Director R Balki must have got a kick out of writing this very enjoyable poison-pen letter to film criticism in which a Mumbai serial killer stalks the practitioners of our noble profession. Se7en-style, the killer tailors the murders to the critique; woe betide the hack who thoughtlessly writes: “A picture whose heart is in the right place, but whose other organs are all over the place.” Not only is this premise a droll kick up the arse for the Scream-style meta-slasher, it has to be the first film in which someone says “I need a critic” in the same imperative tone usually reserved for a Swat team or an elite hitman.
First for cancellation is the career-assassin journalist found seated on his toilet, scored around his torso with bloody grooves. Police chief Mathur (Sunny Deol) twigs that the triangle carved into his forehead is, in fact, an uncompleted star, and that the killer, the “critics’ critic”, is “rating” his victims. Meanwhile, Nila (Shreyer Dhanwanthary) is the new entertainment reporter on the Mumbai Post. A film fanatic who likes to live within earshot of the musical numbers emanating from her local studio, she seems to be falling into her own movie romance when she meets strapping florist Danny (Dulquer Salmaan). So far, so masala – apart for the fact that, in private, Danny holds Norman Bates-style conversations with himself.
Balki, whose last film was the 2018 sanitary-towel comedy Pad Man, has a knack for a topical hook. Chup successfully skewers not just the tense film-maker/critic relationship, but knows perfectly where to put its finger to best needle Film Twitter: it calls out hot-take merchants, overly positive and corrupt reviewers, and this exalted calling’s self-importance. “I cannot live like this any more – like a terrorist attack,” says the wife of one critic under police protection. Balki even manages to make Chup’s disparate sides – the satirical police procedure and dulcet romance – work productively in tandem. The latter increasingly puts a bloody, ironic spin on Bollywood fantasy, as Danny turns out to be a fanboy of the lamented Guru Dutt, the celebrated writer-director who may have killed himself in 1964 at the age of 39 in the wake of the bad reception to his final film, Kaagaz Ke Phool.
But as Amitabh Bachchan, cameoing, says: “Cinema needs fearless voices for its evolution”; someone has to tell Chup where it doesn’t quite click. Salmaan – though generally effective in his eerie affableness – clubs us over the head with the split personality stuff. The sound designer who came up with the bizarre mobile phone trill that accompanies significant plot points should be shot. And at well over two hours, the film stretches the plausibility of both his premise and the performances on the rack at the finish. Perhaps I should be more careful how I phrase things, but it’s a caustic and tasty film for the most part.