Ravi is an avid movie and theatre buff and loves films that surprise him. He specializes in dissecting movies and recommending the best ones
The 3-U Formula for Successful Thriller Movies
If I were to describe my vibrant hometown Mumbai in three words, they would be bedlam, bonhomie, and Bollywood in that order.
Mumbai is bedlam because everyone in the city is running a rat race of some kind, whether it is eking out a living or outgunning others to make more money or grab more power.
It is full of bonhomie because beneath the cold, materialistic veneer of commercialism lie resilient people, exuding warmth and helping each other in times of distress and celebration alike. And of course, Mumbai is never complete without Bombay cinema, or Bollywood as it is colloquially called.
What is 3-U?
That said if there is one genre of movies I like the most, they are thrillers. And having seen, analyzed, and dissected countless Indian thrillers over the years, my formula for a good thriller movie is 3-U: uneasy, uncomplicated, unrepeatable.
A good thriller movie should make you uneasy as a viewer, and that discomfort of uneasiness should continue to bother you until the end. It should be simple in the plot as viewers have come to entertain themselves and not to solve puzzles. And lastly, it should be unique and unrepeatable. Clones may come and go, but the original movie should remain at the highest pedestal of cinematic brilliance.
And three Indian thriller movies that have lived the 3-U formula successfully in recent times are,
- Kahaani (2012)
- Drishyam (2013)
- Drishyam 2 (2021)
1. Kahaani (2012)
Genres: Suspense, action, drama, thriller
Starring: Vidya Balan, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Indraneil Sengupta
Kahaani stars actress Vidya Balan as Vidya Bagchi, a vulnerable pregnant heroine who goes all guns blazing in a quest for her missing husband.
Kahaani is a woman-centric movie with a difference. The protagonist Vidya wears no leather jackets or carries guns, or even performs death-defying action stunts to smash wicked goons into pulp.
Instead, Vidya comes across as a commoner. She's a pregnant software engineer who flies all the way from London to Kolkata in search of her missing husband, Arnab, who went to India two years earlier for an assignment with the National Data Centre (NDC).
She faces stonewalling everywhere as records of her husband mysteriously vanish. But, Vidya pursues her case relentlessly, knowing deep within her heart that something is seriously wrong. And soon she finds that her husband looks precisely like an ex-employee of NDC—Milan Damji, a man with a mysterious past.
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The more Vidya uncovers Damji’s past, the more the threats to her life increase. And as the murders start piling up, Vidya realizes that she hit upon something going all the way to national security.
Despite her fear, she pursues her investigations relentlessly for the sake of her unborn child and her "innocent" husband, whom she claims has been framed in a deep conspiracy.
And as the plot chugs on with numerous twists and turns, the final scene completely throws the viewers off the tracks. Vidya, the vulnerable, pregnant woman, transforms into Vidya, the spy who had come to find the perpetrators of a terrorist attack on the Kolkata metro rail that killed thousands of people two years ago.
That was when the audience realize that the whole thing is a farce. Vidya had just padded her stomach to appear as pregnant. There is no Arnab, her so-called husband, and Vidya is not the distraught wife who came from London searching for him. Instead, she is a spy who has come to liquidate the terrorist Milan Damji, the mole inside NDC.
Kahaani (or the story as called in English) is truly a brilliant piece of nail-biting suspense executed to perfection without any violence or action.
2. Drishyam (2013)
Genres: crime, action, drama, thriller
Starring: Mohanlal, Meena, Asha Sharath
Drishyam is the story of a cable TV network owner Georgekutty (Mohanlal), who lives with his wife and two daughters in a remote town in Kerala, India. Georgekutty is a school dropout and a fanatical movie buff who spends all his time watching movies in all languages in his tiny office.
He adores his wife and daughters and leaves no stone unturned to ensure they lead a comfortable life. The movie's first half meanders slowly, showing a happy, peaceful family full of laughter, joviality, and Georgekutty’s dreams to own a movie theatre someday.
Georgekutty is a grounded middle-class guy in a sweet-coated family drama, but every innocuous scene has deep-rooted significance as the second half of the movie transforms into a relentless thriller.
George’s life turns upside down one day when his elder daughter Anju asks him permission to go on a school trip. George reluctantly agrees, but warns her to avoid “bad” boys. She goes on the trip and returns happily, bringing memories of a fabulous trip.
A few days later, Anju is stopped by a boy on the road. He blackmails her with a nude video of her that he captured during the school trip, threatening to release the video on the internet. Anju is terrified as she agrees to meet him at her house that evening to sort out the issue. Her mother wants to know about the situation, and in the bitter altercation that follows, the boy is killed by the mother and daughter.
Georgekutty, on returning home, is apprised of the issue and methodically hides the body and all traces of the boy, including his car and clothes. Little does George know that the boy is the only son of high-ranking police official, Geeta Prabhakar (played by Asha Sarath). Like Georgekutty, Geeta is equally determined to find her missing son.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between George and Geeta, with George outthinking every move of the police in a spectacular way. Despite being illiterate, George uses his years of movie-watching skills to execute the perfect plan to save his family.
George’s brilliant game against the psychological and physical tortures of the police makes him the perfect underdog as the audience roots for him with bated breath and cheers his every move.
The final twist of the story and the gentle hinting of the sequel marks the perfect ending to the best thriller movie ever made. Drishyam is an elegantly crafted movie with a flawless script executed with finesse by seasoned actors.
3. Drishyam 2 (2021)
Genres: crime, action, drama, thriller
Starring: Mohanlal, Meena, Ansiba
Drishyam 2 is a Malayalam movie with English subtitles and a sequel to Drishyam, one of the best ever thrillers in Malayalam cinema.
Drishyam 2 starts six years after the events of the first movie, when a humble cable television operator named Georgekutty (played by Mohanlal) committed the perfect crime. He covered up the murder of Varun Prabhakar, his daughter’s classmate who was accidentally killed by her during a blackmail attempt.
Georgekutty outsmarted the police, who never forget the loss in reputation they suffered for failing to convict him due to lack of evidence. Fast forward six years and Georgekutty is rich, his newfound prosperity irking the police, who are desperately searching for clues to convict him. Georgekutty, his wife, and two daughters live their daily lives with one eye on the police.
The movie grows on you as the plot slowly unravels, revealing a defined purpose. Georgekutty and the police restart their cat-and-mouse game, culminating in a gloriously unpredictable climax that leaves viewers spellbound. Every new element introduced innocuously in the beginning finally ties up into a powerful ending celebrating the underdog's victory (in this case, Georgekutty).
And while Drishyam 2 might not entirely work as a standalone movie—you need to watch Drishyam to fully understand the dynamics—there is no doubt that it's one of the best sequels ever made. It also reiterates the point that if you want to make a thriller, the script is king. Mere style and action are not enough.
As the great Alfred Hitchcock rightly said:
“To make a great film, you need three things - the script, the script, and the script."
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ravi Rajan