Cuttputlli (“Puppet“) is a prime example of one of Bollywood’s biggest problems at present: taking films that were successful elsewhere and remaking them without improving the story or remediating problematic elements.
The remake of the 2018 Tamil thriller Ratsasan stars Akshay Kumar as Arjan, a wannabe filmmaker who is obsessed with serial killers. We are told that Arjan is 36, driving audience members to immediately Google how old Akshay Kumar is (he’s 54). Arjan can’t find any takers for his slasher screenplay, so he uses Compassionate Appointment rules to take over his deceased father’s job as a police officer (with proper training first).
Arjan’s fledgling movie career is hardly mentioned again, which is a missed opportunity. The whole point of introducing it is to establish Arjan as an amateur profiler, differentiating him from the members of the police force in the small town where Arjan is assigned to work, alongside his brother-in-law Narinder (Chandrachur Singh).
When a missing teenage girl’s mutilated body is discovered, Arjan quickly recognizes the similarities to another murder that occurred in a nearby town a month earlier. But police chief Gudia Parmar (Sargun Mehta) ignores Arjan’s suggestion because he’s a rookie. She defaults to her usual method of beating anyone who can be loosely connected to the victim until they confess, whether they’re guilty or not.
Arjan is upset by the chief’s preference of violence over investigation. This could have led to an interesting examination of the problems with contemporary policing and its unbalanced incentive structure, but Cuttputlli isn’t that kind of movie. It has a conventional plot whereby one good guy must catch one bad guy, giving no airtime to the structures and systems that make such crimes possible.
Take for example a subplot about one potential suspect. A high school math teacher is able to sexually abuse his female students by threatening to report their poor class performance to their parents. Arjan’s own niece Payal (Renaye Tejani)–who exists in this movie solely to be victimized repeatedly–says that her parents were once so angry when she brought home a bad report card that they broke a television set. The film treats the line about the broken TV as a throwaway, rather than proof that unrealistic parental expectations actually might contribute to an environment that allows the predatory teacher to thrive.
Arjun stops the teacher before he’s able to assault Payal, kicking the man in the junk so ferociously that it sends him to the hospital. Arjun has become the thing that once disgusted him — a violent cop — but his reaction is condoned because he’s the hero of the story, granting him the right to mete out extrajudicial punishment as needed.
Cuttputlli‘s approach to violence is troublesome. The first victim’s mutilated face is shown for shock value, but lingering on each successive dead girl’s scarred visage feels exploitative. The film also follows the discovery of the first victim with a wacky scene in which Arjan chats with a forgetful grandpa who is delighted to discover that his wife is dead. The juxtaposition is uncomfortable, and the joke isn’t even funny (plus grandpa is never mentioned again either).
The conclusion to Cuttputlli is ridiculous. There was no reason to keep it the same as filmmaker Ram Kumar’s original film, but director Ranjit Tewari and writer Aseem Arrora seem determined not to make any improvements in their reboot. Mission accomplished, I guess.