'Shaitaan' review: R. Madhavan's menacing villain makes you root for the devil

Film is a welcome break from the monotony of grandeur-laced lightweight offerings

Sajeer Shaikh May 15, 2024

Ever so often, one hears tall praise about a compelling narrative, only to be disappointed and let down by the elevated expectations one then holds for the offering. It is rare, after all, that amidst a sea of general mediocrity, something would burst forth on the scene, packing an understated, yet impactful punch. However, Shaitaan, starring R. Madhavan, Ajay Devgn, Jyotika, Janki Bodiwala, and Anngad Raaj, is one such gift that keeps on giving.

The premise is simple enough and no bells and whistles detract from the central plot. A family, whilst on their way to their remote farmhouse for a vacation, chances upon a whimsically friendly stranger, who offers Kabir's (Ajay) daughter Jahnvi (Janki) a laddu. The rest of the story follows Jahnvi being under the stranger's control due to black magic. One wonders then: if everything is straightforward, why bother at all? There are many reasons, with one of the strongest being Madhavan's unique, refreshing, and all-too-welcome take on the titular devil.

Madhavan, the talent that you are!

It should come as no surprise that Madhavan is exceedingly gifted. The seasoned star has proven his mettle time and again in diverse roles, and his range is truly phenomenal. However, his take on the antagonist of the film is so brilliant that it leaves you feeling a plethora of contradictory emotions as you catch your breath.

As Vanraj Kashyap, Madhavan dons a Machiavellian cloak. His casual, laid-back sense of control is menacingly magnetic, as he dishes out one absurd and lethal demand after another directed at Jahnvi. When arch, he is unsettling and commanding. It is this back-and-forth and slipping in and out of these two extremes with ease that leaves one truly perplexed.

One is supposed to hate Vanraj and his lust for domination...but it becomes almost impossible to do so, which is all the more terrifying and morally complex. Such is the charm of Madhavan's antagonist, who is the source of conflict, pain, and dark humour in the story.

It must be noted that there are certain scenes when Vanraj has to assert himself as the all-powerful harbinger of control, and the manner in which Madhavan exercises restraint while being arch is genuinely laudable. Any other actor would have stumbled on the slippery slope of this coming across as comical instead of intimidating. Madhavan straddles those fine lines with an impressive charm and remarkable swagger.

Subverting expectations

One assumes, with Bollywood's portfolio of generally lacklustre horror, save a few exceptions, that the theme of black magic could easily be derailed into a hammy, suffocating tale embellished with desperate performances that go out of their way to highlight possession. It is thus a pleasant surprise when restraint is shown across the board.

There is no hapless flying across the room for Jahnvi, or hair draping her face in a terrifying manner. Similarly, there are no unnecessary screams and wails on the part of her parents. There is a sense of subtlety in all performances, and the element of unease stems from stunned silences fixated on what is unfolding, as opposed to over-the-top action.

Ajay as Kabir is a dedicated father who must watch his little girl be controlled by a strange man. He can't do anything about it, because truly, what does one do in such a situation? His ability to showcase his impotence is almost irksome, as one silently yells in one's mind for the father to grab the reigns of control. Fighting against all directives usually reserved for the "hero" of the plot, Kabir dances to Vanraj's tune for as long as necessary.

Jyotika's Jyoti is perpetually mummified and in a state of shock. In her silences and artful glances, one is privy to various thoughts. One can see her anger, helplessness, and her desperation as she hopes her husband will save the day. When the dam of emotions bursts forth, one sees her in combat, fueled by a mix of torment and adrenaline. It is thus that the direction by Vikas Bahl is also worthy of high praise.

Excellent cinematography

A film such as Shaitaan would fall flat if the cinematography did not work in tandem with the overall vision. But it does, and boy, does it blow one away. From the intriguing camera angles to the overall look and feel of the narrative, everything complements the storyline in a brilliant manner. In fact, the team's pulse on how to keep the audience engaged is so strong that one is hooked, all the way from the opening credits.

It is a rare, horrifying sight for the beginning of a film to walk one through the process of creating a doll that will be utilised for black magic. With expert shots and a genuinely mesmerising edit, the film gives the audience what it may not have even known it wanted, and continues its streak of awe-inspiring work as the story draws to a close.

The lesson

There is, of course, a lesson to be learned at the end of the tormenting tale. While the way in which it is imparted seems like one has been transported to Baghban for a split second, one is also kept engaged by the chemistry between Ajay and Madhavan. As the two icons face off and lead watchers to the end of the narrative, one cannot help but sense that there may just be more in store.

Overall, Shaitaan is a welcome break from the monotony of grandeur-laced lightweight offerings that seem to inundate the entertainment space. Its no-nonsense approach and precise execution is a great example of how to draw in spectators and keep them watching till the very last second.

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