Subhash K Jha: Teen Patti re-defines the male-adventure genre

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If you can get over the ludicrousness of a distinguished mathematician whose God is Albert Einstein and who at the end of the film gets the ‘Isaac Newton Award’ for excellence in his field, masquerading as a seedy gambler (in a lungi, if you please!) then Teen Patti is a surprisingly skillful and audaciously complex piece of tautly-scripted and brilliantly executed drama on the seemingly exclusive worlds of academics and avarice and the deep-rooted link between financial ambitions and moral compromises.

Monetary indulgence is a theme done to ‘debt’. Writer-director Leena Yadav revealing stealthy skill utterly free of gender influences, gives the theme a dizzying but pinned-down spin. She speeds confidently across out-of-control lives on a college campus (not quite the insouciant IIT campus in 3 Idiots, but chalega) with the confident vision of raconteur who spins a seemingly indecipherable web of deceit, intrigue and crime that was probably destined to hurl into in uncontrollable cosmic and cinematic chaos.

Miraculously Yadav’s yarn preserves its pencil-sharp edge of intrigue and wit right to the end. The story of the eccentric math-magician’s adventures in blunder-land takes the narrative from underground addas to high-class casinos where Prof Venkat Subramaniam his junior colleague Madhavan (clenched and compelling in his part-guru part-shishya avatar) and four students convert the Professor’s newly-discovered mathematical theory into hard cash on gambling tables. Goodbye, Prof. Chips!

The onion-peel plot reveals layer after layer of subterfuge and conspiracy until we come to the core idea. Greed, we are told, does have a place in the faculty of the intellect as long as the craving for the good things in life doesn’t outdistance the ethical boundaries of a life committed to bettering society through education.

The story unravels through an extended dialogue in Cambridge between Prof Subramanian and a British maths professor Perci Trachtenberg played by Bachchan Sir and Sir Ben. Just watching the two distinguished baritones exchange notes on academia, life and their overlapping quirks, is a pleasure that makes for full paisa-vasool viewing.

Alas, one of the baritones belonging to Ben Kingsley speaks in Boman Irani’s voice. And that too in Hindi! Why are the two professors huddled together in Cambridge speaking to each other in a language that suggests no tenability except a practical desire to make itself intelligible to Indian audiences in the non-metropolitan centres?

It’s a futile endeavour in linguistic transference considering the fact that this is not a film for the audience that enjoyed De Dana Dan or Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani.

Teen Patti targets its cerebral entertainment quotient at an audience that is willing to expand, and not suspend its disbelief. The proceedings charted by the intricate plot take the characters belonging to three generations through a smoky hazy compromised kingdom of the devil and the damned.

There’s a touch of Faustian wickedness in the way the old professor, his subordinate colleague and their four brightest students embrace hedonism. The parameters of what ‘is’ and what ‘should be’ are almost blurred beyond redemption. The film gets its moral colour and texture from the technicians who seem to know the exact shades needed.

The death of one of the students (debutant Siddharth Kher, who has the most complex part among the youngsters) signals the redemptive overture in the plot. Siddharth’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ act with his girlfriend (Shradha Kapoor) is indicative of the places that youngsters want to visit in their fantasies. The nightmare is just a hop away from the dream.

From the mathematical and magical to the murky and immoral, writer and director Leena Yadav exercises supreme control over the goings-on. At any given moment the narrative is susceptible to collapse like a house of cards. Yadav’s grip over her characters’ dithering conscience is perfectly matched by the brightly though starkly-lit interiors. Aseem Bajaj’s camera-work is exquisite in delicate shades. The camera knows where it has to go and slips in quietly to capture a world that has lost its plot.

The songs and dances in pleasure-seeking places are edited with an eye for elegant economy. No space is left for humbug to spill over. This director means business.

Many sequences such as the one where Madhavan says goodbye to his screen girlfriend Raima Sen (when will filmmakers stop under-using this beautiful actress?) are shot to suggest the edginess of a world that could topple over any time.

Presiding over this world of infinite infamy is Mr Bachchan. He portrays the ill-understood proclivities of the academic genius with a profound absence of brouhaha. Even as the world outside falls apart Mr Bachchan creates an unspoilt inner world for his character.

As for the ‘Ben’ buyale mehmaan, the British actor’s clipped tone is gone. What remains is half a performance. Good enough.

Madhavan pitches in a bravura act, lots of furtive guilty nervous close-ups indicating a moral breach that could destroy the character any moment. The 4 newcomers are pleasant enough in the spaces provided for them. But given how well each of their character’s is written none of them goes beyond the requirements in the script.

A pity. Because the film quite often transcends the written word to go into the realm of the abstract where the existential joys of mathematics meets more earthly pleasures. Surprisingly ingenious and resonant, Teen Patti is not so much about the cards that are dealt on the table as the one that destiny doles out in places where the human eye and desire cannot reach.

Teen Patti re-defines the male-adventure genre by letting a woman director tell us what it is like to lose one’s sense of propriety in pursuit of happiness. The gender is not the point here.

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