The strained relationship between artists and critics is as old as cinema itself. Artists argue that they create. Hence, they are superior to critics, who are usually negative about everything they consume. And since critics only consume instead of creating something substantial, their opinions are invalid. Critics argue that art cannot thrive if they don’t talk about it, and the medium cannot evolve if the only thing that an artist receives is praise. And since critics are the ones who often champion indie darlings and passion projects that the audience will usually pass by because it hasn’t been marketed properly, their opinion is important. But both agree on one thing: that it’s the audience who makes or breaks a film. They can tank a well-made, well-reviewed film, and they can turn a poorly crafted, horribly reviewed dumpster fire into a raging success. “Chup: Revenge of the Artist” tries to wrestle with every aspect of this very relationship.
Directed and co-written by R. Balki, along with co-writers Raja Sen (who is a professional film critic, BTW) and Rishi Virmani, “Chup: Revenge of the Artist” opens with the murder of a film critic in Mumbai. Head of the Crime Branch, Arvind Mathur (Sunny Deol), and his partner Srini Shetty (Rajeev Ravindranathan) are brought in to investigate the case. In parallel to this, we see a man apparently named Danny (Dulquer Salmaan) going about his day as a florist, having “bhurji pau” and talking to himself. The character that connects these two plots is entertainment reporter Nila Menon (Shreya Dhanwanthary). Due to the nature of her job, she inhabits the same circles as the critics who are being murdered by a serial killer. Due to her mother’s (Saranya Ponvannan) love for tulips, she becomes a frequent customer at Danny’s shop. And while the number of murders increases, Nila and Danny’s bond grows stronger, with neither of them being aware that eventually, they’ll find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum of humanity.
When the trailers for “Chup: Revenge of the Artist” or just “Chup” were released, the general consensus was that it was going to be a hit job against critics. Artists love to hate them for the aforementioned reasons. Audiences love to hate them because when critics don’t praise their favorite movies or love their favorite stars as much as they do, they don’t get the validation they need. And, if I can be honest, a massive chunk of film critics writing for independent websites (such as the one you are on right now) love to hate critics working for multi-million-dollar corporations and getting paid for writing absolute trash. The surprising element of this R. Balki film is that it is not actually a hate letter to critics (which is more surprising than the reveal of the killer and his motivations). In fact, it’s a hate letter to everyone from jilted artists to abusive fans and those who don’t have a fundamental understanding of the world of cinema for intentionally or inadvertently ruining the artform.
Balki, Sen, and Virmani understand that we have a bad habit of generalizing people in every profession and thereby creating a false image of them in our minds. Filmmakers make movies that reach hundreds of thousands of people and influence them in various ways. But does that make them impervious to political, societal, or studio pressure? No. Despite being backed by millions, they stoop to various lows. Critics critique movies and their articles are read by almost everyone who has watched the film they are writing about. But are they powerful enough to make or break cinema? No. Because if that’s the case, every critical darling must be a hit, and every badly reviewed film must be a flop. “Chup,” says that we need to understand the reality of this dynamic. We need to have a discussion based on the material of the film and the points raised by those who are reviewing it. If you are resorting to the deification of artists (and critics) or abuse of critics (and artists), then you are the one hurting cinema.
This nuanced commentary is both elevated by the dark comedy and messed up by the romantic subplot, all the handholding, and the rushed handling of the topic of psychopathy. “Chup” is absolutely hilarious when it focuses on its slasher aspect. The murders are incredibly creative. Balki uses the freedom that comes with the A-rating to its fullest. Hence, mutilated bodies are on full display. The blood and guts are almost spilling out of the frame. The special effects and visual effects are immaculate as you can feel the griminess and smelliness of each of the crime scenes. And the laughs come from the notion that someone has gone to town on people who review films. The absurdity of this concept is furthered by the urgency with which various levels of security are assigned to the critics who are in danger. Because that’s when you realize that Balki is aware that there’s nothing realistic about this plot. He knows something like this will likely never happen, and he’s showing how dumb it’s going to look if someone gets violent about cinema.
Vishal Sinha’s cinematography is competent, and so is the overall production design of “Chup.” Nayan H. K. Bhadra’s editing has high highs and low lows. There is a cut from the serial killer enjoying the crime scene he has created at night to Arvind Mathur examining the same during the day. And it’s perfect. But then Bhadra’s editing becomes unnecessarily frenetic during the investigation scenes as well as the conversation scenes. The score by Aman Pant and the songs by Amit Trivedi and Sneha Khanwalkar are overwhelming and forgettable, respectively. Only S. D. Burman’s tunes seem fitting. The performances from the entire cast are excellent. Dulquer Salmaan gets the most meaty character. However, he doesn’t treat it frivolously. He puts so much life into it and thus lights up the screen every time he is on it. Shreya Dhanwanthary is efficient and effortless. She portrays love, passion, and panic with so much ease that it’s mind-blowing. Sunny Deol hits it out of the park as a grizzled, all brawn but not too much brain, cop. I think the movie needed more of him!
That brings us to the problems of “Chup.” As good as Dulquer and Shreya are, their romance has zero chemistry. It brings the pacing of the film to a halt. And since what’s going to happen between them is so predictable, the whole effort seems pointless. Maybe a better alternative would’ve been to develop their characters separately and then go about the conclusion? Because their romance doesn’t really impact the killer’s plan. Even if it does, we don’t spend enough time in that moment of dilemma. As for the killer’s motivations, and as much as I like what Balki, Sen, and Virmani are (probably) trying to say, the movie spends more time on the killer’s misplaced emotions and less time on why the killer is wrong. For a brief moment, we see the killer being asked to rethink the reasoning behind his murder, which in a way, asks artists to critique the product they’ve made instead of getting angry at those who are critiquing it. But it’s so fleeting that the killer’s bad-faith opinion about film criticism ends up getting more screen time.
The reason why this happens is that “Chup” spends too much time explaining the killer’s backstory and going over why he is doing what he is doing through copious amounts of exposition instead of dissecting why his whole mission is so wrong. We know he’s a “psychopath” who laughs after knowing a critic died of COVID-19. We don’t need the cliche story about an abusive childhood because it adds nothing to the story. Why do I know that? Because Zenobia (Pooja Bhatt) essentially says that his abusive childhood didn’t make him a killer, the criticism of Guru Dutt’s “Kaagaz Ke Phool” did. You can say that she’s talking about how he misattributed the reason behind Dutt’s death to the poor criticism of “Kaagaz Ke Phool” and echoed it when his own film (also named “Chup”) got panned. But that’s not very clear. What’s also not clear is if the killer’s film was actually good and wrongly reviewed or if he took the criticisms too personally because the film was about his life. FYI, it’s not necessary for a film to be good just because it’s close to the makers’ hearts. Those feelings need to be conveyed cinematically, or else what’s the point?
With all that said, do you know what the most problematic element in “Chup: Revenge of the Artist” is? It’s not gratuitous violence. It’s not the convoluted message about cinema, artists, critics, and the general audience. It’s the poster in Nila’s house that reads, “Woody Allen is innocent.” Yes, Woody Allen, the director who was accused by his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, of molesting her when she was seven. Woody Allen was accused of having an intimate relationship with another one of Mia Farrow’s adoptive daughters, Soon-Yi Previn, someone who he went on to marry. That Woody Allen. Now, I am not sure if this is a statement from R. Balki or one of his writers. Or if this is a way of showing that film critics have a tendency to champion abusers just because they like their work, thereby ruining the sanctity of cinema. I am hoping it’s the latter because if it’s the former, “Chup” deserves zero stars.
Until we get a clarification on that poster, though, I’ll say that “Chup” is definitely worth a watch. Is it totally original? I don’t think so. Edgar Wright made “Hot Fuzz” back in 2007, where the Neighborhood Watch Alliance of the small town of Sandford went around killing reporters who told the truth about the town while making spelling mistakes in their articles, police officers who critiqued the town’s murderous tendencies, or kids who did graffiti. That way, they upheld the rustic aesthetic of the town and kept winning the “Village of the Year” award without realizing how fascist they were being about something that should be so simple. Still, R. Balki’s spin on it with a fascist “savior” of cinema at its center is interesting, to say the least. When it works, it will make you laugh. When it doesn’t, it will have you blankly staring at the screen. The acting is fantastic, with Dulquer Salmaan clearly taking the cake. And, in the weirdest way possible, the film is a reminder of the greatness of Guru Dutt. So, once you are done watching “Chup,” maybe go watch his films, starting with “Kaagaz Ke Phool.”
“Chup: Revenge of the Artist” is a 2022 Drama Thriller film directed by R. Balki.