Is Vishal Bhardwaj cocking a snook at Bollywood? Well, yes and no, if his new film is anything to go by. Kaminey (Rascal), a 130-minute gangster film, is a work of astonishing bravura, far removed from the tripe and treacle of Bollywood. It is now India's most-talked about film - people are sharing their reviews on Twitter. It also takes him, again, to the top of the pile of India's filmmakers.
Bhardwaj is an audacious filmmaker. Cinema-crazy Indians are addicted to linear stories with happy songs and sunny, pat endings. But Kaminey turns every Bollywood cliché - lost and estranged brothers, the uber-exaggerated villains, the coy and cloying love interest, the retribution and redemption - on its head like no other film I have seen. He takes a chocolate-faced hero who has done very little in his earlier work apart from looking good and serenading girls and makes him do two gritty, grimy roles, one with a stammer and the other with a speech defect. He takes a former beauty pageant winner turned actress, transforms her into an ordinary Mumbai girl and keeps her in tight histrionic check.
The result is a veritable tour de force studded with contemporary tropes. There's a diabetic, chauvinistic political thug, a gangster called Mikhail who takes after Heath Ledger's Dark Knight rather than anything else, and an ensemble of more gangsters from home and abroad. With its vertiginous hand-held camera work and an infectious soundtrack fusing nu folk with almost everything else, Kaminey is a stupendous audio-visual experience, reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai and Quentin Tarantino's work. The writing is crisp, and like his previous work, Bhardwaj edits ruthlessly and abruptly, never stretching a dramatic moment to banal extremes - another Bollywood affliction. Kaminey is a work of precision and panache.
Bhardwaj is a truly sophisticated director. Some critics are already calling his work 'new Bollywood'. I don't quite know what it means. But I do feel that he is going to be the first Bollywood filmmaker who will take his work to international audiences to great popular and critical acclaim. He tells a good yarn in his own edgy, unique and unconventional way. He has a great sense of the dialogue and music, being a proficient musician himself.
So far, unlike most Bollywood directors, he has not repeated himself - he has made a wicked children's film, a Shakespearean take on feudalism, politics and gangsterism in India's political heartland and a loose adaptation of Macbeth. Bad, dark guys and the underbelly are close to Bhardwaj's heart, and that is what makes his cinema so exciting in a largely cliché-saddled industry. After Kaminey, he takes his position as the godfather of Bollywood cool.