Uday Shetty is an angry man, consumed by his desire to kill the man who killed his son. Actually, Shetty has an appetite for killing in general that shocks even his fellow police officers, whose own methods are unnervingly direct. They all appreciate the efficiency of simply tipping criminals, or those who fail to pay protection money, into the river – it saves time – but only Uday Shetty rhapsodizes about the wonderful moment when you see a victim die and the light in his eyes turns off, as if you had flicked a switch. Only Uday Shetty goes to shake down an uncooperatively honest politician and ends up massacring his entire family. “No witnesses!” Shetty says abruptly, when the chief accuses him of being a monster. No witnesses indeed.
The curious twist in Anurag Kashyap’s Cannes Film Festival Midnight selection Kennedy is that Uday Shetty is not supposed to exist. Once a legitimate police officer (albeit in a spectacularly corrupt force), Shetty overstepped the mark once too often: he killed the brother of a famous actress, thus guaranteeing that the force’s rogue operations would come under scrutiny. Faced with getting fired from the job that gave his life meaning, he took a deal where he would be pronounced dead in action, then go undercover as part of an anonymous special unit that does the really dirty jobs. The offer made sense to him. His wife had just told him she wanted him out of her life. His chances of springing his son’s killer, a nasty customer called Saleem, would be considerably enhanced – because if you want to kill someone, as Shetty tells another of his marks in an unusually expansive speech, you shouldn’t lose the element of surprise. That was six years ago. Now he calls himself Kennedy. Even his wife thinks he is dead.
Rahul Bhat, a former model and pageant pin-up who segued into acting via Hindi television soap operas, rumbles Shetty’s minimal lines from behind a bad beard and never cracks a smile, but manages to take us along with him – not cheering him on, exactly, but sympathizing with him as a tragic anti-hero whose bloodthirstiness is a kind of curse. Kennedy is the second film Bhat has made with Kashyap, whose 70s thriller aesthetic gives this long journey through the Mumbai night a fine, glossy finish. Despite its violence, this is Kashyap’s fantasy world. Some of the plot points have undoubtedly been ripped from newspaper reports, but not for the purposes of social commentary; Kennedy is a more of a wallow in a half-imaginary world of wickedness.
Kashyap has done his noir homework. Inevitably, there is a hard-boiled dame (the dazzling Sunny Leone) who drinks a lot of whisky and is entangled somehow with Rasheed, the self-serving police chief who borrowed heavily to buy his post and is now dangerously in debt to a loan shark (Mohit Takalkar). There is a betting shop on the sleazy side of town with a snivelling proprietor (Kurush Deboo) who does Shetty’s bidding. Chandan (Abhilash Thapliyal), the actress’ brother, now lives in Kennedy’s drab apartment as a ghost, goading and giggling at his glowering host while still wearing the silk scarf Shetty used to strangle him.
On the action front, there is an excellent car chase where Shetty bamboozles his pursuers by getting out of his car, running in a circle and getting back into it. You can’t take anything too seriously. Even his formidable body count is easily shrugged off – not that he is counting, because, as he says in the confession he types in his office during the small hours when he doesn’t have anyone to kill, there are just too many. All those corpses are just part of the genre territory.
The greatest challenge of Kennedy, in fact, is the plot. Who did what to whom, when they did it and why; it’s so tangled you could spend the full running time – well over two hours – undoing the knots. It is hard to get lost with Kennedy in the mean streets of Mumbai while plagued with questions: who Saleem’s nephew actually was; why a bomb went off unexpectedly, triggering a whole series of other unfortunate events; why it takes Shetty six years to find a local kingpin like Saleem when he can find and kill so many others? It is a story weighed down by detail, while also playing out largely on one note; there is not much light here, only a lot of shade teeming, of course, with shady business. Kennedy is enjoyably grim but, like Uday Shetty himself, it could do with a shave.
Festival: Cannes (Midnights)
Director-screenwriter: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Rahul Bhat, Sunny Leone
Running time: 2 hrs 22 mins
Sales agent: Zee Studios