There are sucker punches, and then there are lead-pipe cold-cocks. Any movie that includes a mystery has to pack a twist, and the more the twist surprises the audience, the better - right? Well a twist in the story is one thing. A complete shrieking, wheeling change in tone is quite another. The climax of Ghanchakkar is more cold-cock than entertaining surprise. It feels like a scene from a completely different movie. It is a shock, and not at all a pleasant one. And this bait-and-switch, more than any of Ghanchakkar's other warts, compromises a movie I had up until then been prepared to praise, if not to gush about.
The first two hours of Ghanchakkar have a lot going for them - more than I'd expected based on some early reviews. The pacing may be a little slow, but nothing unforgivable. The characters are fun, the premise promising. Sanju (Emraan Hashmi), a safecracker hoping to retire, is convinced to perform that chestnut of caper movie heists, the Last Big Job. Hired by the gruff but almost avuncular Pandit (Rajesh Sharma) and his dopey, volatile muscle Idris (Namit Das), Sanju pulls off the 300-crore job and hides the loot. By the time Pandit and Idris come to claim their shares, though, Sanju has suffered an accident that damaged his memory - he no longer has any recollection of Pandit, the heist, or the hiding place. Naturally, Pandit and Idris are skeptical. To keep an eye on Sanju and, let's say, encourage him to remember where he stashed the money, they move in with Sanju and his fiery, fashion-obsessed wife, Neetu (Vidya Balan).
There is a great deal of fun to be had in this set-up. At its best, Ghanchakkar is smart and funny and even tender. The heist scene itself makes clever use of celebrity masks - a smiling Dharmendra, a scowling Amitabh, and a hilariously gobsmacked Utpal Dutt. There is a cute, if implausible, running gag about a man carrying vegetables on a late-night train whom Idris repeatedly harasses. Pandit's efforts to keep a lid on his mounting frustration are genuinely funny. And there are a few standout moments between Sanju and Neetu, as the tension of their situation strains and tests their marriage. The best of these occurs at the dinner table. Pandit and Idris dump salt on Neetu's dishes. Neetu waits anxiously as the salt is passed to Sanju; they have had a running squabble about "kam namak, aur namak." But Sanju refuses the salt and a delighted, tender smile warms Neetu's lips. Such gentle expositions of love between them - despite all the friction and the bickering - offer glimpses of a deeper characterization than Neetu's brash (and mercurial) Punjabi-accented exclamations or Sanju's disaffected fatalism.
It's true that Ghanchakkar could do more with its promising ideas. No scene past the first twenty minutes matches the cleverness of the bank heist, and the pace flags throughout the middle. There is some exploration of the various possible resolutions to the mystery - perhaps Sanju is faking the memory loss; perhaps his own beloved Neetu is double-crossing him. But none of these becomes very gripping. This perhaps a result of Sanju's own disaffection; his detachment is catching for the audience. And there are hints of a tone problem as Sanju's condition deteriorates in the second half - if his memory really is getting worse, as it appears, it's uncomfortable to laugh at that developing tragedy. None of this is fatal to the film, though, which floats along languidly on its unresolved tension and running gags, cute characterizations and solid performances. (Some reviewers have found Vidya Balan's rendering too shrill, but to me she's delightful, sidling up to the edge of annoying and pulling back just in time. She modulates her voice magnificently, from low murmurs to a piercing shrieks, and gives glimmers of a depth to Neetu that perhaps even the script doesn't contemplate. Vidya Balan, as always, operates with a solid theory of her character in mind. She's not merely playing to the back of the house.)
But then there is that climax. A new character materializes, and suddenly we are watching a very different film, one with much less humor, and much more horrifying violence. Up until now Ghanchakkar simply has not been the kind of film where people get shot and writhe in agony as blood pours from their sucking wounds. There are any number of ways in which the film could have effectively reached the same resolution and maintained its slightly surreal, gently slapstick tone. The ending is far, far too uncertain and bleak for the film that has come before it. Instead of leaving the theater with the tickled smile of the first two hours, one leaves with a sick and unsettled feeling. The shift in tone is bizarre, unjustified, and unnecessary; what was wrong with the charming, if dark, comedy of the previous two hours? This blunt-force blind attack is the biggest swindle of the movie, and the victim is us.