Katti Batti ***
Dir: Nikhil Advani. With: Imran Khan, Kangana Ranaut, Vivan Bhatena. 135 mins. Cert: 12A
Anybody studying auteurism, and its possible application within Bollywood circles, might fashion an instructive double-bill out of two current releases. A fortnight ago, director Nikhil Advani’s name appeared on the credits of Hero, would-be showcase for buff rookie Sooraj Pancholi; throughout that dog’s dinner, you sensed producer Salman Khan – Pancholi’s mentor – looming over Advani, cracking his knuckles. Understandable, then, if Advani turned to his other 2015 project, the tragic romance Katti Batti, for light relief. Though the new film’s subject is fracture – it’s one of those (500) Days of Summer affairs, setting relationship and post-split recovery side by side – it’s far more coherent: even its mistakes are all Advani’s own.
Here are a couple of on-off college sweethearts proceeding through their twenties, and encountering all the comedowns those years have been known to entail. Hero Madhav (Imran Khan), commonly known as Maddy, is another of recent cinema’s sensitive, bespectacled architects; his beloved Payal (Kangana Ranaut) a somewhat cruel and mocking beauty from rich stock. We open on Maddy’s happy memories of the couple’s postgraduate domestic bliss, before a crash cut reveals he’s being rushed to hospital, having knocked back some bleach; thereafter, Advani cleaves to the (500) Days template, shuffling backwards and forwards chronologically as the recuperating Maddy replays key scenes and moments in his head.
Those left befuddled by Hero’s narrative and tonal inconsistencies may be relieved there is some kind of structure in place, however secondhand: the further we get into the lovers’ skylarking, the more jolting it is to be whizzed back to the cold and lonely present. Almost everything in this script bolsters our understanding of the central relationship. Clever interpolation of the Devdas legend immediately trumps Hero’s arbitrary foray into am-dram; even Maddy’s pet turtle might stand as a substitute for the child this couple never had. If that exposes how Katti Batti teeters on the verge of self-pity, then the second half offers some mitigation, venturing the idea that Maddy’s perspective might not be entirely reliable.
Advani demonstrates a surer touch with these (established) young performers than he ever did around Pancholi: he elicits particularly sympathetic work from Khan, whose Maddy seems both legitimately hurt and someone who might well make himself a fool for love. (He’s not, I suspect, called Maddy for nothing: viewers will have their own opinions on where his behaviour falls on the sweet-to-stalkerish spectrum.) Ranaut suffers from the conception of Payal as somewhere between incomplete picture and total projection, although anyone with eyes could see how she might make a sucker out of somebody, and several post-interval scenes allow her to fight for this character as more than just an illusion.
The finale barely convinces: Advani is himself hooked on this pairing’s cosmic rightness, despite gathering evidence enough to suggest all parties might do better to walk away. Still, there are modest, fleeting pleasures getting there: a nightclub number where, for once, everyone dances without obvious choreography, and – among the unusual Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy songs – one standout (“Sau Aasoon”) which actually sounds as though it’s been recorded by jamming musos rather than something repeatedly rinsed through Autotune. You’ll likely forget the whole in a heartbeat, but there are flickers of sincere emotion here – vital signs that show Advani can still assemble a functioning entertainment when he hasn’t got the heavies round.
Katti Batti is now playing in cinemas nationwide.