Who? Why? How? These questions while watching a murder mystery are natural. They are even good since that would mean the film is getting the mystery right. But when ‘what?!’, ‘huh?!’ and ‘really?!’ join the list, and with increasing frequency, it doesn’t bode well. And that’s what makes Anu Menon’s Neeyat a middling murder mystery instead of a good one.
The influence of Agatha Christie stories and the more recent Knives Out is very apparent but taking bits and pieces from various influences does not a good story make. The setting — a windswept Scottish manor on an isolated island cut off from the mainland and without any network reception (a news channel is however being watched on the phone… really?!) — is ideal.
The occasion, like in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, is a birthday. That of flambouyant fugitive businessman Ashish Kapoor (Ram Kapoor). He has gathered around him his closest people to celebrate — doctor friend Sanjay (Neeraj Kabi) and his wife Noor (Dipannita Sharma) who used to be AK’s girlfriend at one point. There is a tarot card reader Zara (Niki Walia) and Ashish’s much younger girlfriend Lisa (Shahana Goswami). There is AK’s cokehead son Ryan (Shashank Arora) and his girlfriend Gigi (Prajakta Koli).
Rounding out the guestlist is AK’s good-for-nothing brother-in-law Jimmy (Rahul Bose), AK’s secretary Kay (Amrita Puri) and a distant relative whose education Ashish is funding. Giving us — and the staff at the manor (the staff leave later because there is a predicted storm… huh?!) — a low down of all the players is cocky event manager Tanveer (Danesh Razvi).
There is a party crasher — Mira Rao (Vidya Balan), who arrives in the middle of the storm (after the only bridge connecting the mainland is closed and without any conveyance, but no one finds it odd…huh?!). At dinner that evening AK announces his intention to surrender himself to the Indian authorities and introduces Mira as the CBI officer tasked with taking him back to India.
The people around the table, all of whom are dependent on AK financially in some way or the other, are either appalled or encouraging. And that’s when the bodies start piling up. First Zara’s dog dies. Then AK is found dead on the shore below the cliffs and Mira claims it is a murder not suicide. More people start dropping dead and we come to the everyone-in-one-room scene where everyone has a motive to kill AK and the secrets of all the people come tumbling out (but some of them have absolutely nothing to do with the murder).
Given the talented star cast, it is a sad thing that none of the characters are memorable. In fact they are so two-dimensional that they are instantly forgettable. The only ones who stand out are AK — Kapoor does the affable and the evil with equal aplomb — and Rahul Bose’s Jimmy (but only because he is so over the top that he almost tips into becoming a caricature). Actors like Shashank Arora and Neeraj Kabi are wasted in under-written characters.
Vidya Balan’s Mira is a deadpanning nerd who spouts off data about anything and everything. Balan does well without her trademark smile and sparkling eyes to fall back on. She manages to cast an aura of mystery around Mira which is perhaps more interesting than the murder she is trying to solve. You notice something off about Mira right off the bat.
A lot of the solutions in the case are based on conjecture and coincidence — conveniently held conversations, conveniently discovered secret passages, guesses about identities… they are aplenty. And the twists will not come as a surprise to most murder mystery fans.
What is promising, however, is the final twist that one doesn’t see coming and the cameo right at the end of the movie. It lays the ground for a sequel and given the duo who might just be the focus, it sounds intriguing. One hopes next time they will not be let down by poor writing.