Irrfan's 'Blackmail' Is A 140-Minute Joke With A Punchline That Never Comes

Watching Blackmail is like sitting through an hour of stand-up, waiting for that one joke that gives you your money's worth. Alas, that joke never comes.

In what might be one of the funniest scenes from 1990s Bollywood,  in Ram Gopal Varma’s Daud – Sanjay Dutt and Urmila Matondkar tell a story to the late Neeraj Vora. Runaway criminals seeking shelter in the wild, both Dutt & Matondkar come up with a story so preposterous (and seemingly confusing) that you can’t help but smile as Vora loses his mind trying to understand it with the sincerity of a CBSE student preparing for a re-exam. Dutt’s father follows a tiger into the jungle… followed by Urmila Matondkar’s mother… followed by the tiger. Wait, what? Tiger… followed by the father… followed by the mother… followed by the tiger?

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“They were going around in a circles…” says Dutt, delivering the punchline with a glee. This little vignette is basically the setup for Abhinay Deo’s Blackmail that builds over a tiresome first 45 minutes. And the only other Daud-connect here is Urmila Matondkar appearing in an ill-conceived song (aptly called Bewafa Beauty) that burns the actor’s Rangeela legacy to the ground. But that’s the least of the problems plaguing Abhinay Deo’s film.

Blackmail is the kind of film whose best moments are given away in the trailer, thanks to the over-enthusiastic PR these days. A middle-aged man reclaiming the ‘thrill and excitement’ of his younger days after he discovers his wife is cheating on him – might not be entirely original premise. But a bleary-eyed (and visibly bored) Irrfan in this setting… works. And the central conceit of a ‘blackmailer paying his own ransom’ is an inventive one – one which gets used and abused beyond measure.

Working a boring job in a toilet paper company, Irrfan’s Dev Kaushal spends most of his evenings playing Pac Man in an empty office. He deals with his mid-life crisis by stealing pictures of his colleague’s wives, the farthest he would veer off the track of a ‘faithful’ husband. And then when he finds his wife (a wasted Kriti Kulhari) in bed with a mutton chop (not Arunoday Singh again!), it triggers him to take Badla (Amit Trivedi’s best song in recent times). Stifled under that debris of a middle class mortgage and outstanding bills, he makes the choice to profit out of it. What begins as one blackmail, slowly becomes a chain of blackmails. As characters keep paying ransom after ransom (because script mein likha hai!) you wonder why things take SO LONG to unravel.

That’s another problem with the film – repetition. Blackmail is so awfully short on ideas, that the screenwriter (Pradhuman Singh of Tere Bin Laden fame) begin to recycle some of their best moments. Black comedies require a deft touch, something one can admire about the Coen Brothers (Fargo, Burn After Reading) or a Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). Director Deo is hardly the brand ambassador for ‘subtle films’, if you remember his earlier credits – Delhi Belly or Force 2. Irrfan’s character carries a penguin-shaped dustbin to collect his ransom, he cowers on an escalator in an attempt to ‘hide’ in a mall. #SmoothOperator

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Divya Dutta is wasted in a character that requires her to only dress in animal prints, and sound tipsy with a drink in her hand. On the other hand, Gajraj Rao has done too many of these slippery characters. It’s sad to see such terrific actors be flushed down the drain in such underwritten parts.

At 2 hours 20 minutes, Blackmail is MUCH longer than it should have been. Watching Blackmail is like sitting through an hour of stand-up, waiting for that one joke that gives you your money’s worth. Alas, that joke never comes.