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Khalid Mohamed 

Cast: Urmila Matondkar, Manoj Bajpai, Sushant
Direction: Ram Gopal Varma
Times Rating: * * *

SHIVER me timbers. She's on edge. Home alone, a pretty young woman shakes-'n'-quakes at the slightest hustle rustle. Zounds, will she make it through the fright night? Hmmmm maybe, maybe not. So there you are in your seat, quite in a flurry, biting your nails with worry. Ramgopal Varma's Kaun dares to be different, dispensing with those ding-dong songs, prances-dances and sappy stock characters like morose mums, despotic dads, rude-crude comedians and what-heave-you. Although after Satya, Varma could have ventured towards the booming blockbuster terrain, he has pulled off a surprise - a quick suspense-cum-horror movie, a genre which has obviously fascinated him ever since the days of Raat (1992).

This time around, the director appears to be more in control, blasting out chills and thrills with a sufficient amount of stealth and savvy. Hence, here's a revival of the kind of spine-tingler which you thought had vanished into the catacombs after the Audrey Hepburn scream-fest Wait Until Dark (1967) and our very own Rajesh Khanna-Nanda whodunwhat Ittefaq (1969), both intimately scaled efforts which have lingered on in the memory files. Shh...udder murder. Zoom into a well-appointed but spookily desolate home, then, where that pretty miss (Urmila Matondkar) is attempting in vain to keep her cool. Chatting with her fluffy kitten, fixing herself a cheddar sandwich and flinching at every thud and bang, her nerves are shot. Worse, a TV news bulletin announces that a serial killer is on the loose. As the clock tick-tocks, there's a knock. A stranger (Manoj Bajpai) arrives, begging to enter the house, since a monsoon storm is raging outside. Bespectacled and bumptuous, it's clear that this wacko Jacko cannot be trusted, even as he strives to look sweeter than a toffee and asks for a cup of coffee. A war of nerves erupts between the young woman and the Jacko, whipping up tension-packed verbal duels. Just when the pair seem to have reached a truce, enters a scruffy-looking, gun-flashing fella (Sushant) who insists that he's the police inspector of the precinct. Who's lying and who isn't? That is the question which must be answered as the trio go hammer and tongues against one another. Mercifully, the climax avoids a long-winded explanation about the mystery behind the malarkey.

In the tradition of Hitchcock, the visuals do all the talking. However, the wordy note tagged on at the end does jar, the epilogue striking you as more tacky than a punchy parting shot. There are other flaws too. Like the hiccupy cinematography, the overuse of the crawling ground-level camera angles, the ubiquitous Steadicam shots (an unflagging obsession with Varma) and some red herrings which are more misleading than smart. The script could have been far more slick-'n'-needle sharp. In the event, there are far too many loopholes in the plot, leaving you scratching your head. To list them would mean giving away the end, which would be doing injustice to both the film and its creator. All said and seen, Varma has made a compact, less-than-two-hour film, which must be commended for breaking away from the feverish formula norm.

In addition, Kaun does engross and excite the viewer intermittently. Contributing considerably to the picture's wallop is the throbbing, atmospheric background score by Sandeep Chowtha. Also, the two lead performances are a zinger. Manoj Bajpai is absolutely brilliant. After the amazing Bhiku Mhatre turn in Satya, he is in terrific form again. Funny and frightening alternately, he asserts that he ranks among the brightest talents on the scene today.

Urmila Matondkar's is a more difficult and demanding role. To her credit, she has done a fine job. She rivets the viewer's interest, carrying off entire reels on her shoulders, through a gamut of quicksilver facial expressions. Vulnerable and baffled, she is utterly believable as the traumatised girl-next-door.

Just for the two inspired performances and the scary moments, this movie about unusual suspects is eminently worth a look. Don't expect perfection in the story-telling and you won't be disappointed.