Dhamaka Review: Ram Madhvani and Kartik Aaryan offer a barnstorming critique of news media

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Dhamaka Review: Ram Madhvani and Kartik Aaryan offer a barnstorming critique of news media

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In a scene from Netflix’s Dhamaka, an anchor points out to his crew “Blurb ka matlab hota hai daraana, dhamkana, rulana yaa phir tension dena”. It’s an unsubtle dig at tv news media in this country, that believes in riling its audience pushing them towards an edge rather than pulling them towards a sense of calm and comprehension. It’s ironic really that the make-believe world of films has graduated to a point of self-awareness where its conviction can land a punch on a form of media allegedly focussed on reality.

The Idiot Box has become vile and vengeful but like caustic twitter arguments it’s preposterous nature, qualifies as entertainment. Which is kind of the point of Dhamaka, a feverish, thrill-a-minute ride that is also scathingly critical of the culture of media and its prowess to manufacture more truths than there are lies.

It’s ironic really that the make-believe world of films has graduated to a point of self-awareness where its conviction can land a punch on a form of media allegedly focussed on reality.

Kartik Aaryan plays Arjun Pathak, a disgraced TV show host who now anchors an audio podcast. He is called on his podcast by a man claiming he is about to blow Mumbai’s sea link. Pathak’s denial and condescension are followed by the actual explosion. The threat is real and here begins the story of two films really, one that is happening and the other that a team of cynically motivated TV newsmen and women want to construct. Aaryan’s chocolate-y innocence, gives way to a meaner, unkempt Pathak who sees opportunity in the face of collective crisis. Sympathy is short in supply here, as most characters we get to follow are opportunists, cued to their role in the show rather than the implications of its many catastrophic eventualities. There are twists and turns paced to the frantic movements of Pathak and his team, and the world around them changes by the minute.

Ram Madhvani, who gave us the wonderful Aarya rarely lets the camera or tension rest. The clock keeps ticking, even when it isn’t. Almost like a coup, some of the most emotionally charged moments of the film actually play out on tv screens within the frame. Almost as if Madhvani is saying the idiot box is capable, if it wasn’t also culpable of doing the exact opposite. Aaryan, in perhaps his best performance of a puzzlingly popular career, is supported by a stunningly cold turn by the terrific Amruta Subhash. Sardonic and cold as the metal that the sea link must have been erected upon Subhash’s icy nonchalance in the face of tragedy and chaos around is absurdly affecting. It’s another narrative critique of the business of media that though exaggerated at times, elicits both shock and disgust.

Almost as if Madhvani is saying the idiot box is capable, if it wasn’t also culpable of doing the exact opposite.

While Aaryan has managed to climb above his romantic, boy-next-door image to turn into a crude, ambitious new anchor, it’s really Madhvani’s direction that elevates the film. To hold tension within the confines of a walled space is some achievement, but to still communicate scale and a narrative more sprawling than the instruments in use – TVs, mics, studio equipment – is a rare feat. The fact that Madhvani doesn’t use the traditional action and cut technique, is felt for the first time in this fiery vehicle that is not entirely devoid of soul and a philosophy it clearly wants to communicate.

As a spiteful and opportunistic man, the film is as much about Pathak’s transformation as it is about the lens of class we view citizenship through. It’s political and yet at the end of it all, through Pathak’s subsequent withdrawal towards an edge he deemed was beyond him, the film makes an acutely intimate point about resentment and guilt. Of the state of this country, through the state of one man who may embody it best.

As a spiteful and opportunistic man, the film is as much about Pathak’s transformation as it is about the lens of class we view citizenship through.

Dhamaka is of course both literal and metaphorical in the way it plays out. Though it is a remake of the Korean film The Terror Live, Madhvani adapts it to the socio-cultural milieu of India to perfection. If you look beyond the logistics – the social perspective beyond the thriller – there is an almost sobering critique of the country’s inequality, especially its media’s near-sightedness that is more romantic tragedy than action thriller.

The language chosen may be of chaos, of explosions, of trembling frames and claustrophobic pacing, but the base is one of graceful analysis, of populating the cacophony with the unacknowledged shock of having to go on, despite loss, suffering and the brutality of class distinctions. Aaryan may not always say or do the right things but here is adequate as the reprehensible and yet ultimately humbled Arjun. Casting against type doesn’t always work but in Madhvani’s esoteric hands, even unobvious choices seem plausible and delectable. For Dhamaka isn’t just about the explosion that happens on a bridge, nor is it about the bombastically, immoral choices, but about the sudden turn of heart and conscience, that requires you to experience the pain you unknowingly inflict on others.

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