Kareena Kapoor Khan is the least interesting element in Sujoy Ghosh’s new film, his most mature work yet.
Sujoy Ghosh—who became a darling for Indian mystery lovers following the slightly-overrated Kahaani in 2012—is a better director than he is a writer. Unfortunately for him, ever since his feature film debut in the early aughts, the 57-year-old has been welded to the idea of writing his own scripts. In the decade or so after Kahaani, Ghosh has found himself lacking in that department. Thankfully, with Jaane Jaan, he’s got solid material. The Netflix movie—which marks the streaming debut of Kareena Kapoor Khan—is based on Japanese mystery veteran Keigo Higashino’s most acclaimed novel, The Devotion of Suspect X. Not only does Ghosh have a sound foundation, but he also has two actors in Jaideep Ahlawat and Vijay Varma who have perfectly understood the assignment.
So, it’s a little annoying that the film seems to have slightly misunderstood it. The book is centred on Suspect X, the individual in its title, played here by Ahlawat. But Ghosh’s film is called Jaane Jaan—apart from being a reference to Lata Mangeshkar’s 1969 iconic cabaret number “Aa Jaan-E-Jaan”, it refers to the female lead. That’s an interesting choice. You could easily argue that Kapoor Khan is the most recognisable face in the film. But this isn’t just some business decision—if it is that. More importantly, it tells us who Ghosh considers the viewpoint, the story’s focus. Watching Jaane Jaan, you can sense that he’s pushing Kapoor Khan’s character to the centre, even to his own detriment at times, because she’s too plain and not given enough of an edge.
Lived in and largely solid, but Jaane Jaan needed to be darker and shiftier
Nevertheless, the film succeeds for the most part. In some ways, it’s a twisted tale of love and affection, with a guy pining over a woman who doesn’t even see it. In other ways, it’s a tale of resentment and jealousy between two old friends, much of it down to their physical features and the confidence it manifests. Scenes are fleshed out nicely and there are a bunch of small touches that I appreciate.
Largely, Jaane Jaan proceeds like a cat-and-mouse game, as a detective (Varma) tries to nab a single mother (Kapoor Khan) in a crime she clearly committed even as all evidence points away from her. Ghosh makes a major change here, combining two of the novel’s characters into one, which I think works to the film’s benefit. (I can’t say the same about the altered ending, though, which partly abandons the moral and structural complexity of the novel.)
Everyone is competent—there’s no idiocy or comic relief—and the film feels lived in, having been shot in and around Kalimpong. The on-point cinematography (by Avik Mukhopadhyay) creates a mood and a matching palette, which helps Jaane Jaan’s tonal consistency. That said, the film is longer than it needs to be, at 139 minutes (including credits). And I can’t help but feel that there’s a better movie hiding underneath, a darker, shifty and more sinister one. Even as I was watching it, I kept wondering about the energy a filmmaker like Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) or Park Chan-wook (Decision to Leave) would’ve brought to this. There are shades of both parenthetical films, especially the latter, as the detective seemingly falls for the female suspect but Jaane Jaan doesn’t fully commit to it.
The plot of Jaane Jaan
Mild spoilers ahead regarding the premise and thematic beats.
Set in modern-day Kalimpong, on the eastern side of the Darjeeling Himalayas, Jaane Jaan is primarily about two sets of neighbours. In one household live Maya D’Souza (Kapoor Khan)—a former Mumbai bar dancer who ran away from her abusive cop husband Ajit Mhatre (Saurabh Sachdeva)—and her teenage daughter Tara D’Souza (Naisha Khanna). And in the other, we’ve incel math teacher Naren Vyas (Ahlawat), who’s drawn to Maya but can’t even begin to express himself. He has no one in his life, except his math problems that he loves spending years with.
After Ajit tracks down Maya and falls into his old ways, the mother-daughter duo end up killing him. The ever-watchful Naren offers to help hide the body and coach them through the inevitable police investigation. Things take an interesting turn after Mumbai cop Karan Anand (Varma), who’s sent to Kalimpong to find Ajit, turns out to be a college buddy of Naren. (Karan is the amalgamation of two of Higashino’s characters, the detective Shunpei Kusanagi and physics professor Manabu Yukawa.)
Kareena Kapoor Khan’s Maya is too passive
Naren helps Maya because a part of him believes it will bring them closer. Though he wants her, he considers himself unworthy. For one, he’s balding and doesn’t have the looks. Karan being there adds to this—as Naren says once, “We’re the same age, but you look half as young as me.” He’s further infuriated when he sees Maya go out with Karan one night. And with a perseverant Karan looking beyond easy answers, Jaane Jaan turns into a game of outsmarting his old friend. As his scheme unravels, Naren begins to devise a parallel scheme.
While Naren is clearly the most interesting character, the Netflix film spends an equal amount of time with Maya. There are glimpses of Karan eyeing Maya and Maya showing interest in Karan, but the film doesn’t push it enough. The problem is that Jaane Jaan treats Maya’s past as something that happened to her and that she had little role in—that makes her a very passive character. The only agency she shows in the film is when she kills her husband. After that, everything is orchestrated by Naren; she merely follows what he tells her to do. Jaane Jaan would’ve been better off making Maya a more slippery character, especially if she’s going to have so much screen time. The dynamic between Karan and Naren is more interesting, and Varma and Ahlawat have a lot more fun with their characters.
Sujoy Ghosh’s most mature work yet
Jaane Jaan unravels a teeny bit in the end—it’s much too expository as it runs us through the scheming, and even as the answers are satisfying, the depiction isn’t. Interestingly, this is the second Indian Netflix adaptation of a Higashino novel in less than a year, following Vasan Bala’s Monica, O My Darling last November. This one is all plot, plot, plot, too. But unlike that one, Jaane Jaan is better handled. It’s not forever trying to be cheeky and its characters aren’t made to look like buffoons on purpose.
Ghosh’s work since Kahaani, be it feature-length films (the maddeningly foolish script for Bob Biswas) or miniseries (the annoyingly bad Typewriter), has been staggeringly disappointing for the most part. On Jaane Jaan, he’s working with the best material he’s ever had and two actors (in Varma and Ahlawat) who can seem to do no wrong these days. (Kapoor Khan is solid too, but she’s not given enough sadly.) This is his most mature work yet, I would argue, but Ghosh needs to learn to manage those blind spots. It’s okay to have Kareena Kapoor Khan, but she doesn’t also need to be the star. A little courage, perhaps.
Jaane Jaan released on Thursday, September 21 on Netflix worldwide.