Director Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies have always suffered a bit in translation. Whether due to a lack of nuance in the English subtitles or particular regional references that require context, I felt like I didn’t fully experience films like The Blue Umbrella, Omkara or Kaminey.
Not so with 7 Khoon Maaf (“Seven Murders Forgiven”). It’s Bhardwaj’s most universally accessible work yet. It’s perfect in the way of all cult films: not flawless, but giddy, emotionally effective and memorable.
7 Khoon Maaf chronicles the love life of a black widow named Susanna (Priyanka Chopra). The film is based on “Susanna’s Seven Husbands,” a short story by Ruskin Bond. The title itself is a clue that things don’t turn out so well for the men in Susanna’s life.
The story is narrated by Arun (Vivaan Shah), a forensics expert tasked with confirming the death of the serial spouse murderer. Arun explains to his wife (Konkona Sen Sharma) the nature of his relationship with Susanna when she was alive: he was Susanna’s ward, and she funded his education. But the more Arun explains, the more bizarre the story becomes.
Shortly after the death of her father, the wealthy, orphaned twenty-year-old Susanna marries Major Edwin Rodriques (Neil Nitin Mukesh). Edwin has a temper, and he terrorizes his wife and her loyal servants: a butler named Ghalib (Harish Khanna), a maid named Maggie (Usha Uthup) and a stablehand named Goonga (Shashi Malviya).
As Edwin becomes more dangerous, Susanna and her servants decide to get rid of him in a way that looks accidental. Thus begins the deadly cycle of Susanna’s romantic life.
The film is darkly humorous, and a bit perverse at times. Some of the more visceral visuals reminded me of Guillermo del Toro’s films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, though there are few special effects in 7 Khoon Maaf.
Also reminiscent of del Toro is the pervasive religious symbolism throughout the film. Susanna is a Christian, so hymns pervade the soundtrack, which was also composed by Bhardwaj. Given the number of weddings and funerals Susanna must attend, church is a frequent setting.
Much attention in the promotions for the film has been given to Susanna’s husbands: the rock star (John Abraham), the poet (Irrfan Khan), the healer (Naseeruddin Shah). But all of them, by design, have limited roles in the film.
Much more central to the plot are Susanna’s accomplices, Ghalib, Maggie and Goonga. They evolve from pragmatic problem solvers into a trio of gleeful assassins. The three actors deserve much credit for enriching the film.
Arun likewise plays a central role, aging from a child to a man throughout the film. Vivaan Shah is competent in his first film role, playing a man who watches his patron’s life unravel from a distance — sometimes a physical one but also an emotional distance, due to being much younger than Susanna.
But the success of the movie depends entirely on Chopra, Bollywood’s most ambitious actress, and she does not disappoint. Susanna ages approximately 35 years through the course of the film, and Chopra adapts accordingly. She walks a fine line, making Susanna charming and innocent, and then merciless and deadly.
7 Khoon Maaf is an all-or-nothing film. It either works for you or it doesn’t. Its strangeness will be a turn-off for some viewers, while others will lament a lack of explosive action scenes. But, if you’re in the mood for something a little different, beware: Susanna might just steal your heart.