HIT: The First Case is a Return to Form for Rajkummar Rao

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HIT: The First Case is a Return to Form for Rajkummar Rao

Illustration: Arati Gujar

We’ve seen movie cops like Vikram Jaisingh – protagonist of HIT: The First Case – earlier. The ones with post-traumatic stress from a past personal experience; the ones who deal with it by being intensely committed to their complex day (and night) jobs. Usually, these characters also play fast and loose with protocol, mostly getting away with it because they get the desired results. Vikram Jaisingh is all of those things, but he’s set apart by the man who plays him. Liam Neeson has churned out the PTSD-ridden law enforcer with industrial frequency. Even a couple of Bachchans have portrayed a similar kind of cop. But Rajkummar Rao makes this particular fellow feel fresh, real (as far as movies go) and quite worth rooting for.

We’re told about Vikram’s PTSD right up top. Or rather, a psychiatrist friend of his tells him, with a dire warning – his trauma is so severe, the anxiety caused by it could kill him. There are only glimpses of the reasons behind his mental affliction depicted in this film. Perhaps the depths of it will be explored in future movies – the intention to make a sequel titled ‘The Second Case’ is the last thought this one leaves you with. The solution to the crime in this film might feel rather underwhelming, but the idea of watching Vikram Jaisingh have a crack at another mystery is an appealing one.

Rao is so confidently restrained in this portrayal that you instinctively feel like trusting him. He’s both, street-smart and worldly-wise.

The HIT in the title stands for Homicide Intervention Team. Vikram Jaisingh is its lead cop and most competent officer. It doesn’t take long to be convinced of the latter. Rao is so confidently restrained in this portrayal that you instinctively feel like trusting him. He’s both, street-smart and worldly-wise. Make no mistake, I queue up for the mega-machos of Rohit Shetty’s multi-cop-verse or whatever they call it; but truth be told, it’s the Vikram Jaisinghs that make for better cinema law enforcers. If there’s such a thing as a perfectly agreeable shade of grey, Rajkummar paints his part with it. He’s unable to fully reveal himself to his girlfriend Neha (a woefully underused Sanya Malhotra), but she’s willing to wait, as long as he’s willing to try. Soon enough, there’s a grotesque detour, when Vikram gets embroiled in the case of a missing girl.

The minutiae of the case itself, I will repeat, are underwhelming. You may or may not see the answer that’s coming well in advance, but it’ll feel like a let-down either way. There’s too much time spent on an ill-conceived red herring involving a neighbour-friend of the victim. Vikram’s moody journey to the tepid truth is where the film’s best moments lie. Even when he conjures a lead out of thin air, Rao ensures that you don’t doubt his ability to actually pull it off.

The restraint shown by him rubs off on Dalip Tahil as well, who plays it down for a change, as Vikram’s senior Shekhawat. Jatin Goswami, last seen as the murder victim Vicky Rai in The Great Indian Murder, plays a rival cop who cannot stand Vikram’s gut. This is an actor with a brutal, scenery-chewing presence, so it’s a pity he is under-utilised as well. Still, both these men, along with Sanya Malhotra, are able aides and foils to Vikram’s angst. If a subsequent film does see the light of day, it’ll hopefully have these four characters reprised by the same lot of actors.

The police procedural bits have familiar elements like a polygraph and a narco test, but the almost bland, matter-of-fact way in which the investigators navigate the crime-solving seems refreshing.

The setting for the story is Jaipur, Rajasthan. Apart from the drone shots used often, which suffer from strobing as well as inconsistent colour and lighting, this is a film that looks appropriately murky, and is framed rather well. (The recent Netflix thriller Thar, shot by Shreya Dev Dube, probably captures the grit-grunge of Rajasthan better.) Sailesh Kolanu directs the remake of his own debut Telugu feature of the same name, and it is shot by the same cinematographer, S Manikandan. The practice shows, because this remake looks a tad better. (I sampled a bit of the original, to get a sense of its vibe. Didn’t watch the whole film, because I wanted to avoid spoilers about the crime itself.)

There’s some smart direction from Kolanu on display. Vikram is a do-gooder, but that aspect of his personality is subtle. So, him helping a young chai-selling boy get out of child labour is shown just on the fly, while he’s solving other stuff. A throwaway text conversation indicates how a boss hates emojis from his subordinates, and it then reflects in the cop’s behaviour later. The police procedural bits have familiar elements like a polygraph and a narco test, but the almost bland, matter-of-fact way in which the investigators navigate the crime-solving seems refreshing. (Compare that to another recent Bollywood polygraph test, in Runway 34 – the difference is stark.)

Here, it is earnest, but too long and far-fetched. The farfetchedness can still be forgiven, but the length that it adds to the film is almost criminal.

In a thriller like this one, misdirection is expected. Here, it is earnest, but too long and far-fetched. The farfetchedness can still be forgiven, but the length that it adds to the film is almost criminal. Why do Indian filmmakers not put some faith in the idea of a crisp 100-minute thriller, is beyond me. You can probably get away with macguffins of all shapes and sizes, as long as you don’t let the pace and mood drop.

HIT is now the second recent Hindi murder-procedural remade from a southern original. Zee5 release Forensic, starring Radhika Apte and Vikrant Massey, was the other. Both films suffer from a similar problem – the whodunnit disappoints if the whydunnit and howdunnit make no sense. HIT’s big advantage, however, is that its lead character outlasts the film by some distance. Hopefully, Vikram Jaisingh might just find himself in a better thriller soon enough.

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