Kaalakaandi is the kind of comedy we deserve. The comedy genre in Bollywood has really been suffering over the last few years considering that, at best, we get maybe one or two every year which are worthwhile and attempt to do something genuinely new and different.
Enter Akshat Verma. The visionary comic mind behind Delhi Belly is back with his latest batshit crazy caper in Kaalakaandi. While it lacks the blunt force impact and unabashed laughs of Delhi Belly, this film is no less bold and refreshing and far more ambitious.
Verma’s aspires to something truly special here, which is why it perhaps won’t get its due, as it offers more than just laugh-a-minute gags (although there’s plenty of those). It also looks to challenge and be poignant and doesn’t shy away from just how screwed up its characters really are. Outside of all the hearty laughs, the film is also layered and surprisingly affecting with tender moments of humanity and emotion where you least expect them, with Verma managing to balance comedy and emotion like few before him.
Kaalakaandi covers three intersecting stories which take place over one very messed up yet quintessentially Bombay night. The first features two small-time goons (a reliably brilliant Vijay Raaz and Deepak Dobriyal) looking to hatch a plan to rob their gangster boss. The second, about a young couple (Raman Raghav 2.0’s Sobhita Dhulipala and Kunaal Roy Kapur) trapped in a nightclub due to a police raid, who are willing to go to any extent to escape in time to catch a flight.
The third and easily the best of the lot is that of a seemingly boring, upper-class Bombay man (Saif Ali Khan) who finds out he has cancer and mere months to live. He subsequently breaks bad and does all the things he never had a chance to, by smoking, drinking and inhaling everything in sight leading to a night of substance-induced adventures and hilarity.
Minutes into the film you realise just how different this feels from typical synthetic mainstream affairs in its natural, grounded style of dialogue and understated performances. These are characters who look, behave and talk like us. What’s more, Verma’s film is a triumph of casting with and may well go on to be the ensemble film to beat this year with a host of wonderfully well-realised, colourful characters.
Leading the pack is Saif Ali Khan who, I’m grateful to report, is entirely back in his element with a much-needed fine return to form. He does well to balance the unhinged buffoonery of man tripping on LSD while grappling with the most painful of realities. Khan’s always been at his comedic best playing wacky nut jobs a la Go Goa Gone and similarly shines here and is singlehandedly responsible for most of the film’s laughs.
As his brother, Gurgaon’s Akshay Oberoi is equally impressive and is certainly one actor to look out for in the coming years. Among the film’s best performances is the perfectly cast Sobhita Dhulipala who wonderfully fits into Verma’s world. Movies deserve more of her. Special mention also of the charming Isha Talwar, known for her work in Malayalam films, who has real impact in a fleeting role, armed with a smile destined to steal hearts.
That said, perhaps Verma’s greatest crime is the grossly underutilised Vijay Raaz. As one of our best actors and nothing short of a comedic rockstar, Raaz is somewhat wasted here and deserved more to do. Add to that the fact that his and Deepak Dobriyal’s track is undoubtedly the films weakest, which pays dividends too little too late.
Other issues include some shakey editing and that Verma doesn’t do the smoothest job of jumping between the three stories making it a tad uneven in places. He also struggles to keep the energy up at all times, particularly in the first half.
It’s instead in the second half is where things really take shape and the film comes into its own as you realise what Verma is really going for. It’s also where he takes the most risks in attempting to strike a delicate balance of comedy with emotional resonance which will no doubt split audiences and alienate those looking for laughs alone. One stand out scene sees a transgender person exposing themself to a drugged up Saif Ali Khan to address his curioosity. How you make a moment like that so strangely touching and heartfelt, I’ll never know.
In the end, I look forward to anything Akshat Verma decides to do next. Above all, his Kaalakaandi is but a glimpse of what Bollywood could be if the audience, industry and wider powers at be so allowed it. What a great start to the year, I’m going with 4 stars.