Filmmaker R. Balki and actor Dulquer Salmaan are teaming for the first time on “Chup,” a thriller where a serial killer brutally murders Bollywood film critics and carves star ratings on their foreheads.
The cast also includes Bollywood veterans Sunny Deol (“Gadar: Ek Prem Katha”) and Pooja Bhatt (Netflix’s “Bombay Begums”), Shreya Dhanwanthary (Amazon Prime Video’s “The Family Man”) and Tamil-language cinema stalwart Saranya Ponvannan (“Viruman”).
Balki, whose credits include “Cheeni Kum” (2007) and “Paa” (2009), both starring Amitabh Bachchan, last directed “Pad Man” (2018), starring Akshay Kumar.
Salmaan is a rare breed in Indian cinema in that he has equal felicity in multiple languages. A superstar of Malayalam-language cinema with hits including “Kurup” (2021) and “Bangalore Days” (2014), Salmaan is also known for Tamil-language success “O Kadhal Kanmani” (2015) and Hindi-language “Karwaan” (2018). His recent release “Sita Ramam” was a hit across its Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi-language versions.
“He’s one of the most fabulous performers I’ve seen in Indian cinema and though he’s a superstar all across the country, in Hindi cinema it’s rare to find somebody with that kind of talent who’s still relatively a fresh face,” Balki told Variety. “It’s a great combination, because people don’t have a fixed image about what kind of star he is.”
“Chup,” which opens theatrically on Sept. 23, releases when Bollywood has found a reason to smile with the encouraging box office performance of “Brahmastra Part One: Shiva” after a period when big ticket films were underperforming.
Salmaan added: “Across industries in India, I think people are really seeking to consume original content and new ideas and things that are genuinely fresh. And this [“Chup”] is also a genre I don’t get to explore very often as an actor across the industries I work in and it was an instant no-brainer for me to want to be a part of this.”
Both Balki and Salmaan have had their fair share of criticism from Indian film reviewers and “Chup” is informed by this. In the first review Balki read of his debut feature “Cheeni Kum,” a top Indian critic of the time trashed the film, sending the filmmaker into a “deep depression,” as he says, despite the film being otherwise well received and friends telling him that one person’s opinion did not matter.
“It mattered to me and somewhere that thought hit me that how is it that you [the critic] can say whatever you want, and get away and I’m accountable to you, but you’re not accountable to me,” said Balki. “I found that unfairness in the whole relationship firstly depressing and then very fascinating.”
Salmaan says that he actively seeks out negative comments or criticism because it drives him to keep working harder and it influences his choices of film roles.
“Having said that, when I read these things, sometimes I screenshot it and sometimes in my notes in my phone, I write strongly worded replies – I don’t end up sending any of these things,” said Salmaan.
“Chup” is co-written by Balki, Rishi Virmani (“Ki & Ka”) and film critic Raja Sen, renowned for his often trenchant reviews of Bollywood films. Before embarking upon the film, Balki, who hadn’t read any reviews of his work after that first review, went back and read all of them to “exorcise all those demons from my head.”
Balki brought on Sen to gain some perspective and balance from a critic’s point of view rather than being a one-sided chat and also to understand the difficulties and frustrations that critics experience. “I realized after I called Raja, that he’d trashed me the most, so it was beautiful to sit with the person you really want to kill,” said Balki, who now has a “deep connection” with Sen and a “fascinating friendship” that grew during the film.
“When you read reviews you see somebody as a critical personality – it’s very different from how maybe they are as people. So that was a bit of an eye-opener to see the man behind the words,” added Salmaan about Sen.
“Chup” is also an homage to Indian auteur Guru Dutt, known for “Pyaasa” (1957) and “Kaagaz Ke Phool” (1959). The commercial failure of the latter film, produced, directed and starring Dutt, saw him never officially direct a film again and he was eventually found dead in 1964, aged 39.
Salmaan, who is also a producer, was familiar with the music of Dutt films and discovered his oeuvre, particularly “Kaagaz Ke Phool,” during the making of “Chup.”
“I understand how much easier it is for us today, working in digital, with so many avenues to make and produce film. And he made something like that, at that time, purely on film, and probably with just one outlet, which is the [cinema] theater,” said Salmaan. “Those were the times when it was more for the art, more for the love of cinema and more for the joy of telling the story – you put everything into it and sometimes people would mortgage their homes and back an idea with that kind of sort of conviction – it’s truly fascinating.”
For Balki, the cinema of Guru Dutt is a feeling. “The purity of pain, the purity of love, the purity of bad luck… it’s not manipulated, it’s up there, and he went out there and put his spin. On screen, it’s gorgeous and requires a lot of passion to do that,” said Balki.
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