७ खून माफ़
I liked 7 khoon maaf ("7 murders forgiven") so much that I watched it twice in a week, and I am still not sure what to make of it. Dark, weird, and bold, this strange Vishal Bhardwaj drama is part psychological study, part mystery, and part black comedy. It is uneven in parts, lurching in tone from vignette to vignette. These shifts can be confusing, leaving the viewer unsure which bits are earnest and which ironic. But the weird, slightly disorienting effect is marvelously compelling. Propelled by superb photography and a number of chillingly engaging performances, 7 khoon maaf is a visit to a sinister carnival's fun house. It's discomfiting and even disturbing at times, and when it's over you can't wait to do it again, and bring your friends.
Adapted from Ruskin Bond's story Susanna's Seven Husbands, 7 khoon maaf tells the story of Susanna Anna-Maria Johannes (Priyanka Chopra), a wealthy Christian woman whose long procession of husbands each meets an untimely and often violent demise. Like another Ruskin Bond story adapted into movie form, Junoon, the story explores a dark psychology, the dangerous corners of a passionate mind. But where Junoon anchors its study in the larger historical context of the Sepoy Mutiny, lending it a broader allegorical reading, 7 khoon maaf keeps its focus inward, on the mind of Susanna herself and, to a lesser extent, the mind of the young man who narrates the tale. That young man, Arun (Vivaan Shah), catches Susanna's attention as a boy servant in her household; she finances his schooling and eventually sends him to study medicine, and a bond of love develops between them that secures Arun's loyalty to her well into adulthood, even years after losing touch with her. As Arun narrates Susanna's tale to his own wife (Konkona Sen Sharma, in a saucy and poignant cameo), Arun makes himself vulnerable by exposing the depth of his bond to Susanna and just how much he is willing to risk to protect her. But the real story is what drives Susanna.
The story of each of Susanna's husbands - how they meet, their courtship, and ultimately how they die - creates a separate vignette or episode within the movie, and these range from sad, to disturbing, to disturbingly funny. In each vignette, Susanna tries on a different persona - a new style of dress, a new religion, even a new name. Arun provides a facile, oversimplified explanation for Susanna's many romances; he says that she "looks for her father in every man she meets." But while her experimentations do have the air of a desperate search, it is as much a search for her own identity as a search for her father. And over time the search leaves her weary - by the fifth husband, Inspector Keemat Lal (Annu Kapoor), she is bored and resigned to the ritual of courtship, marriage, and murder - and eventually insane. It is only through obliteration of all identities - her own death and rebirth - that Susanna can find peace, and that is why her seventh and final marriage is with a partner who has himself died and been reborn.
Each vignette, too, reveals a bit more about the forces the lead to the husbands' deaths. Is Susanna herself killing them? Is her small cadre of loyal misfit servants doing the dirty work for her? If so, are they acting on their own to protect her, or with her knowledge and at her bidding? These questions are unanswered at first, but the truths shimmer into focus with satisfying pace as the narrative unfolds.
Part of the movie's dark thrill lies in its moral ambiguity. Some of Susanna's husbands are horrible, vicious men, for sure, but others are more sympathetic or even hapless victims. And even in the case of the worst abuser, the third husband - a seductively dashing Kashmiri poet (Irrfan Khan) who gets sexual satisfaction from beating the snot out of Susanna - Arun asks why he had to die; could Susanna not just have left him? It's a fair question; Susanna and her servants operate in a constantly shifting landscape of revenge, protection, defense, and ennui that combine with the movie's shifts in tone to produce an effect that is pleasingly unsettling. The scenes with the poet are difficult to watch - Irrfan Khan is smolderingly sexy in this role, and his character recites the most beautiful and thoughtful lines, but there is no beauty in the bruises he leaves on Susanna's body and psyche, and despite Arun's question it's easy to get behind the sneering revenge in his fate. Likewise the first husband, Major Edwin Rodrigues (Neil Nitin Mukesh), a plainly vicious, insecure man. Wounded in battle, he asserts his fragile manhood in violent outbursts and creepy, if not explicitly abusive, displays of sexual dominance over Susanna; when he leeringly caresses her face with the stump of his amputated leg, it is not hard to imagine still more vile treatment to come, and not hard to sigh with relief at his death - which, being the first in the film, is also the most plausibly dismissed as an accident.
But this sense of justice served evaporates quickly. And in a brilliant directorial maneuver by Bhardwaj, the most cold-blooded and least justifiable of the deaths come in the most comical of the vignettes. The fourth husband, a Russian spy named Vronsky (Aleksandr Dyachenko) is batted around like a mouse in the paws of Susanna and her servants, as they have some sport with him before he is dispatched. This scene is maniacally chilling and also very funny. And the poor smitten Inspector Keemat Lal, whose courtship is suffered by a bored, eye-rollingly unimpressed Susanna, encounters death by punchline in a Viagra overdose. In both cases the viewer is left snickering at the joke, and at the very same time thinking that Susanna has perhaps gone more than a bridge too far.
Finally, there is Priyanka Chopra, the heartbeat that drives every aspect of 7 khoon maaf. I am fully sold on Priyanka Chopra as an actor - I was already most of the way there after seeing Barfi - and it is her empathy, her portrayal of Susanna's confusion and desperation and fear and her ultimate resignation that knits these almost disparate vignettes together into a compelling and cohesive story. Most of the other performances are strong as well - several of the husbands I have mentioned, and the Susanna's sideshow freak gallery of loyal servants (Shashi Malviya, Harish Khanna, and Usha Uthup) are also magnificent. But these performances would not be enough to carry the movie were Priyanka Chopra not up to the task of embodying the shape-shifting peregrinations of Susanna across the decades that the narrative spans. It is a remarkable performance that makes for a remarkable, bizarre, and utterly compelling movie.