Blackmail: Irrfan Khan is terrific in the Abhinay Deo directorial

It is late, well past office leaving time. We see a man doodling on a computer. He is clearly reluctant to leave. The watchman makes go home noises. Finally, the man fishes out a phone, and we see him type “leaving now” in a long line of similar words. The exact phrase, no response below, with just a change in date.

In one glance, we know this man’s domestic history is dry, loveless, and uninviting. This smart shorthand gets us revved up, and we are off, for the ride. With the wonderful Irrfan Khan in the driving seat, it can only be good, right?
Wrong. Blackmail begins promisingly but descends pretty quickly into flatness and sluggishness, a classic problem of not knowing quite how to play out a perky idea: a cuckold’s plan to extract revenge gets taken over by the old saying about mice and men, and, in this instance, women.

Revenge is never a one-way street. Human error and unbridled desire come in the way of neat plans, and we see Dev (Irrfan) and his bored wife (Kirti Kulhari), Ranjit (Arunoday Singh) and his lush of a wife (Divya Dutta), Dev’s colleagues who are his inadvertent partners in crime — a guy who can’t zip it up, a girl whose greed comes before a mighty fall, and a boss who is too clever by half (Pradhuman, Gokhale, and Vaidya, respectively) — circling around each other, dipping in to pick up their crumbs, scooting off, and circling back again.

The idea that no one’s a doodh-ka-dhula innocent, and that everyone has a grey streak or quirk is what can make well-done black comedies so much fun. A couple of surprises do leap out at us, especially featuring Gokhale and Irrfan, she throwing off her nice girl garb, revealing her claws, and he backing off, and maneuvering. The rest of it, even in the blessedly quicker second half, is tiresome.

The one man who keeps us watching, regardless, is Irrfan, who plays a jerk-off artist and blackmailer as essentially a decent guy making the best of a bad job. He is one actor who can, with subtle shifts, reveal an interior life; he can show without telling.

He is terrific. The film doesn’t match up.

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