and who we trust will not betray us, baring his fangs to reveal man’s ugly side. He finds newer ways to make himself repulsive to the audience. He’s so bad that he makes Liak start appearing like a saint. We root for Raghu in the beginning, but as the film progresses audience sympathy shifts to Liak. That, indisputably, is Badlapur’s true triumph — setting Raghu and Liak up in a battle of morality. Playing Liak, the chameleon-like Siddiqui, with his passive-aggro show of cards, proves he’s the best thing to have happened to Hindi cinema since Om Puri. Pitted against the titanic Siddiqui, Varun Dhawan holds his ground. Reportedly, Raghavan had written Raghu as an older character. But the way Dhawan slipped into Raghu, one can’t imagine anyone else in that role. Maybe, Rajkummar Rao. Or Ayushmann Khurrana. How about Dulquer Salman? Is Mr Raghavan listening?

NH10 (2015)

‘Yeh shehar badhta bachcha hai, sir. Kudd toh lagayega hi’ — Gurgaon cop

anushka sharma in nh10 Anushka Sharma in a still from NH10.

Navdeep Singh might be the most unsung director on the bloc. After showcasing a flair for noir in Manorama Six Feet Under in 2007, he vanished for nearly a decade. NH10 — his first offering since his debut starring Abhay Deol as a junior PWD engineer-cum-aspiring novelist — is a welcome return for Singh. The story is set in Gurgaon, which a cop describes as a growing child “bound to jump, at times.” Couple Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) are on their way to a vacation when they get accidentally involved in a tiff with local Haryanvi thugs. Their perfectly happy life is torn apart. Arjun is killed in the extended brawl. Left alone, Meera at first tries to escape. But when she finds herself cornered from all ends, she decides to pick up the weapon. Anushka Sharma shines in this uncompromisingly dark and violent thriller. It’s horrific, what we do in the name of patriarchy. If only Arjun hadn’t taken it up on his ego, would the happy-go-lucky couple even land in such a bloody mess?

Kahaani (2012)

‘Teri maa ki.. Khan. Yehi naam hai mera’ — Khan, IB officer

Vidya Balan, Kahaani 2, Kahaani, Vidya Balan Kahaani Vidya Balan in a still from Kahaani.

This is a satisfyingly nail-biting thriller that makes you wonder why Hindi cinema hasn’t made more of it. Consider the theme: a woman, all alone in a big city, goes around looking for her missing husband. Except — this should send a chill down your spine — the woman is seven-months pregnant. Vidya Bagachi, or Bidya as she’s called in Kolkata, is played by Vidya Balan. She is no pushover. Strikingly plucky, she launches into a parallel investigation. Director Sujoy Ghosh uses this plot device to explore the Kolkata of his birth. The city of joy is captured in all its colour. There’s Durga Puja on one side (the same kind of cultural compulsion that a filmmaker making a film on Mumbai would feel for including Ganesh immersion) and the trams, yellow Ambassadors and Kolkata street life on the other. But undoubtedly, Kahaani’s highpoint is Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee), the mild-mannered contract killer with a penchant for a gentle way of greeting. “Nomoshkar!” he says, tenderly. But don’t fall for it. His untimely pat on Vidya’s shoulder at Kalighat metro station still has the power to leave viewers gasping for air. Tucked in this espionage thriller is also a solemn Nawazuddin Siddiqui, still some years shy of his indie stardom.

A Wednesday (2008)

‘Kaheen aapko yeh shaq toh nahin ke yeh crank call hai’ — Unnamed Caller

Naseeruddin Shah in A Wednesday Naseeruddin Shah in a still from A Wednesday.

This is a racy thriller, a gripping tale pounding along to the finishing line. The clock’s ticking away and one unusually common man (Naseeruddin Shah) has held the Mumbai police to ransom. The cat-and-mouse begins when an unnamed citizen (Shah) calls commissioner Rathod (a restrained Anupam Kher) informing him of bombs being planted all over the city, including one in a police station. In return of the city’s safety, he wants a bunch of wanted terrorists released. Thus begins the chase, with the fast-thinking caller always a step ahead of Rathod. Operating from the roof of an under-constructed building, the sandwich-chomping caller shouts down orders to the cops, much to their chagrin. It appears he’s more tech-savvy than the entire police control room put together. Shah plays him as a man in a hurry, at par with the film’s urgent pace. Hollywood churns out this kind of ‘Catch Me If You Can’ thrillers (from Phone Booth to The Dark Knight) regularly and rather well. A Wednesday is that rare Bollywood flick that delivers the thrills, without resorting to song and dance. Watch out for its final twist, the brief moment when the common man and the super-cop cross path. Well-cast, taut and heart-pulsating, director Neeraj Pandey’s debut is watchable.

Ab Tak Chhappan (2004)

‘Aye, Zameer, kul milaake dedh sau ka gang nahin hoga tera. 40,000 ka gang hai mera police ka’ — Sadhu Agashe

ab tak chappan Nana Patekar in a still from Ab Tak Chhappan. (Express archive photo)

In Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found, everyone’s favourite tome about Mumbai, author Suketu Mehta writes about growing up hearing the famous comparison between Mumbai police and the Scotland Yard. But after meeting top cop Ajay Lal (based on Rakesh Maria), he is convinced the ‘Second best after Scotland Yard’ bit about the Mumbai police is “probably a misquote.” It is to this force that Nana Patekar’s Sadhu Agashe belongs. Before Patekar became a version of Rakesh Maria in Ram Gopal Varma’s The Attacks of 26/11, he was Agashe, inspired by encounter specialist Daya Nayak. Ab Tak Chhappan is directed by Shimit Amin, whose oeuvre is as short as it is diverse. Through the film, Amin and mentor Ram Gopal Varma draw a map of the Mumbai underworld and police procedural. Though ATC may be yet another take on crime, its raw energy and troubling reality distinguishes it from the rest. The title comes from Daya Nayak’s 56 body count so far, in the heyday of mobdom when an encounter on the streets of Mumbai was a cliche tabloid headline, as common as the morning tea. If it was that common for the hot polloi to read it, imagine how casual it might be for the trigger-happy newsmakers. The Ab Tak Chhappan scene that best encapsulates this is the opening itself. Edgy and documentary-style, we meet Agashe picking up a suspect. They stop by at a dhaba on the Kasara highway for tea break and indulge in a lighthearted chat about the Salman Khan-Vivek Oberoi tiff over Aishwarya Rai, the headline of the day. “What do you think, who will get Aishwarya?” asks the hoodlum, as the radio blares a 60s Bollywood song. Patekar breaks into his famous mercurial laughter. And then, bam, the man’s dead. In the backdrop is a slick Coca-Cola hoarding, declaring ‘Jo chahe ho jaaye.’ Don’t miss the ‘Enjoy’ part.

Teesri Manzil (1966)

‘Tumne mujhe dekha hokar meharbaan’ — Rocky

Shammi Kapoor in Teesri Manzil song Tumne Mujhe Dekha Shammi Kapoor in a still from Teesri Manzil. (Express archive photo)

Teesri Manzil should come with a ‘Don’t Miss the Beginning’ note (like Badlapur). It features one of the most intriguing opening scenes in Hindi cinema. The camera opens on a darkly-lit building and pans to the windows, as it moves upwards. Finally, the title rolls out, and a body falls from the third floor. With that one smart artifice, director Vijay Anand sets the ball rolling. The film is about the hunt for the young girl’s rapist-killer. Who could it be? Rocky (Shammi Kapoor) is framed for the rape and murder, and the film is his attempt to prove his innocence. Director Vijay Anand is in his element here. He creates scenes and songs just as meticulously as he does the enigmatic opening scene. To bring alive RD Burman’s iconic music, he has eye-candies Shammi Kapoor, Asha Parekh and Helen. Kapoor invests Rocky with his debonair charm. If some parts of the film, especially the early frolics typical of Shammi Kapoor, remind you of Nasir Hussain’s musicals that’s because the Dil Deke Dekho maker was a producer-writer on Teesri Manzil. Watching the film again today, you could argue he may have been more than just the producer-writer. Teesri Manzil is that rare caper that brings together the fun elements of Nasir Hussain’s brand of cinema with Vijay Anand’s command of suspense. And the songs (“Oh haseena zulfo waali” and “Tumne mujhe dekha”, to name just two) have their classic touch. After all, between Hussain and Anand lies the secret to Hindi film music. Couldn’t have asked for more, could we? PS: This film was designed for Dev Anand. But in walked Shammi Kapoor and he made it his own. Rocky is a musician and who better than Kapoor, with his hipster vibe way back in the 1960s, to play that role.

Also read | Naya Daur, Rang De Basanti, Bandit Queen and more: Your guide to 10 socially relevant films from Bollywood

Jewel Thief (1967)

‘Macchli pakadne ka shauq tumhe bhi hai, mujhe bhi’ — Seth Vishambar Nath

dev anand jewel thief Dev Anand and Helen in a still from Jewel Thief. (Express archive photo)

“I am not Amar,” Dev Anand repeatedly clarifies, as Vyjayantimala aka Shalu insists she had been cheated. Was she really engaged to Amar? The proof is a glittering rock on her finger. Further confusion: Is Dev Anand Amar or police commissioner’s son Vinay. Is he an imposter? Director Vijay Anand combines the classic Hitchcockian ‘Innocent Man Wrongly Accused’ trope with an enigmatic plot, lots of memorable music, chase scenes, suave characters and connect-the-dots surprises that makes Jewel Thief flamboyantly pulpy. Dev Anand fills the screen with his goofy gait and loosey-goosey charm while Vyjayantimala proves that there’s no better dancer than her. Watch “Hoton mein aisi baat”, which works as a showcase for her dancing skills just as it for Vijay Anand’s knack for mixing suspense with heightened musical drama to forge out a perfect Bollywood moment. One of the scene-stealers is Ashok Kumar. Hindi cinema’s doyen is an embodiment of a stylish villain — cunning, double-crossing, sly and a true wolf in sheep’s clothing. As Vinay (Dev Anand) tells Kumar’s Arjun Singh in the final confrontation, “Phir aise badhiya badhiya actoron ki sohbat mein aadmi thodi bohot acting toh seekh hi jaata hai.” He could be saying that just as well about the thespian Ashok Kumar and not Arjun Singh.

(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)

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