A DENSE THRILLER
There’s a thing about cinematic referencing. One can’t know for sure if young filmmakers are always conscious when they doff a hat to the classics. In the case of Nikhil Mahajan’s Pune 52, the connection is more obvious. Kids are playing in the field and hear the distant sound of an approaching train. They stop their game and a little girl looks at the boy standing next to her and slips a coin into his hands. He starts running towards the tracks, the director cutting between his frenzied run to make it in time and the menacing chug of the train.
He puts the coin on the track just split seconds before the engine passes over it. Even after he grows up he keeps the flattened coin close at heart and the only time he drops it unknowingly is when he has done something terrible that is going to change his life irrevocably. The approaching train in the distance and kids running towards it through the fields is one of the enduring images of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. The train signifies ‘progress’ and as Apu, the protagonist of Ray’s trilogy grows older, he keeps coming closer to the railway line. The coin is reminiscent of Amitabh Bachchan’s coins and badges in various films, shields that protect him from the world or his own inner voice, till they fall off and he’s invincible no more.
In Pune 52, ‘progress’ forms the film’s backdrop. The time is 1992, the former Soviet Union has collapsed and India has announced its decision to liberalise. Pune is still an old-world town about to transform into a mini-metro. The film’s titles roll out against the backdrop of news headlines, the most prominent among them - ‘The Middle Class Will Soar’. Amar Apte (Girish Kulkarni) is one such middle-class man. He pursues a curious profession as a detective who spies on adulterous couples. The reason for his choice of work is explained at one point, but the screenplay fails to convince us that this is anything more than a thematic ploy.
Apte’s wife, Prachi (Sonali Kulkarni, superb), comes from a wealthy family and her disgruntled mother (Bharati Achrekar) keeps nagging her about her decision to marry a loser, who, she suggests, is not just poor but also impotent. Prachi foists her discontent on Amar; he keeps mum a lot, but has occasional explosive flashes. The tackling of this relationship and its twists is one of the film’s high points. In a way, this unhappy marriage propels the noir elements of the narrative and brings Neha (Sai Tamhankar) into Apte’s life.
Beneath the thriller are the layers that Mahajan so painstakingly creates. Particularly the connection between economic liberalisation and the erosion of values, the shaky moral core of the middle-class and its inherent hypocrisy, the possibility of love in unexpected places and the slippery slope on which a man can find himself in trying to become the hero of his own life. But the narrative needlessly cuts back and forth in time which hampers the experience, as does the excessively verbose, erudite dialogue (by Girish Kulkarni).
Even though it tries to be too dense for its own good, Pune 52 is still engaging. Uniformly well-acted (Sai Tamhankar is particularly good as the volatile temptress Neha) and evocatively shot––the recreation of the period is superb––Mahajan’s debut is, at worst, an honourable failure.