The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once famously said, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” It’s a remarkably accurate quote that succinctly summarises the commonality in films made around the world over the past many decades: romance and violence. You wonder what it is about gangsters that often makes them integral to films. The worlds of both films and gangsters are, in a way, extraordinary. It’s not the kind of world we live in. Which is why we open up to them so easily; we all want to live lives that aren’t ours: voyeurism comes easy to us. It’s a neat recursive loop: gangsters inspire a lot of films; gangsters, in turn, are also frequently inspired by films. So when the filmmaker Shaad Ali situates his protagonists — gangsters — in a world that knowingly tugs at different identifiable Bollywood tropes, Kill/Dil no longer remains a formulaic film telling a hackneyed story; instead, it becomes a film that winks at its predictability.
Many years ago, Bhaiyaji (Govinda), a Delhi goon, found two discarded kids in a trashcan, and raised them on his own. He didn’t just give them a childhood but, when the right time came, also handed them a gun. When they became adults, which in their world meant bumping someone off without batting an eyelid, they found in Bhaiyaji a boss who seldom took no for an answer. These kids are the heroes of Kill/Dil — Dev (Ranveer Singh) and Tutu (Ali Zafar). If the plot point of an unmarried man adopting an abandoned child reminds you of Mehmood’s Kunwara Baap (1974) — or, for that matter, many Bachchan films of the ’70s — then you have barely begun finding out the different Bollywood references in Kill/Dil. Whenever Bhaiyaji enters the frame, screaming eagle-like calls — that familiar background score that once signalled “menacing” in so many Bollywood films — underscores the scene; in the midst of a shootout when Dev rescues Tutu, while the titular track is going full throttle, the camera freezes on Dev who winks at his brother; later, when Dev, who at one point wants to stop being a gangster because he’s fallen in love, is interviewed for the position of an insurance agent, we see the office wall has a framed photo of the company’s “founder”: Nirupa Roy from Deewar. When Ali wants his characters to break into a song, Dev switches on the radio and we hear: “Bunty, Babli ke papa Shaadi Ali sunna chhate hain… (Bunty and Babli’s dad, Shaad Ali, wants to hear).” When almost everyone is going meta these days, why should Ali be left out?Kill/Dil, especially in its first half, which is consistently riveting, is tonally more Tarantino than masala Bollywood — humour and violence often commingle and leave you pleasantly nonplussed.
Self-referencing is nothing new, and a film has to ultimately rise above its in-jokes — no matter how smart — to be enjoyed on its own merit. Kill/Dil, for the most part, is quite enjoyable, and the credit goes to to the film’s leads, Ranveer Singh, Parineeti Chopra and Ali Zafar. Kill/Dil isn’t unfamiliar territory for either Singh or Chopra; they have played similar characters with consummate ease in several of their past films and even here, they look comfortable in roles that scarcely challenge them. However, the unequivocal star of Kill/Dil — one who alternately stabilises the madness and quietens the proceedings in this off-kilter universe and, when required, morphs into a sharpshooter — is Ali Zafar. On the other hand, Govinda, whose return to acting, that too in a villainous role, was much anticipated, can’t figure out his role: he’s weirdly stiff — neither menacing nor funny, or even idiosyncratic. Moreover, Ali’s indulgences in the second half — abrupt songs; stray romantic sequences; a sappy dénouement — stop Kill/Dil short of being the wholly mad joyride it could have been. But when Kill/Dil works — and it mostly does — it’s a fine reminder that well-made Bollywood masala still holds sway.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian