Sara Ali Khan in Gaslight. (courtesy: saraalikhan95)
Cast: Sara Ali Khan, Vikrant Massey and Chitrangda Singh
Director: Pavan Kirpalani
Rating: Two stars (out of 5)
A boatman, a river and a lifeless body underwater - these are the images that Gaslight opens with. Enough to pique one's curiosity? Not at all. At best, these provide a foretaste of a psychological thriller that seeks to blur the line between the frightening and the intriguing, the baffling and the palpable. The result is a confused concoction.
No matter what else Gaslight, directed by Pavan Kirpalani and streaming on Disney+Hotstar, comes up with in the next 100 minutes or so, the film is unable to shake off a desultory and pallid coating that clings to it all the way through.
What Gaslight, which Kirpalani has co-written with Neha Veena Sharma, gets right - these do not add up to much anyway - is unable to offset what it messes up. It has a small cast of actors saddled with undemanding, limited-bandwidth roles, a half-decent screenplay, and striking atmospherics. These do not harmonise well enough to deliver the payoff you would expect them to in what is meant to be a gripping whodunnit.
Ragul Dharuman's cinematography, Chandan Arora's editing, Anirban Sengupta's sound design and Gaurav Chatterji's background score combine to make Gaslight a technically polished work with elements and ingredients that meld pretty smoothly with each other. But none of it, sadly, percolates beneath the surface of the bland film.
Meesha (Sara Ali Khan), a young woman on a wheelchair, returns home - a palace somewhere in Gujarat - for the first time after turning her back on her royal inheritance 15 years ago. She has in her bag a plaintive missive from her father, 'Raja Sahab' Ratan Singh Gaekwad (Shataf Figar in a now-you-see-him-now-you-don't appearance), on the Mayagarh estate's letterhead.
But on reaching the palace, Meesha finds her dad missing. She is told that the Raja is at the family's salt farms to negotiate with agitating workers. She has no reason to disbelieve that piece of information until matters begin to take a mystifying turn.
Meesha is received in the palace portico by her stepmother, Rukmini (Chirangda Singh). "Welcome home," the latter intones. But it is clear as daylight - there isn't much of it in the film - that the relationship between the two women is frosty.
Mysteries lurk in the shadows of the palace as Meesha snoops around at night. At the end of a corridor, she sees a strange apparition - the silhouette of a man sporting a magician's coat and hat and carrying a lantern. Is that her dad hiding in the labyrinths?
Meesha is certain that the man she has seen is her absent father, but her suggestion is pooh-poohed by Dr Shekhawat (Shishir Sharma). Her stepmom believes that Meesha has only seen Kapil (Vikrant Massey), the estate manager who has just returned from an errand.
Adding to the air of suspense are an arrogant cousin of Meesha's, Rana Jai Singh (Akshay Oberoi), whose history with the Raja and his estate is shrouded in mystery, and the town's superintendent of police Ashok Tanwar (Rahul Dev), who isn't of much help either.
The case of the missing king turns increasingly befuddling as Meesha and Kapil ferret around for clues only to run into dead-ends. The young scion of the Mayagarh royal estate is in danger of being branded mentally unstable. She continues to insist that she has seen her father in the palace.
The biggest problem with Gaslight is that one can see the film's big reveal from a mile and a half away. When it is finally sprung upon the audience, it does not come as much of a surprise. All that is left to be figured out from here on - we already know who is up to what - are the modus operandi and the compulsions that are at play.
It is easy to decipher that whatever is happening to Meesha is part of psychological pressure tactics that have been set in motion by somebody - or something - that has reason to believe that the return of the prodigal princess is an irritant.
Meesha, already grappling with the after-effects of a troubled childhood, a broken home, the suicide of a near one and an accident that has bound her to a wheelchair for life, has to hold her ground in the face of unsettling provocations and discoveries.
The mind games that the female protagonist is subjected to, regardless of their initial hit of the paranormal, quickly run out of the element of astonishment. That leaves the film without much steam and tension.
Away from her chatty, bubbly girl roles, Sara Ali Khan takes on the character of a tormented young woman. Her earnest performance, like the rest of the film, is uneven. It simply does not translate into the fuel that Gaslight needs in order to attain a semblance of luminosity.
Chitrangda Singh plays a woman whose allure lies in her ability to mask her desires and secrets behind a benign facade. She pulls it off for the most part. Vikrant Massey, moving away from the persona of the clean-cut, easy-t0-trust guy he usually plays, has a role that he can dig his teeth into. The script is way too erratic to be an ally that the actor can rely on.
Akshay Oberoi, effortlessly blending the suave with the sly, makes an underwritten supporting role count every inch of the way. All of it, unfortunately, is wasted in the service of a lost cause.
Gaslight is a film that gropes in vain for way out of a dark alleyway.