Cast: Priyanka Chopra, John Abraham, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Naseeruddin Shah, Irrfan Khan, Annu Kapoor, Usha Uthup, Aleksandr Dyachenko, Vivaan Shah, Ruskin Bond
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Rating: **

Suparna Sharma

THE SAME Vishal Bhardwaj, who took two of Shakespeare’s tragedies and turned one into a dark, brooding drama and the other into a deeply disturbing but rousing paean to dehati alpha males, has now taken Ruskin Bond’s twisted tale about a psychopath (Susanna’s Seven Husbands) and turned it into a tiresome game of Whac-a-Mole.
You must have seen this American game, Whac-a-Mole, in kiddie play areas in malls. It’s a colourful console with circular cutouts, and when money is put in the slot, the machine comes to life with blinking lights and electronic music. That’s the cue to grab the rubber mallet and be ready to whack googly-eyed little moles as they pop up through the round holes. The moles don’t matter. They live to be whacked, hard and quick.
Same thing with Susanna and her husbands. They pop up and she whacks them.
7 Khoon Maaf opens with a nice scene. The camera is staring at a gun on a table, next to two Buddha heads. Susanna Anna-Marie Johannes (Priyanka Chopra) is old and trembling. She puts the gun to her temple, we hear a shot and see blood on a wall. Is she dead?
Bhardwaj doesn’t tell us that just yet. Instead he takes us to the forensics department in Mumbai where a package arrives for Dr Arun Kumar. He opens the box, gets hassled, shuts it. In the box are the weapons Susanna used to kill her husbands, their remains, and her own. Arun has to confirm if Susanna is dead. That night, in his lovely house by the sea, while his wife is sleeping, Arun takes out an old photo album. It’s flashback time and his voiceover accompanies us.
Young Susanna is crouching in a corner, listening to a record. Her mother passed away first, and now her father’s dead too. He, Bade Saheb, has left her a large estate and loyal servants — Gunga, a midget jockey, Maggie the maid (Usha Uthup) and a butler who wears white gloves always, even to funerals. There is also Arun, an orphan. He is rescued from regular beatings by Susanna and put into a school. Arun worships her, literally.
Susanna’s matrimonial journey begins soon after, with Major Edwin Rodriques (Neil Nitin Mukesh). He is the jealous sort and tips over easy, especially since he lost a leg in Operation Blue Star. There is a creepy scene when he is humiliating Susanna and his stump is hovering threatening close to her face. Nice.
But Rodriques is not a nice guy, so he gets whacked. And at his funeral, newly widowed Susanna spots the tallest choir boy, Jimmy Stetson (John Abraham), and marries him. There is love, sex, but Jimmy is a retard. Susanna should have guessed that when he started singing O Mama to her. But he has to get into kilts, a negligee and snort cocaine before she finally whacks him.
By now, we have learnt a few things about Susanna: She likes to drink, has pet cobras and knows about guns. We also know that close to her estate is a church, convenient for marriages and funerals. But we don’t know where we are. I recall seeing a board that said Panchgani. But Susanna’s world looks like it was created by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and the freaks and monsters on her estate seem to be on loan from Ram Gopal Varma.
Anyway, Susanna goes off to Kashmir where she falls in love with an effeminate guy who gets aroused only after he has slapped Susanna silly. Then, in an awfully pretentious scene, we see her servants digging a grave in the snow. But when did Susanna recruit them to whack her moles? Is there something about people living on the estate and outsiders, like in that sexual-psycho Malayalam drama Electra by director Shyamaprasad? I don’t know, and Bhardwaj doesn’t tell.
It’s not yet half-time, there are still some intense, shocking scenes, mole number four, five, six… and the question if Susanna is really dead. But I was already fatigued. Moles were popping up and Susanna was whacking them. I felt no connect with Susanna and was, instead, consumed by unanswered questions: She loved Jimmy and he didn’t even hurt her, so why did she kill him? Why can’t she just leave the moles when bored, or turn them over to the cops when threatened? Butler with white tries to explain by way of a story about a mad dog: “Madam rasta nahin badla karti, kutton ka bheja uda deti hain”. Kutte, moles, husbands, same thing, I guess.

THE THING with films is that if they work, they work with all sorts of flaws, conceits, nonsense. And if they don’t, then they just don’t, no matter how lovely some scenes are, how great the actors, even how dearly we may love the director.
Bhardwaj’s warped tale about a woman who kills all the men she beds could have been riveting, but it is not. It’s boring. 7 Khoon Maaf rests on very flimsy grounds. The main disconnect with the film is that we don’t get Susanna, and soon we don’t care enough to even try. She is neither bad enough, nor interesting enough. We don’t know what compels her to kill. We don’t see her plotting, and are never given a peep into what’s going inside her head or heart. Her behaviour baffles us. As does the behaviour of the men around her. They lay eyes on her and are instantly hypnotised by her ravishing beauty. Usually, Priyanka looks nice, but here her pout is a bit crummy. Also, we are not sure if her Susanna finds herself sexy. Bhardwaj gave Tabu a jugful of water in Maqbool and in a second established her sensuality. He doesn’t do that here. So the premise that Susanna is a femme fatale is wobbly.
We are never in on the story because Bhardwaj keeps us at arm’s length throughout — we don’t know what happens in the servants’ quarters, just hear the butler saying, “Jaldi-jaldi shaadi karo, aaram-aaram se pachtao”. A snide remark, one would think. Then why are they all so loyal? We don’t know, and Bhardwaj won’t even gives us anything to examine, think about. A few vague comments strewn about are really not enough to sustain our interest.
em>7 Khoon Maaf has some sex scenes, thrilling moments and it looks and sounds good (especially Darling), but altogether it is a disappointing affair. Often, the camera and background score oversell what’s transpiring on the screen, and interesting scenes are invariably followed by inexplicable stuff, including people behaving out of character. The film’s climax is mystifying, to say the least.
Priyanka has a very meaty role and though she doesn’t sizzle, she leaves an impact. Of the moles, Neil Nitin Mukesh is nice and the Russian spy is entertaining.
I watched 7 Khoon Maaf with a frown, wondering what was going on in Bhardwaj’s head. Was he shaken by the new-age directors? Was he grappling with class, identity issues? Whatever be the reason, this is Bhardwaj’s first khoon, so it’s maaf. Saat would be asking for too much.