If you can get over the ludicrousness of a distinguished mathematician, whose god is Albert Einstein and who at the end of the film gets the ‘Isaac Newton Award’ for excellence in his field, masquerading as a seedy gambler, then “Teen Patti” is a surprisingly skilful and audaciously complex piece of drama.
It is a tautly-scripted and brilliantly executed film on the deep-rooted link between financial ambitions and moral compromises.
Writer-director Leena Yadav gives the theme of monetary indulgence a dizzying but pinned-down spin. She speeds confidently across out-of-control lives on a college campus with the confident vision of raconteur who spins a seemingly indecipherable web of deceit, intrigue and crime.
Miraculously, Yadav’s yarn preserves its pencil-sharp edge of intrigue and wit right to the end. The story of the eccentric math-magician’s adventures takes the narrative from underground addas to high-class casinos where Professor Venkat Subramaniam, his junior colleague Madhavan and four students convert the professor’s newly-discovered mathematical theory into hard cash on gambling tables.
The plot reveals layer after layer of conspiracy until we come to the core idea.
The story unravels through an extended dialogue in Cambridge between Subramaniam and a British maths professor Perci Trachtenberg played by Bachchan and Sir Ben. Just watching the two distinguished baritones exchange notes on academia, life and their overlapping quirks is a pleasure that makes for full paisa-vasool viewing.
Alas, one of the baritones belonging to Ben Kingsley speaks in Boman Irani’s voice. And that too in Hindi! Why are the two professors huddled together in Cambridge speaking to each other in a language that suggests no tenability except a practical desire to make itself intelligible to Hind-speaking Indian?
“Teen Patti” targets its cerebral entertainment quotient at an audience that is willing to expand, and not suspend its disbelief. The proceedings charted by the intricate plot take the characters belonging to three generations through a smoky, compromised kingdom of the devil and the damned.
There’s a touch of Faustian wickedness in the way the old professor, his subordinate colleague and their four brightest students embrace hedonism. The parameters of what ‘is’ and what ‘should be’ are almost blurred beyond redemption. The film gets its moral colour and texture from the technicians who seem to know the exact shades needed.
The death of one of the students (debutant Siddharth Kher) signals the redemptive overture in the plot. Siddharth’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ act with his girlfriend (Shradha Kapoor) is indicative of the places that youngsters want to visit in their fantasies. The nightmare is just a hop away from the dream.
From the mathematical and magical to the murky and immoral, Leena Yadav exercises supreme control over the goings-on. At any given moment the narrative is susceptible to collapse like a house of cards. But Yadav shows a grip over her characters’ dithering conscience.
Aseem Bajaj’s camera work is exquisite in delicate shades. The camera knows where it has to go and slips in quietly to capture a world that has lost its plot.
The songs and dances are edited with an eye for elegant economy. This director means business.
Many sequences such as the one where Madhavan says goodbye to his screen girlfriend Raima Sen are shot to suggest the edginess of a world that could topple over anytime.
Presiding over this world of infinite infamy is Bachchan. He portrays the ill-understood proclivities of the academic genius with a profound absence of brouhaha. Even as the world outside falls apart, Bachchan creates an unspoilt inner world for his character.
As for Sir Ben, the British actor’s clipped tone is gone. What remains is half a performance… Good enough.
Madhavan pitches in a bravura act with lots of furtive, nervous close-ups indicating a moral breach that could destroy the character any moment. The four newcomers are pleasant enough in the spaces provided for them. But given how well each of their character is written, none of them goes beyond the script’s requirements.
A pity. Because the film quite often transcends the written word to go into the realm of the abstract where the existential joys of mathematics meet more earthly pleasures. Surprisingly ingenious, “Teen Patti” is not so much about the cards that are dealt on the table as the ones that destiny doles out.