2.5 Stars (out of 4)
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Despite director Mohit Suri’s protestations to the contrary, Ek Villain (“The Villain“) is a remake of the 2010 Korean thriller I Saw the Devil. A remake isn’t necessarily inferior to the original, nor are comparisons between the two always fair. Still, Suri abandons some of the core elements that made the original so compelling in favor of a convoluted, morally conflicted story that gets overwhelmed by its own ambition.
In Ek Villain, Sidharth Malhotra plays Guru, a former mafia hitman reformed by the love of a good woman, Aisha (Shraddha Kapoor). On the very day that the elements of a happy future fall into place for Guru and Aisha, she’s murdered by a stranger.
The police try to use Aisha’s murder to trick Guru into taking out his former boss, Caesar (Remo Fernandes), but clues point Guru toward an unlikely killer: a family man named Rakesh (Riteish Deshmukh).
All this is revealed early in the movie because the question is not who killed Aisha but whether her death will cause Guru to revert to his old, murderous ways. Aisha gets a lot of airtime via flashbacks to her early romance with Guru, as she softens up the tough guy with her aggressive cheerfulness and bad jokes.
Guru is underdeveloped, despite a bunch of flashbacks to how he became a contract killer. His past matters less than what he does in the present, but several key choices that would reveal the state of Guru’s character development are taken out of his hands. The subplot about Guru’s relationship with the police doesn’t make much sense, either.
Rakesh is the film’s most complicated character, so much so that perhaps he should have been the protagonist. That would’ve allowed for Suri to use an anti-hero to explore the plight of middle-class men in India, a motivating factor sited by Rakesh. But because Rakesh is only the villain, his rationale (and the lack of pushback against it) is more troublesome.
The serial killer in I Saw the Devil murders women because he considers them all to be symbols of past sexual rejection. He doesn’t choose his victims because they personally have rejected him but simply because they are there and they are women. The point of his murderous misogyny is that it is random and universal.
Rakesh, on the other hand, doesn’t murder randomly. He punishes women he believes have wronged him, whether by mocking him, by exercising authority over him, or just by asking him to do his job more efficiently.
This is a very different kind of motivation than random gender-specific homicide as it allows for victim-blaming. If only his victims had treated him politely, Rakesh might not have attacked them. Rakesh’s twisted ideology is reaffirmed by his friend, Brijesh (Kamaal R. Khan), who slaps his wife and visits brothels, which he considers the only ways for a modern middle-class man to relieve his frustration.
Brijesh’s views, Rakesh’s murder spree, and the fact that Guru is solely concerned with revenge for Aisha, not with preventing Rakesh from hurting other women, combine to create an undercurrent of acceptance of violence against women. In Rakesh’s mind — and maybe in the mind of some audience members — the women he kills had it coming.
Ek Villain invites so much analysis because Suri feels the need to explain everything. If some relevant point isn’t shown in a flashback, the characters give detailed descriptions of what happened and why. Suri isn’t content to let the audience figure things out for themselves.
The movie’s saving grace is its relatively brief runtime of just over two hours. That keeps the action moving along, especially since Rakesh delivers much of his expository dialogue while Guru is beating him up.
The music is pretty good, and there’s some fine camerawork throughout, too. An impressive fight scene when Guru confronts Caesar is shot with minimal edits in a nod to another dark Korean film, 2003’s Oldboy. (Oldboy was remade in Hindi in 2006 as Zinda, but that film totally botched its recreation of Oldboy‘s signature one-take hallway fight scene.)
Suri deserves credit for picking a quality film to recreate, and Ek Villain has a lot of elements to recommend it over other Bollywood fare. However, many of the changes Suri makes to accommodate a mainstream Hindi-film audience distract from the film’s core themes. It’s almost a success, but not quite.