If Shutter Island has piqued your interest in psychological thrillers, check out Karthik Calling Karthik, which manages to turn a corded home phone into a terrifying piece of communications equipment. I think I need to cancel my landline.
KCK stars Farhan Akhtar (the film’s co-producer) as Karthik, a hard-worker who’s unwilling to stand up for himself. Karthik’s meekness stems from the fact that he blames himself for his bullying brother’s death during a scuffle when they were children.
When he finally tries to stand up to his overbearing boss, Karthik is publicly humiliated and fired. At home, his suicide attempt is interrupted by a call on his recently purchased home phone. The caller is Karthik.
This voice-only Karthik knows enough details about his corporeal counterpart to convince Karthik that he’s not being duped. The voice promises to help Karthik improve his life, and his advice works. Karthik gains a new confidence that helps him land a better-paying job and a date with his dream girl, Shonali (Deepika Padukone). Karthik comes to accept these conversations with himself as something natural.
The voice insists that Karthik never mention his calls to anyone. But when Shonali asks Karthik for complete honesty, he tells her about the calls. The voice on the line isn’t pleased, and the consequences of Karthik’s disclosure are severe.
There’s an undercurrent of fear throughout Karthik Calling Karthik. Even during playful scenes of Karthik courting Shonali, it’s impossible to forget that they owe their romance to Karthik’s disembodied voice. The voice is terrifying because there’s no physical person to connect it to, and because it’s never clear what the voice is getting out of the phone calls. If Karthik really is calling himself, then anything that benefits corporeal Karthik benefits voice Karthik as well. But he can’t really be talking to himself, can he?
Akhtar deftly handles the challenge of playing essentially three different characters: shy Karthik, bold Karthik and disembodied Karthik. His voice acting is good enough that, even without reading the subtitles, it’s obvious when disembodied Karthik is providing encouragement versus threatening retribution.
Writer-director Vijay Lalwani’s debut effort is a strong one. He gets a little heavy-handed manipulating colors in scenes where Karthik is supposed to be confused or frightened. And there’s an epilogue that feels tacked on, undermining some of the film’s emotional impact.
But Lalwani deserves credit for providing a satisfying explanation for the phone calls. It would’ve been easier to leave the reason ambiguous under the guise of “letting the audience decide what happened,” but Lalwani manages to tie the threads together in a way that makes sense in retrospect.
And it speaks to Lalwani’s skills as a storyteller that I found myself inadvertently covering my ears during several scenes of the phone benignly sitting on a bedside table. The next time my own telephone rings, I’m making my husband answer it.
*Karthik Calling Karthik’s runtime is listed as 2 hrs. 35 min. It’s closer to 2 hrs. 15 min.