Last Updated: Mon, Mar 14, 2005 12:20 hrs

Starring John Abraham, Priyanka Chopra, Shiney Ahuja, Bharat Dabholkar.

Directed by Sanjay F Gupta

Rating: **1/2

While some films have their finger on the pulse. This one has its pulse on the finger. In one heart-stopping sequence the ruthless mobster, mysteriously named Captain, chops off the ethereal Shalini’s finger and sends it in a gift box to her tormented husband John.

Remember Brad Pitt being similarly ‘gifted’ in Seven? Don’t expect the immense intensity of Seven to hit you in Karam. But music- video maverick /cinematographer Sanjay F Gupta does wallop a punch or two in the solar plexus with his unusually violent skilfilly narrated story of an assassin’s brutal efforts to come clean.

It’s an uncluttured story, written with panache and passion by the talented Suparn Varma who last week, succeeded in creating a freshness in the romantic comedy genre with Socha Na Tha.

This week he does a bit of the airspray act with the gangster movie. Karam is at heart a love story detailing internecine intrigue and violence of the underworld. From its initial delineation of the hit man John’s initiation into a world of crime (done in cartoon-strip animation, a la Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill) debutant director Gupta moves with a skill-will through a series of cohesively choreographed scenes of violence.

The squeamish are advised to set aside their reservations. For, countermanding the abject savagery of a world governed by greed and ambition is the beauty tenderness and fragility of Shalini.

In many ways, Priyanka Chopra’s Shalini holds the key to the plot. She’s like an orchid blooming in a relentless desert. The love, tenderness and passion that John feels for her irrigates the dry-land of bloodied violence.

In many sequences, such as the one where she makes the long run in the rain to escape her kidnappers, we the audience are overwhelmed by Shalini’s vulnerability.

It’s easy to get carried away by the film’s stylish surface and chic format of narration, and miss the film’s strong plea against violence as reified in the hit-man’s journey from violence to self-negation.

Tautly scripted and annointed with a virile candour that slices open the wounded lives of the two protagonists, Karam has great visual strength. Gupta uses images music and colours from music -videos to accentuate the anxious desolation of the couple, struggling to come together in a world ripped apart by violence.

The violence undercutting the main love story is intolerably harsh. Scenes of villains smashing heads and pumping bullets into unsuspecting victims cut across the narrative creating an unsettling pyramid of passion and perversion. The life-changing shoot-out in which John and his accomplices (Murali Sharma and Rajesh Khera) accidently gun down a little girl, shimmers and seethes in the lurking shadows of discontent.

Throughout, the director creates a sense of selfdestructive foreboding, punctuated by unexpected passages of tenderness.

The John-Shalini love story unfolds amidst a gagle of shrieking diabolism. Among the seedy villains there’s a cross-dressing gangster whom we see being massaged by a beefcake mounted on his supine back.

By and large the narrative avoids getting unnecessarily cheesy even if the characters are forever mired in murk. The narrative never sprawls and spirals out of control. Except for theatre actor Bharat Dabholkar whose act of villainy is hammy and incongruous (his voice seems specially disembodied) the performances lift the narrative by many notches.

This isn’t the first time that John Abraham has played an angst-ridden socially castigated creature of torment. He gets a grip over the assassin’s character and never lets go. Shiney Ajuja seen as the passionate priest in Vinod Pande’s Sins dons the cop’s clothes. He fits awkwardly into the plot’s need for a protagonist to offset the assassin-hero’s character.

But it’s Priyanka Chopra who moves mountains with her poised interpretation of high drama. Playing a pigeon among cats, she flies high creating a character whose vulnerability and beauty are endorsed by both the inner and outer worlds created for her character.

A triumph above what she achieved in the career-defining Aitraaz last year. And then there are Vishal-Shekhar’s pain-lashed songs and Amar Mohile’s intensely saturated background music, giving the film its tight texture of tension and torment.

The images in the songs go from the searing and staccato (Tera hi karam) to the haunting and sensuous (Tinka tinka).

Here’s one actioner where the songs are not allowed to get in the way of the wallops. But then Karam isn’t really an action film. It’s a passion-play staged in the blood-steeped world of crime. To that extent, it goes beyond the expected.

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