SFF 2023: Kennedy — the indulgence of noir-crime, tragedy and psychopathy

This review is part of Tharunka’s continued coverage of the 70th Sydney Film Festival. Read the rest of the reviews here. 

Reality tends to be a deafeningly dull echo of our imagination, often restricted in creativity and complicated with details. At this year’s 70th Sydney Film Festival, director Anurag Kashyap introduces the film as his exploration of the story of a real-life cop that existed in the 90s Mumbai – Uday Shetty of the Mumbai Police. He speaks of his notorious nature and his life in retirement at a farm in Melbourne, still living today. The stage was set with the red-carpet appearances, the glamorous and enchanting State Theater and most importantly, meeting this hugely influential and important director in my personal love for Indian Cinema.

The film is a drawn-out affair in indulgence, non-confrontational and overbearing with despair and an almost nihilistic score. The cop is a character of psychopathic, broken tendencies – a trope abundantly explored with a defined purpose. Anurag’s films reflect on the insanity and stupidity of chasing power without purpose in Faizal (Gangs of Wasseypur) or the madness of the human consciousness steeped silently as Ramanna (Raman Raghav 2.0). 

The reality of the film becomes convoluted in its lack of clear purpose, where style is all-encompassing without a clear motive, a reason for me to invest in the story, and a reason to follow the character to the end of his tragedy. While the imposing stature of the actor works to create a brooding atmosphere, held together with competent technical prowess in cinematography, the emotional demands of the character oscillate irregularly from sympathy for his circumstances to abhorrent dismay at his guiltless actions. Both are demanded without sincerity.

The supporting cast carries the film with a degree of success with solid performances, effective shot choices and an overall sound technical proficiency. Despite this, the protagonist’s presence is the piece that holds them all in place, which fails to reflect the gravitas that the director intended with the “Big Boss” Saleem. 

A particularly compelling sequence was the killing of the local Marathi politician, executed with precise and clear camerawork and an atmosphere dripping with dread. The son almost seemed like a reflection of the protagonist, his unnerving hunger for power and status paralleled with the remorseless and hapless killing. The first cut of the longshot faces the son and Uday, staring at each other with a mix of dismay, realisation and satisfaction – broken with the hitman bashing the child’s head in with a pan. 

The audience seemed unfamiliar with the current state of the Indian film scene, resulting in several laughs throughout the film. Although the comedy was straightforward and deservedly amusing, the excessive use of caricatured portrayals of the media, mafias, and occasional South Indian jokes, which have become prevalent in many contemporary Hindi films, made it tiresome and uninteresting at best for me. 

The political commentary in the movie lacks depth and fails to resonate with Indian viewers, offering simplistic views that do little to contribute meaningfully. Additionally, it attempts to represent the complacency during the COVID-19 pandemic – a reality shaped to be a key motivator for much of the actions taken in the film – falls short, feeling bloated and inconsequential. Anurag’s general outlook to the film can be seen as dismissive and unconcerned when he remarks, “My movies are not that deep… The movie was made to get through the censor board of India.” And that, at least, seemed to be true.

Being a fan of his previous works, I greatly admired the filmmaker’s fearless approach and the intense emotions he infused into his films. This set him apart from the multitude of safe and formulaic productions in the Indian film industry. However, in this particular film, I found a noticeable absence of drive and purpose, which left me somewhat disappointed. Nevertheless, the movie does present some intriguing and innovative concepts, albeit lacking complete development. Overall, it fails to captivate due to its lack of direction, but it could still serve as an average viewing experience for those who appreciate a straightforward character study. Here, reality supersedes the imagination.