The line separating the exigencies of middle-class existence from the risks factored into the games that the characters in Table No 21 play is dangerously thin. But so, for sure, is the divide between the truly inspired and the utterly pedestrian.
This is a well-meaning film. It even has a relevant social message appended to its ending. Unfortunately, along the way, it yo-yos wildly between semblances of profundity and dashes of pulp.
The inconsistency of intent robs Aditya Datt?s sophomore effort of any chance that it might have had of finding a place at the high table of memorable thrillers.
Thematically, Table No 21 has an avowed destination but it takes a rather circuitous route to get there. The psychological drama sways from stray moments that grip to facile plot twists that are completely predictable.
In response to a particularly tricky poser from his tormentor, who is a resort owner and online game show host, the somewhat shaken male protagonist says: ?I knew what was coming.? That is exactly what the audience would also be thinking at many crucial flashpoints in the film.
An out of work 30-year-old, Vivaan (Rajeev Khandelwal), and his wife of five years, Siya (Tena Desae), win an all-expenses paid trip to salubrious Fiji.
After a de rigueur romp on the beach that allows the lady to get into a skimpy bikini, the young couple is ferried on a seaplane to a resort where the owner Abdul Razzaq Khan (Paresh Rawal) offers them a bottle of Dom Perignon and a chance to win 10 million Fijian dollars (Rs 21 crore) if they participate in a live online game show.
It is simple, they are told. All they have to do is answer eight thorny questions without taking recourse to falsehood and perform as many tasks without losing their marbles. The thumb rule, too, is straightforward: if you lie, you die.
The truth-or-dare game obviously isn?t a bottle of vintage champagne. Vivaan and Siya confront their worst phobias, deal with demons of the past, rediscover themselves the hard way and have their love and endurance tested to snapping point as the game turns more violent and hazardous with each successive question.
Shot in virgin locales in and around Suva, Table No 21 is expertly shot and edited. It gathers momentum after the stage is set over the first few sequences.
The screenplay is the film?s undoing: Table No 21 never acquires the desperate spine-chilling edge that a cat and mouse game of life and death should necessarily have had.
The drama is woven around a welter of lies, betrayal and brutality. The lead pair is trapped in a web that is as much of their own making as it is of the man who manipulates them like a master puppeteer. But rarely does this dark thriller hit home with sufficient force.
The most disappointing aspect of Table No 21 is the performance by Paresh Rawal. Not that he pushes the wrong buttons. Far from it. But when an actor of his quality is reduced to relying primarily on his stylist for impact, you know something isn?t quite right.
There aren?t many actors in Mumbai who can hold a candle to Rawal, but he is clearly miscast here as the suave and menacing Mr Khan, a man who knows too much but conceals a secret that isn?t particularly edifying.
The role has a been-there-done-that feel and Rawal runs ragged as he struggles to rise above the limitations inherent in the way the character has been conceived. It is only in the climax that he comes into his own.
Rajeev Khandelwal, too, despite his consistently confident screen presence, does not deliver enough aces to make the performance special.
Tena Desae, pleasant enough as eye-candy, gives her sketchy role a fair shot. It isn?t her fault that she can only be the icing on a cake that is clearly half-baked.
This table does have its share of stray inducements but if you intend to go the whole hog, you would do well to think twice.