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Another Copy Paste?

Palak Khurana examines Antoine Fuqua’s film The Guilty and finds the adaptation wanting, when compared to the original Danish film, Den Skyldige . She also takes a discerning look at Sandhya Gokhale's Kasur, a stage adaptation of the same film and applauds the nuanced finesse of veteran stage actor, Amol Palekar's acting.

The Guilty (Released on Netflix on 01.10.2019)   Director: Antoine Fuqua

Screenplay: Nic Pizzolatto            Producer/Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal

One dark, rainy evening I plonked myself in front of the television and began to scroll through the films on offer in Netflix. What should I watch? I vacillated between a couple of Romcoms, and some thrillers released recently. Looking at the dark overcast sky, I decided to watch Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, which was being touted as a taut, nail-biting thriller. Within moments I was literally on the edge of my seat as I watched a complex story unfold within the confines of a tiny police control room, flanked on all sides by pictures of raging forest fires and continuous calls for help from distraught victims. In the middle of this mayhem sat Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), an LAPD cop demoted to 911 emergency duty. The close-up shows a man with beads of perspiration on his face and a furrowed forehead, a tormented man. The inhaler in his hand reinforces this. 

The story unfolds slowly. Baylor has been demoted to emergency duty on account of a controversial shooting incident in the line of duty and an impending trial. Frequent calls by a journalist are ratcheting up his misery. And then he receives a call for help from Emily Lighton (Riley Keough) a woman, who has been abducted by her husband and calls 911, pretending to talk to her six-year-old daughter Abby. Perhaps because of his own estrangement with his wife and little daughter Paige, Baylor empathises with Emily. Impatient, impulsive and quick-to-jump to conclusions, the hubristic hero, sets in motion a chain of irreversible events that lead to heart wrenching revelations and brings Baylor face to face with his own fatal flaw. Pushed against the wall, he admits to his crime. Instead of a saviour (‘we are protectors’, Baylor tells Abby), he becomes a sinner seeking redemption. I’m only hinting at the twists and turns of the plots as I don’t want this review to be a spoiler for those who have not watched the film yet.

Even while I was watching the film, completely rivetted by the action unfolding on the screen, there was a niggling feeling of dejavu. It all looked so familiar, like I had seen this before. As the credits rolled up, it suddenly clicked. I had seen a Danish film a couple of years back called Den Skyldige, starring Jakob Cedergren as Asger Holm, a demoted cop, which had the same storyline. I remember watching it simply because it had been nominated for the Best Foreign Language film in the 91st Academy Awards and had ultimately lost out to its Mexican counterpart. Curious, I decided to watch the Danish film again. I was in for disappointment. The Guilty was almost a shot-by-shot copy-paste of the Danish original. With miniscule changes! Asger holds a black stress ball in his hand, while Baylor holds on to an inhaler. Baylor drinks coffee while Asger doesn’t. And of course, the names and the language were different. Looks like, other than the riveting acting of Jake Gyllenhaal, The Guilty has nothing new to offer.

Looks like I had resolved my dejavu. But still that niggle remained. Aimlessly I began to scroll through my picture gallery wondering what was buried deep in my memory. And then I saw the picture in my Feb 2019 gallery. It was a picture of Amol Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale, after the enactment of the play Kasur (Mistake) in the local Tagore theatre. And then the images of the play came back in a rush. Amol Palekar, a retired ex-cop (Assistant commissioner Dandvate) doing duty in the Emergency control room on a rainy night in Mumbai. The stage minimalistic and dark, with only the red beacon of an incoming emergency call lighting up the darkness. Bits and pieces of conversation. There are references to a vigilance case against him and bits of conversation with the callers. And then comes the call of the abducted woman. The plot unravels slowly. It was clearly inspired by and adapted for the stage from the Danish film Den Skyldige but the play had its own characteristic and individualistic stamp of creativity. Instead of the angst and bursts of anger displayed by Jakob Cedergren, here was a reticent Amol Palekar, conveying an unspoken tension through his body language. The stage production, I felt, transcends the story of one man and becomes a representation of the prejudices and biases of a society. It is the story of a retired cop with a damaged soul who is afraid to face his past. The shadows of past misdeeds jostle for attention in the dark, dingy control room with its cluttered table, symbolic of the clutter in the protagonist’s past. The nervous tic and mannerisms of Dadvate give the character a uniqueness which has been played with nuanced aplomb by Amol Palekar. Jake Gyllenhaal’s and Cedergren’s melodrama is missing. Unlike Den Skyldige and The Guilty, Kasur becomes more than just a stand-alone thriller. It is a comment on the stigma attached to mental illness which is kept under wraps. It is a telling comment on a law and law enforcing agency where flawed enforcers make fatal mistakes, to the detriment of the innocent. A comment on how enforcers gloss over and cover for each other’s mistakes. 

So, if I were to rate Den Skyldige, The Guilty and Kasur, I would rate the Danish film as the best on account of its originality and creative showcasing and its ability to build a thrilling tale around one character and the disembodied voices of telephone callers. Second on the totem pole would be Kasur for its superb stage adaptation and its nuanced representation of a damaged soul by Palekar. Its social undercurrents add an intellectual flavour to the presentation. Veteran stage actor, Amol Palekar’s effortless acting is the icing on the cake. The Guilty, despite its eyeball grabbing acting by Gyllenhaal, the heart wrenching voice of Riley Keough as Emily Lighton and the Hollywood gloss fails to deliver as it is nothing, but a copy and paste of the Danish original.

~ Palak Khurana

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