(Kennedy premiered Out of Competition at the 76th Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday night)
A cold-blooded, vengeful killer is on the prowl in Kennedy, an overheated noir thriller that plays out over five nights but tells a story that spans from 2014 to the year the Covid-19 pandemic began to ravage the world. The plot centres on a policeman who has been missing for six years but continues to be at work like a silent virus, killing people at will.
Anurag Kashyap’s film is loath to pause for breath, a trait that is at times a touch disorienting, but the allure of a psychopath who hovers between tenacity and insanity is undeniable. The hitman’s violent depredations parallel the menace of a deadly and invisible virus that could either biological or systemic. In this film, it is more the latter.
Kashyap’s script follows the dangerously flawed man as he wreaks havoc around the city of Mumbai with a mix of unsentimental detachment and hard-edged, single-minded pursuit of chosen, and sometimes random, targets.
The eponymous character is the brainchild of Sudhir Mishra, to whom the film is dedicated. The titular insomniac ex-cop is the antithesis of all that a policeman is supposed to stand for, but he isn’t the only one who is to blame for the terrifying lawlessness that he unleashes on the streets and alleyways of the metropolis.
When we first meet him, he is no longer a man in uniform and the only uniformity that there is in his behaviour pertains to his appetite for a kill.
The world that Kennedy plays out in is exceedingly dark – the entire film is shot at night – and amoral. The benighted ambience reflects the mind of a man who no longer exists either on the official rolls of the police force or in the world of the living as we know it. He is, therefore, free to do what he wishes.
He is a killing machine answerable to virtually nobody, not even to the higher-up who has created him to serve his own ends.
Uday Shetty alias Kennedy, played with phenomenal panache by Rahul Bhat, holds within himself all that is despicable and degrading. The trouble is he is a Frankenstein’s monster with a mind of its own.
The film’s frenetic pace approximates the working of the assassin’s frenzied mind. He may be a pawn in the hands of Mumbai police chief Rasheed Khan (Mohit Takalkar), but since the cold-blooded killer operates beyond the pale of the law, he is beyond control.
Kennedy, produced by Zee Studios and the Anurag Kashyap-fronted outfit Good Bad Films, falls backs on doleful poetry written and recited by Aamir Raza (who also appears on screen as a nightclub singer) to bring out the void in which Kennedy exists and thrives.
The film cites Romantic poet William Wordsworth to begin with: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness/But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness”. It then explodes into dizzying series of murders perpetrated by Kennedy, who is sunk into irreversible psychosis.
Poetry and crime often go hand in hand in film noir. In Kennedy, which presents murder as a lonesome maniac’s preferred mode of self-expression, the connection between verse and venality is very deep. By playing one off against the other, the film uses one to heighten the impact of the other.
The poetry and the dialogue poses questions to both the principal character as well as the audience as the film throws in references to the larger political realities of the times.
The killer is asked: “Bata kitne qatl kiye tune/Bata kitna mazaa aaya/Kitne sikkon mein beche murde/Bata kitna kamaa laaya (How many have murdred? Did you have fun? How much did you sell the dead for? How much did you earn?).”
In a long sequence in a cab driven by Kennedy – he works for a premium taxi hailing company – a man offers a bribe to a politician to defect from the ruling party and help in toppling the state government. The MLA refuses to swallow the bait.
The film asks through one of the characters: Who runs the country – the supremo or the billionaire masters who own and operate everything that is profitable and yields untrammelled power? The answer is up in the air. The way the police operates, and the equations the force has with the underworld, is manifested in the things that Kennedy is allowed to do and get away with.
Kashyap captures the enigma of a man who subscribes to no established, accepted norms of behaviour. The glee on his face when he twists a knife into a victim or pulls the trigger to kill without remorse is chilling, a mirror to a crazed, twisted mind inured to anything that might resemble pity or moderation.
Kennedy takes his orders from the Police Commissioner, is estranged from his wife Anuradha (Megha Burman) for reasons that are revealed late in the film, strays into the path of a sultry siren Charlie (Sunny Leone) in the wake of one of his many murderous strikes, occasionally works with a serving sub-inspector, Abhijeet Kale (Shrikant Yadav), and frequently acts of his own volition, throwing the well-laid plans of a cynical boss into utter disarray.
Does Kennedy not feel any sense of guilt at all? He does. The people he kills haunt him. But nothing flusters him more than the loss of his family and the life that he had before he chose to become an accomplice in a devious plan not entirely of his own making. So, Kennedy definitely isn’t a one-dimensional figure.
The film, however, could have done with a little more depth. It seems to skim the surface and refrains from going the whole hog with its political allusions. But Kennedy does give us a central character who intrigues and excites thanks to the power Rahul Bhat lends to it.
Sunny Leone’s laugh – more a sharp elongated squeal than a pure guffaw/giggle – is the defining trait of the character she plays. Wish there was more to her. But it is definitely good to see the actor being used for something beyond just as a means of titillation. She makes the most of the opportunity. Mohit Takalkar, Shrikant Yadav and Megha Burman also stand out.
Sylvester Fonseca’s cinematography, the background score (which incorporates Tchaikovsky and Swan Lake and was recorded by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) and the poetry of provocative pessimism that Aamir Raza contributes to the film are out of the ordinary.
In the ultimate analysis, Kennedy is as much an Anurag Kashyap film as it is a Rahul Bhat vehicle. The cinematic work and the onscreen performance complement each other to perfection.
Rahul Bhat, Sunny Leone, Benedict Garrett, Megha Burman and Mohit Takalkar