This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Today: Alaya F's U Turn.
This Hindi remake of U Turn is such a poor instance of an “update” that it works best as a cautionary tale.
HINDI FILMS have a thriller-shaped problem. The pattern has been persistent: using the genre as a shorthand to trick the audience. What they do is trick, unfairly so, because most of them do not possess the ability to outsmart nor do they share the intent. If this sounds like a sweeping sentiment, there are reasons for it. In the recent past, the number of compelling Hindi film thrillers can be counted on one’s fingers, and it is not entirely incidental that the more commercially viable ones have been remakes. In that sense, Arif Khan’s U Turn achieves the impossible. It is not just a remake of Pawan Kumar’s 2016 work, a film so popular that it has been remade in seven languages — Malayalam, Sinhala, Filipino, Bengali and as a Telugu-Tamil bilingual — but personifies everything wrong with Hindi filmmakers’ treatment of the genre.
At this point I must confess I have not watched the original. For any other film I would have argued that it should not matter. What we see on screen, adaptation or remake, should be appraised for what it is. But the fact that the Kannada film has spawned these many retellings intrigued me. At this point I must also confess that I was not taken by what I read but I am willing to see the merit in the universality of a supernatural thriller premise. Besides, a film is what you watch. Whether Khan’s U Turn would have been better as a faithful remake is a question I do not have an answer to. But what I can say is that the Hindi U Turn does itself no favours by choosing to depart from it.
The outline is similar. A young journalist (Alaya F) is doing a story on flyover accidents. Her research shows that every day people die because many carelessly take u-turns by removing the divider blocks and not putting them back. The sudden obstruction leads to accidents. Her source is a homeless beggar, hidden in a corner, who notes down the vehicle numbers of the offenders and hands them to her for interview purposes. The problem begins when someone from that list dies on the very day she was supposed to talk to him. When this attracts the attention of the police, murkier revelations follow. It turns out that everyone on that list of hers had died by suicide a day after breaking the law.
Kumar’s film had mined the supernatural potential of this setting to arrive at an ingenious conclusion. The new U Turn, however, replaces the paranormal terror with social horror. If the departure sounds like Khan’s intent of an adaptation instead of a faithful remake, it translates as neither. The Hindi film unfolds with the expressed purpose of being different from the source material. But somehow Khan takes this as a dare. He not only designs the film with the assumption that everyone has watched the original, but also uses the main text as a smokescreen to arrive at a wilder culmination. While typing this I realise it makes the film seem smarter than it is but sadly, that is not the case.
It is this that accounts for the film’s undoing. This Chandigarh-set U Turn is such a poor instance of an “update” that it works best as a cautionary tale. It is truly baffling that in their bid to arrive at inventiveness, the writers bartered logic for gimmick. What is equally puzzling is the way they go about it. Khan’s film unravels like he had access to the first 20 pages of the original script and was later told to make up the ending as he went about. For nothing explains why we are looking at a truth serum, “blue liquid”, a subplot of a bereaved mother, a suspended police officer who carries on like nothing has happened, and his boss who leaves the film midway like he is suspended.
Other specifics don’t help. The spatial setting is so generic that the film could have been anywhere and it wouldn’t have mattered. This is only rivalled by the genericness of Alaya F’s performance. The actor had displayed some real pluck in her debut turn but her craft feels like it’s stagnating with each iteration. Although faulting her entirely would be unfair. Given that she plays a journalist in a Hindi film, her character is characterised as a melting pot of excess: Her Radhika Bakshi smokes at will (not cigarettes), prefers beer to coffee, and opts for a friends with benefits arrangement because, as she wisely surmises, there are too many stories to write in life and if she gets stuck on just one paragraph, how will she “do justice to justice” (this is an actual line from the film). Other police officers, save one (essayed competently by Priyanshu Painyuli) operate like cardboard fixtures. Their interactions with Alaya’s character are limited to slut shaming her. I am not questioning the existence of such behaviour but the binary is an issue.
Somewhere deep inside there is a story about grief here — the way people choose to grieve differently and how, more than anything else, that defines us as human beings. This alone could have been the adaptation Khan was going for. Or, he could have just remade the potent premise without diluting it with his thoughts. He does neither. Instead he takes a U Turn…I really should not make this joke…he shouldn’t have. And it all comes crashing down.