When Bollywood phones dialled up the drama

Pragyan Mohanty

Romantic banter, angry threats, teary reunions and mysterious tip-offs – telephones have long served as the perfect accessory in countless Bollywood storylines.

And every once in a while, the phone goes beyond its handy prop tag and assumes a larger significance in the film's narrative.

Like in Ayushmann Khurrana's upcoming Dream Girl, the twist in the story, too, involves the communication device. Khurrana plays Lokesh Bisht, a small-time actor who can mimic a woman's voice and starts working as phone-friend 'Pooja' on an adult helpline. Trouble arises for Lokesh when a bunch of Pooja's admirers competing for her affections start searching for her in real life.

Ahead of the film's release tomorrow, we look at some other films where phones became crucial in dialling up the drama.

1. Hulchul (1971)

Actor-filmmaker OP Ralhan's wacky style comes alive in this comedy thriller where the protagonist, Peter (Ralhan) overhears a man called Mahesh Jaitley plotting to kill his wife. Unable to track him in the darkness and receiving no assistance from the police, he decides to call Mahesh Jaitley's house from a public telephone and warn his wife. The only problem is the phone directory lists three Mahesh Jaitleys. A shocked Peter alerts all three potential victims thus driving three households to a maelstrom of fear, suspicion and chaos. Starring veterans like Sardar Akhtar, Madan Puri and newcomers Zeenat Aman and Kabir Bedi, this stylish ensemble flick sustains audience interest with its puzzling motives and ruses. Also, the film's excellently trippy opening theme by RD Burman features a variety of telephones, thus hinting the device's importance in the story.

2. Benaam (1974)

The film's hero, Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) saves a journalist from getting murdered on the street and rushes him to the hospital. But this benevolent act becomes a bane for him as he starts receiving threatening phone calls from a mysterious man the reporter was investigating. The voice pressures Amit to obtain the evidence the journalist had gathered and finish him off. When Amit refuses to comply and seeks help from the cops, the caller begins psychological intimidation by poisoning his dog and then kidnapping his son. A series of confrontational phone calls between Amit and the blackmailer form the most thrilling part of the movie and prop up the suspense around the caller's identity. The buildup resolves in a deserving climax reveal that is well-remembered for being unexpected.

3. Telephone (1985)

“Hello! Shoot when the bell rings” instructs a dancing girl in the opening credits of this Ramsay Brothers production. And there's a reason behind it. An innocent office telephone operator, Rajni (Deepti Naval) gets embroiled in a sinister blackmail bid involving her employer and is pushed to death. Rajni's sister, Anita (Parveen Babi) vows to avenge her death and the brief – shoot when the bell rings – becomes a vital indicator in the execution of her meticulous plan to finish off her sister's killers.

4. Hera Pheri (2000)

Three losers, a cross connecting ransom call, and an impish idea for extortion results in this perfect comedy of errors. Raju, Shyam and Babu Bhaiyya's misadventures combined with the film's slapstick humour and memeworthy one-liners have made Hera Pheri among Hindi cinema's most loved comedies. The trio's hopelessly improvised hilarious ransom call is the stuff of comedy gold and anyone who thinks otherwise can take it up with Baburao Ganpatrao Apte on 8881212.

5. Paisa Vasool (2004)

Much like Hera Pheri, the action here is centred around a faulty phone notorious for cross connecting calls. The mousy Maria (Manisha Koirala) and the boisterous Baby (Sushmita Sen) are two single working women in Mumbai and strike up a friendship. Once while hanging out, they overhear a conversation on Maria's phone where a man claims to be in possession of Rs 3 crore. The girls see this as an opportunity to get out of their frustrating daily struggles and devise a plan to steal the money. The duo's ineptness in executing the plan and the ensuing mess forms the rest of the story. Unlike Hera Pheri where even the secondary and tertiary characters too held their own, Paisa Vasool fails to create memorable characters and moments. The one thing going for the film is the delightful portrayal of sisterhood and its leading ladies who get along like a house on fire.

6. Sehar (2005)

This criminally underrated cop drama led by Arshad Warsi addressed the early usage of cellular services in Uttar Pradesh's organised crime and their adaptation to it. In the film, Warsi plays the head of the Special Task Force assigned to tackle the gangster menace in the state. A part of STF's plan becomes tracking the criminals' movement through their cellphone data and in order to do so, they team up with a telecommunications professor. Equipped with intel about cellphone tower activity, call durations and other mobile related technical details, the STF conducts a series of successful operations and becomes a formidable force in the crime-heavy region. The film also offers a fascinating contrast of how new technology is explored differently by those on the either sides of the law.

7. Speed (2007)

This utterly forgettable remake of the Hollywood action-thriller, Cellular (2004) has Urmila Matondkar playing a science teacher in captivity who manages to use a broken phone to make to make distress call to a stranger (Zayed Khan) and seeks his help to save her family. Unlike the original which was a gripping, fast-paced mainstream fare, Speed becomes a convoluted tale of espionage and political conspiracy all while orbiting the central plot.

8. Hello (2008)

Based on Chetan Bhagat's sophomore novel, One Night @ the Call Centre, the film depicts the personal and professional struggles of six call centre employees and introduces the audience to the swift and frenetic world of troubleshooters engaged in handling vexed callers and resolving their routine and complex issues. A particularly frustrating night at work turns out to be a moment of truth for the group when they receive an unusual phone call. The film had an average run at the box office and was panned by both critics and book fans for its lacklustre execution and casting misfires.

9. A Wednesday (2008)

An anonymous caller tips Mumbai police about a series of bombs being planted at various parts of the city and the only way to stop them from going off is to accept his demands. As the police commissioner begins negotiations with the blackmailer, who keeps changing and rerouting his SIM cards to avoid being caught, the law enforcement and telecom surveillance machinery keeps exploring for newer ways to track him. But there's more to this intense cat and mouse game than meets the eye.

10. Knock Out (2010)

A smooth talking businessman is held hostage in a phone booth by a sniper who instructs him over phone to carry out his mission or be killed. A poor lift of the Hollywood hit Phone Booth (2002), Knock Out tries to Indianise the story and in the process loses the original's edginess. The ever delightful Irrfan, playing the man trapped inside the phone booth, too, hams his way through this mediocre movie. What more? He does so in a terrible haircut.

11. Karthik Calling Karthik (2010)

A mysterious phone call forms the crux of this psychological thriller featuring Farhan Akhtar in the lead. Karthik, a meek, unassertive loner, finds his life transformed following the advice of an unknown caller who appears to be aware of all his personal and professional problems. Thanks to these motivational calls, Karthik finds love and is able to stand up to his bully boss and inconsiderate colleagues. His secret friend has only one condition: no one can know about him. But when Karthik ignores the caller's warning and tells his girlfriend about him, things start to go horribly wrong for Karthik.

12. 2.0 (2018)

This sci-fi action film takes the ubiquitous cellphone – a modern-day necessity – and paints an ominous picture of its influence: the rampant growth of the mobile phone industry is wrecking the ecology and threatening the very existence of the avian kingdom. In the film, a former ornithologist, disillusioned by government and public's apathy, wages a war against mobile phones and their users to avenge the deaths of numerous birds due to high-frequency radiation from the cellphone towers. 2.0 is a strong lament towards our convenience-over-conservation approach and the lack of empathy towards other species inhabiting the earth.