The ‘villain’ at the centre of Netflix’s Dhamaka, starring Kartik Aaryan, has a very clear objective. He doesn’t want to take over the world, nor is he after fame and riches—although, it can be argued, he isn’t completely averse to the idea of some extra cash and a moment in the sun. He is, instead, motivated by revenge, but the sort that you, as a member of the audience, can get behind. Raghubeer Mhata attacks all the right people—the greedy news media, the corrupt government, the apathetic public that have collectively wronged him—and he’s here for his pound of flesh.
He is an angry man, and Dhamaka is an angry film. Too angry, some might say, considering how overeager it is to point fingers at those it wants to hold accountable for their (in) action. Exploited and forgotten by the powerful elite, Raghubeer has come to claim what he is owed. He was a part of the construction crew that helped build the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, he says. It was during that time that three of his crew members died because of glaring safety lapses. But nobody cared. Three men died, and nobody cared. Not only were the deaths swept under the rug, the story didn’t even make the news.
And for that, he blames the politicians who were instrumental in burying the incident at sea, and the TV channels that were complicit in ensuring that the bodies, so to speak, didn’t float to the surface. And so, on a sunny day, he calls up a local radio station and asks for Arjun Pathak, a disgraced former anchor who is carrying out a punishment posting for vaguely defined misdeeds. Raghubeer tells Arjun that he has planted bombs across the city, and to prove his claim, detonates one on the Sea Link. He might be a common man, but he is playing God—Raghubeer is both the creator and the destroyer.
Dhamaka treats television news like the reality show that it is—both Raghubeer and Arjun know that they’re on TV, and both have crafted narratives for themselves in their minds. But neither realises that there is a Bigg Boss watching from above, using them as puppets for his own amusement and gain. They’re both being exploited, although very differently. It makes them two sides of the same coin, and perfect foes for a cat-and-mouse thriller.
Raghubheer has a grudge, Arjun Pathak has a grudge, but perhaps most noticeably, Kartik Aaryan has a grudge. Forever typecast as a heartthrob, the actor (and the film) leans in on Arjun’s utter lack of redeeming qualities. It’s quite interesting to note that despite experiencing so much, virtually in real-time, Arjun barely evolves as a person, and remains, until the final frames, a reactionary character. More than this efforts to live up to the requirements of several emotionally draining scenes, it is Aaryan’s willingness to be an absolute prick that is most admirable.
Dhamaka, ultimately, is a movie about a rather despicable man coming to the gradual realisation that he isn’t the hero of his own story, but rather, the villain of a larger one. He thinks only about himself; even after the first bomb goes off, his mind remains focused on how he can use the situation to his advantage. He remembers only much later that his estranged wife is on the ground, putting her life on the line as she covers the story.
When Raghubeer calls him up to reveal his plan, it is almost as if Arjun had been expecting the call. In the twisted fantasy of entitlement that he has created for himself, there is no scenario where a potential terrorist contacts another journalist for exposure. Arjun is a man intoxicated by his power; the camera is his drug of choice.
He isn’t an anchor, he is an ‘actor’, his boss, played by Amruta Subhash, tells him in one of the many on-the-nose scenes of social critique in the film. But as obvious as Dhamaka is about who it wants to take down, this is one of those stranger-than-fiction situations. We must remember that we live in a world where the leaked WhatsApp chats of a popular television anchor revealed that he cheered when Indian soldiers were slain in combat, because his channel won the ratings race that evening. If anything, Arjun is Ravish Kumar by comparison.
And Raghubeer knows exactly how to get back at him. Fully aware that Arjun’s channel stands to earn untold crores in advertising revenue thanks to the ‘exclusive’ that has landed in their lap, he asks for a payment in return. Shockingly, he gets it.
Not entirely without its flaws—the movie derails in the third act—Dhamaka is a more mainstream companion piece to Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday and Sudhir Mishra’s far more courageous Serious Men—it is a film that captures the collective anger of the nation, heightened in the wake of recent events. It is a morality play for a post-Modi India, and a response to the abdication of duty that we witnessed earlier this year, during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Packaged as a populist piece of entertainment, Dhamaka lives up to its attention-grabbing title. The clickbait-and-switch, however, is deftly executed.