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Kill (dir. Nikhil Nagesh Bhat, 2023)

I’ll admit to feeling a little – no, let’s be honest, a LOT – of trepidation about watching Kill.  I’m very squeamish when it comes to violence and genre films are generally not my thing.  But I was curious because the film comes from a partnership of production houses Dharma Productions (headed up by Karan Johar, probably known more for his melodramatic romantic comedies than for any kind of genre film) and Sikhya Entertainment (headed up by Guneet Monga and Achin Jain).  Guneet Monga as a producer didn’t surprise me, as her productions range from Oscar winning short films to grittier films like That Girl in Yellow Boots, Shaitan, and Peddlers.  My curiousity got the better of me when I was offered a screener to watch Nikhil Nagesh Bhat’s latest film, Kill, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2023, as part of their “Midnight Madness” programming, which specializes in (according to the TIFF website) “the best in action, horror, shock and fantasy cinema”.

And the plot summary for Kill reads like so many other Bollywood films that have come before it.  An army commando, Amrit (Lakshya) discovers that his true love Tulika (Tanya Maniktala) has become engaged against her will, and he sets out to derail the marriage, setting off on a train to Delhi (on which Tulika and her family are also travelling).   But any similarities to your average Bollywood movie end there, when Amrit must battle a gang of knife-wielding thieves led by Fani (Raghav Juyal), who have been terrorizing the train’s passengers. 

None of Nikhil Nagesh Bhat’s previous films prepared me for Kill.  Perhaps the most violent of the three previous films I’ve seen was Apurva, but even there much of the actual killing occurred either off screen or below camera, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks.  And Apurva was a tough film for me to watch.

In many ways, though, Kill reminds me a lot of Apurva – the villains in that film went to loot a bus, and ended up killing the driver and conductor, and kidnapping the titular Apurva.  In Kill, the villains board the train to loot and rob people, but they’re side-tracked by their need for vengeance, and Kill becomes less about getting the loot and more about dealing with Amrit.  These are people who live and breathe violence, and sometimes their need for revenge is more important than “the job”.  And Fani’s treatment of Tulika is not unlike that of Sukha’s treatment of Apurva – in the latter, the female protagonist is reduced to being called “Pinky” because of the colour she’s wearing.  In Kill, Fani calls Tulika “ladki”, or “girl” – both of these women are reduced to being nameless victims of these men, maybe making it easier for them to inflict violence on them.  And neither Apurva nor Tulika just take what’s being dished out – both of them fight for their lives.

The score, right from the first frames, is heavy-hitting and unrelenting, setting the pace for the film.  There’s a small hero reveal, just like in a standard Bollywood film – Bhat draws briefly on Bollywood tradition and tropes, but his film pushes the boundaries of any Bollywood film I’ve seen, even the darkest, most action-filled ones.  And yet, he still manages to show that he’s inverting tropes here.  When Fani tries to justify his actions towards Tulika, he says,  “I didn’t want to dance around trees with her,”  another nod to the fact that this is not your usual Bollywood masala film.  I really do wish he’d made more of inverting tropes, because the film benefits from these meta moments.

I like Tanya Maniktala a lot, having seen her in A Suitable Boy and Tooth Pari, but she’s not given much to do in the film – again, par for the course for a hero-driven action film, but still sad to see her sidelined.  That said, though, she manages to hold her own, even if briefly, against Fani.

When we first meet Fani on the train, he actually comes across as very likeable, picking up a motorized car and smiling at the little boy he hands it to.  He chats with someone on the train about the university he’s gone to, he seems innocuous – right up to the moment he isn’t.  He begins a killing spree with the very man he’s just been politely chatting with, and his attitude is calm and workmanlike at first – as the film progresses, he becomes increasingly unhinged. 

Fani’s creepy interactions with Tulika are very much like those in Bhat’s previous film, Apurva – they’re really hard to stomache, but they very quickly give us the true sense of this man, who will stop at nothing and kill easily, as well as goading others to kill alongside him.

There are many poignant moments in the film, somewhat of a surprise from a full-on actioner – Amrit watches helplessly as Fani tortures his fellow soldier, Viresh, and you can feel the emotions flicker in him in that moment.  Viresh is a friend, and a colleague, but to save him would involve letting another of the thugs on the train go, and Amrit is making those choices in a split second.

The cinematography manages to capture the whirlwind of things going on in the train compartment, in those very tight quarters, but occasionally settles on one character or another, moments of relief for the audience.  Yes, the film is hyper-violent, but Bhat wisely gives us a break from it to regroup for the next round.

The most poignant moments of the film are framed through the window of the train compartment’s inner doors, and they are actually heartbreaking – I didn’t expect these kinds of delicate emotions from a full-on genre film, and they’re a welcome touch, and another one of those moments where the film breaks away from the unrelenting violence and gives the audience a much-need breather before the action picks up again.

Like in Apurva, the romance track tends to drag the film down a little at first, even if it’s the trigger that sets events in motion.  But unlike Apurva, Bhat keeps these moments to the minimum, trying to balance the emotional weight and importance of those moments for Amrit, pushing him to keep fighting to defeat the villains.

Yes, this film is violent, but honestly, it was easier to watch than, for example, a lot of Telugu language films, where the camera dwells on, say, a head or an arm being sliced off, and then shows the shot again and again.  Kill’s violence isn’t on that level, at least until the last fifteen minutes of the film, which are absolutely brutal (I spent that time watching from between my fingers, trying to avert my eyes).  I’m not trying to convince anyone who doesn’t want to watch a violent film to do so – but for those fans of hyper-violent action films, of genre films, Kill is an unrelenting, well-made whirlwind of an action film.

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