Johnny GaddaarCast: Neil Mukesh, Zakir Hussain, Dharmendra, Rimi Sen; Director: Sriram Raghavan; Rating: ***

Johnny Gaddar isn’t a thriller. Actually the title reveals the mystery. A gang of five semi-criminals hatch a plan to make quick money.

The toughest among them travels from Mumbai to Bangalore with two and a half crore in cash. From the onset, we know that Johnny is the gaddar.

But we don’t know if and how he will get away with it. What follows is clever cat and mouse game in which Johnny, through wits and dumb luck, manages to stay just a little ahead of his friends.

Director Sriram Raghavan is in Harry Potter language, a master of the dark arts.

His last film, Ek Hasina Thi ended with Saif Ali Khan being eaten alive by rats.

Johnny Gaddar isn’t wholesome entertainment either – there’s blood, action, lots of dead bodies and one excruciating torture scene.

But Johnny is a far more fun than Hasina. Sriram, a devotee of Vijay Anand and James Hadley Chase, has created slick pulp fiction.

The characters are nicely detailed and the craft is polished. The film’s pace flags in the second half but still Sriram bungs in enough twists to keep us hooked.

The actors are all good – I loved Dharmendra playing the elder statesmen criminal. At one point, he says: Its not the age, it’s the mileage. Vinay Pathak, who seems to have become the poster boy of the indie film, is great.

So are Zakir Hussain and Govind Namdeo, who after many years finds the menace he showed in Bandit Queen. Happily, the film’s debutant hero Neil Nitin Mukesh manages to hold his own against these heavyweights.

Neil is strangely opaque but that works perfectly for this film, in which you’re not supposed to know what he’s thinking. His boyishly handsome face makes his criminality more intriguing.

There’s one more reason to see Johnny Gaddar. Sriram is a great Hindi film buff and this film is littered with references.

There are of course the ones he spells out: Johnny’s name comes from Johnny Mera Naam and even his scheme to rob his friends is inspired from Amitabh Bachchan’s Parwana.

But what’s more fun are the asides: like Rimmi Sen reading R K Narayan’s Guide, one of Vijay Anand’s greatest movies. There’s a superb Anand moment with a tape recorder.

And, I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but at one point, a character in a train is wearing the official crew t-shirt of Kabhie Alvida Na Kehna.

I recommend that you see Johnny Gaddar. When you get bored, you can always play spot-the-reference.

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