I laughed, I fretted, I had to clutch my friend a few times (but I scare easily): Karthik Calling Karthik
It probably says something not very flattering about Karthik Calling Karthik that the lively audience on Saturday afternoon laughed so often and so heartily at parts that were very clearly not meant to be funny (at least, no one on screen seemed amused or happy). Even without knowing nuances of the dialogues (which had hefty sprinkling of Hinglish), there were a few times even I could see that the plot just did not hold up to scrutiny. Without spoiling the central mystery of the story, I'll just say that there is one particular choice that a wary and beleaguered Karthik (Farhan Akhtar) has to make late in the film, and he chooses very foolishly and in a way that does not follow from his careful, responsible actions preceding this decision or suit the life he has gone to great length to build for himself. While this choice does revive some of the psychological tension of the story, I don't think the inconsistency was at all worth it, because Karthik just ends up looking sort of stupid, taking away from a viewer's sympathy for him; it was also unnecessary to the story's ultimate conclusion and mystery's solution. There are some other less significant glitches that didn't really matter to the story particularly but sullied the film's crispness a bit. The one that made me giggle the most was a makeover scene (one of my favorite guilty pleasures in any movie) in which Karthik buys himself a new wardrobe, courtesy of ubiquitous sponsor Shoppers Stop, and gets a new haircut and contacts, ditching his already minimalist and perfectly stylish glasses...and looks exactly the same except younger and sloppier.
Overall I enjoyed Karthik Calling Karthik very much. Farhan Akhtar made Karthik sympathetic and somehow quite relateable despite the fantastic situation he was in. No one is more surprised than I am that I also thought Deepika Pandukone (as Shonali, Karthik's love interest) was actually good. Not just "not bad," either! Her character had little to do other than react to Karthik*, but as far as that is written, Deepika did a nice job showing Shonali's enjoyment and appreciation of Karthik for who he is and then trying to understand him while not engaging with him when she thinks his behavior is dangerous. Smart woman!** Karthik's psychiatrist (Shefali Shetty) is the only other character of note in the film, and it's pretty amazing that so much happens with so few people. It's a clever way to emphasize how much our own problems shape the way we navigate our lives and respond to outside events and people. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's songs were fine but unmemorable (and never hearing autotune again will be too soon for me); the background score by Midival Punditz and Karsh Kale was a little over the top during some of the dramatic bits (as was Farhan's expression of angst or confusion etc.), out of balance with the actual tension merited by the story. The film looked great - watch for the evocative use of grays in particular - and there are many details in the set of Karthik's home that tell us more about him than is ever mentioned out loud, so hats off to production design team Rachna Rastogi and K. K. Mulidharan.
Story-wise, I thought it moved along nicely. The first major development in Karthik's character seemed to occur a little too quickly, but after finishing the film and knowing what else the director wanted to do in the film's run time, I can see why it was handled with such a steep rate of change. While the resolution of the mystery was not exactly surprising in retrospect, I certainly didn't see it coming, though it must be said I am easily startled and am not very good at figuring out mysteries despite watching a lot of them on PBS. There was a lot more humor than I was expecting, mostly from Karthik/Farhan. Karthik is less a "lovable loser" than he is a very sad and fearful guy, and as he gains confidence in his life his smarts shine through more, often in his calm at handling situations in which he feels confused or apprehensive. The film has some interesting commentary on personal fear, learning to express yourself, being willing to recognize threats and accept help, and the importance of other people in your life. (I can't think of a way to talk more about those without being spoiler-y, so I'll stop. If you've seen the film and want to discuss them, email me!) I also thought the last scene was appropriately murky; generally I love a happy ending but a big, shiny bow just would not have made sense here.
Particular fans of either Deepika or Farhan will probably be a little more excited by this earlier in the film than those of us who previously had low expectations for Deepika and preferred Farhan behind the camera. I dind't know much about this movie before watching it, and throughout I was pleased with how things unfolded in this mostly restrained and interesting story. I don't gravitate towards thrillers and mysteries in Hindi cinema, and there might be elements of this that are predictable to more seasoned viewers, but to me it felt a little unusual without being absurd in the ways Race, for example, indulged in. The unfolding of knowledge towards the mystery's resolution was not always elegant, but it worked well enough that no yelling of "What?!?" or "Oh come on!" was necessary. So if you're willing to overlook two significant bits of plot nonsense (both related to the penultimate key to the mystery), Karthik Calling Karthik is a workable timepass that will give you plenty to discuss over post-show coffee.
* A word on the sketch of Shonali. When we first meet her, she is trying to sneak a furtive cigarette at work, waving the smoke away with her hands and spraying the air and her clothes with air freshner after she finishes...in a glass-walled office. I was so afraid she was going to be a dimwit. She wasn't, and I'm not sure what that scene was supposed to communicate. Shonali also suffers from being the type of love interest who exists because the male protagonist needs her to - and I don't just mean that as a script device but also as a persona. Karthik clearly knows nothing about Shonali, and all the audience sees of her before he gets to know her is that she is dating his co-worker. In other words, all we know about her is that she's pretty and Karthik is almost obsessed with her even though she doesn't even know who he is. Lame.
** Aside: when will writers around the world stop perpetrating the idea that women don't like nice guys? WHEN? Here's the deal with that: smart women who have their sh*t together do like nice guys, but being "nice" by itself is not enough for anybody. If you couple nice with actual kindness, a compatible sense of humor and other values, functional social skills, responsibility for one's own thoughts and actions, etc., then you get to be annoyed that you get overlooked by the general population in the romance department. There are plenty of people who are "nice" in that they are not murderers or puppy-kickers (or don't make jokes about "if rape is inevitable, just sit back and enjoy it," and I am looking at you, twitter persona of Abhishek Bachchan, VOMIT) but who have lots of other problems that might make them undesirable as romantic or sexual partners. Also, it'd help the "nice guys" of tv and movies if they'd widen their pool of interests beyond women who look like supermodels and ditch the idea that only a physically beautiful woman they don't actually know can make them happy or is even worth paying attention to (a critique I have of some episodes The Big Bang Theory, which is otherwise a pretty delightful show). Yes, of course there are women who overlook kind and caring men who also happen to be shy, but that mistake sure isn't unique to women. I have a very hard time feeling sympathetic in this regard for someone who behaves as Karthik does early in this film, obsessing over a woman he cannot even talk to because he's so shy. Fortunately, the script here lets Karthik start to learn quickly how to engage with people (namely Shonali) in more effective ways, and it makes a lot of sense that she grows to love him (and vice versa as he gets to know her as well).
Update to post (March 8, 2010): here is a great summary on my feelings about "women don't like nice guys" from Kate Harding's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" on Salon.com (thanks to Accidental Tangoiste for the link):
I'm sure this will have no more effect on "Nice Guys" than it has when umpteen other women have said it, but once more for the record: Guys, you are not being rejected because you are too nice. Niceness is a positive characteristic. I doubt any straight woman -- even the kind with a stated preference for "bad boys" -- has ever said to herself, "Hmm, I'd be really into this guy if he weren't so compassionate, thoughtful, and respectful. If he'd just dick me around and insult me a little more, I'd want to rip his clothes off." If you get rejected by every woman you approach, the problem could be a million different things, but I guarantee it's not that you're just too kind for your own good. We tell you you're "nice" because we don't want to be rude, we don't want to risk your aggression, and most of all, we want you to leave us alone.