The psychological thriller genre has long been a Hollywood mainstay, and it finally arrives in Bollywood with Vijay Lalwani's Karthik Calling Karthik.
The first few scenes of this film set up a fascinating character study -- anyone who's an introvert of this specific kind (or knows one fairly well) will find it easy to identify with Karthik's suffocating loneliness and lack of social confidence, and Farhan Akhtar seems to be really tapping into this character's inner turmoil in this early stage of the film (he does very well in the rest of the film too). This is a great premise for complex human exploration, but the screenplay chooses to cut the tension with the film's central conceit far too soon: a phone call that Karthik receives from an unknown entity that claims to be (and sounds exactly like) him.
As you may have already seen in the trailers (or read in news articles), Karthik's alter-ego inspires him to undergo a sea change, giving him confidence to stand up against a tyrant boss and helping him in getting the girl of his dreams (Deepike Padukone, acting believably for once). Herein lies the film's biggest flaw, because this transformation never really happens on screen -- there is no connective tissue to explain how this character undergoes such a drastic transition and the film suffers for it. It would've been far more believable if the screenplay would've allowed this change to play out gradually over a few conversations. (Lalwani structures the second half far more believably, where you get to see what could be described as the reverse-transformation of this character).
It's difficult to describe the rest of the plot without giving away spoilers so I'll refrain from revealing any further details. Anyone who's seen enough Hollywood films, though, will be able to stay a couple of steps ahead of the screenplay; and that's part of what ruined the experience for me. Early on in the film, there's a flashback to Karthik's childhood and if, like me, you've seen a fair number of psychological thrillers, you'll easily guess one of the film's central mysteries. (The big reveal comes at the end when it doesn't seem like a reveal at all, destroying any expectations of a crackling climax, which this film needed).
The second half of this film is much stronger than the first -- the screenplay and editing post-interval are very tight. In contrast, the pacing of the first half can be described as wobbly at best. Cinematographer Sanu John Varughese mixes a number of styles to shoot this film, though the flashbacks have been shot in the same tones (and include the same unnecessary voice-overs) that a lot of Bollywood films seem to be using these days. The scenes switch to black and white at pivotal moments, even as you see a bright red light flickering behind the window.
In the end, Karthik is a film defined by its disappointments almost as much as it is defined by its strengths -- at every stage, the screenplay sets up an interesting character arc and then doesn't seem willing to pursue it for fear of losing audience love. The film succeeds as an exercise in style, and is engaging for most of its runtime, but a number of elements in the story could've been used far more effectively. It refuses to fully embrace its dark side, wimping out of an ending that could've added much more to this story.
In the closing shot, we're left with an image of the Rubik's cube Karthik has been working on, lying on the table, completely solved (a metaphor for his life you see!). I have a feeling this would've ended differently in Hollywood. Grade: B-