Susanna has a problem: the constant inability to simply walk away from a bad husband rather than ridding the world of him. “It’s in her nature,” says her lifelong butler. And this becomes a big problem in a film that can’t decide what it wants to be. Vishal's Bhardwaj's 7 Khoon Maaf is an ambitious film with an intriguing premise and packed with dependable talent, but sadly ends up becoming a wobbly journey, awkwardly plodding its way through a string of murders but never pausing to dig deeper into any character. This, unfortunately, becomes the fatal flaw of a film that is ironically all about fatal flaws.
Based on the short story ‘Susanna’s Seven Husbands’ by Anglo-Indian author Ruskin Bond, 7 Khoon Maaf seems needlessly stretched and often undercooked in its narrative. The basic idea is ripe for development, but its episodic treatment zaps the fun and deeper philosophical and spiritual explorations out of what could have been a thrilling dark comedy. Or even a “dark romantic thriller.” It’s hard to identify a unifying tone or genre for this film as it wavers between several possibilities.
Among his many talents, Bhardwaj is skilled at handling several characters in a fluid and engrossing narrative with plenty of quirks thrown in. Here too, the platter of characters makes for a variety show of twisted or insane husbands, faithfully devilish servants, and an innocent narrator with an Oedipal complex. The center of all their attention is Susanna (played by Priyanka Chopra), regularly wronged but also too comfortable with her fetish of weddings and funerals.
This is where the script falters. 7 Khoon Maaf is undoubtedly a dark film, but the central character fails to evoke any sort of empathy. Chopra, putting in great effort to become Susanna, shines when she has the least to do. Her cold stares, subtle body movements and hysterical outbursts are sadly too few and far between to keep the viewer’s interest in her life. It is also hard to tell, after a point, whether she’s finishing off her husbands out of desperation or habit, especially since she doesn’t think twice before moving on. The sloppy ageing makeup doesn’t help either.
The various husbands, however, make for more engaging viewing. While the structure of the film becomes all too predictable – Susanna marries husband, Susanna kills husband, and repeat – Bhardwaj and co-writer Matthew Robbins succeed at developing interesting environs for each husband. Of the bunch of ill-fated hubbies, half are truly memorable. Irrfan Khan as the poet Wasiullah Khan is pitch-perfect in this role. The scenes of his sadomasochism in the bedroom are chilling and difficult to stomach. Neil Nitin Mukesh as Major Rodriques, is mostly trying hard to be menacing but excels in a truly creepy scene where he caresses Susanna’s cheek with his amputated leg. And Aleksandr Dyachenko as Nikolai Vronsky provides many laughs balancing his tough Russian persona with mimicking Amitabh Bachchan dialogs from the 1970s. The others – John Abraham as junkie rockstar Jimmy, Annu Kapoor as fumbling police officer Keemat Lal and Naseeruddin Shah as mushroom diet proponent Dr. Tarafdar – are miscast, exaggerated and underdeveloped respectively.
The best performance comes from newcomer Vivaan Shah as Arun, a young man for whom Susanna becomes a guardian. In return, he becomes obsessed with her, and is also the one who strings the entire film together through his flashback narration to his wife (Konkana Sen Sharma in a guest appearance). Shah, whose acting at times mirrors that of his real life father Naseeruddin, brings a brooding and lovelorn element to his character, making him the only one you actually feel for. Susanna’s all-knowing loyal servant staff comprising Usha Uthup, Harish Khanna and Shashi Malviya add dark humor to the goings-on.
The unfortunate condition of 7 Khoon Maaf is its tremendous potential suffering at the hands of an imbalanced script. The film doesn’t rise much beyond its synopsis and what the trailers offered. It doesn’t provide the punchy twists or uncomfortable tension at which Bhardwaj is so incredibly proficient. Thus the ultimate flaw of the film is its talented director missing the mark this time around. It’s not a bad film, it just disappointingly falls short of its potential. But to cut Mr. Bhardwaj some slack, he too can be forgiven this one sin.