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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Perfect Murder’ Serves Up a Delicious Indian Confection

Few literary forms are more comforting than the classic murder mystery, which opens up the chasm of death, chaos and fear beneath our feet only to resolve it: as a symmetrical puzzle in which all the pieces fit, all evil is avenged or exposed, all memories dovetail and correspond.

The often delicious, occasionally arch “The Perfect Murder” (at the Monica 4-Plex), based on one of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote novels, fits into that form, but also, subtly, expands it. The puzzle has the intricate design of an Oriental carpet, yet a sweet breath of realism often drifts across its surface.

Although set in Bombay, it has a colorful sleuth, the initially beleaguered but ultimately indomitable Ghote (Naseeruddin Shah); a Swedish Watson (Stellan Skarsgard as visiting criminologist Axel Svensson); something of a locked-room--or at least locked-house--"murder”; a gallery of evasive but talkative suspects; and a last-minute surprise switcheroo climax, based scrupulously on clues planted throughout the narrative.

This is the tradition of polished riddle-makers like Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Ellery Queen. Keating, who won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for the novel, knows and observes it well. He has a scholar’s exactitude, a satirist’s playfulness.

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In the film, Ghote, a cop of integrity and quiet wit, does battles in a bewildering maze of private corruption, official complicity and general silliness. And, though everything is eventually fixed, the story suggests some of the mystery and confusion of life beyond its borders. “The Perfect Murder” is even a deceptive title. The crime here is not murder but assault, only “Perfect” because that is the name of the victim: an old Parsi secretary in the house of a blustering, fat contractor named Lala Heera Lal (Amjad Khan).

Adapted by Keating himself, along with director Zafar Hai, much of the movie also plays as a comedy of manners--to which Keating has added a diamond-smuggling subplot. Contractor Lal talks in a bullying, lilting lingo laced with doggerel rhymes (“Inspector-detector, Reason-reason, Questioning-pestioning”) and the film is also full of delicate social parrying. In investigating the rich and powerful, the hapless Ghote must never offend or discommode them, must never, apparently, even question them, if they don’t feel like it. His difficulties are immense, his dilemma absurd, his home-life a travail, his Swedish Watson often a bull in a china shop. But his triumph, in this classical puzzle-frame, is almost assured.

Even though the movie was shot, quite extensively, on Bombay locations, by an Indian director and crew with a largely local cast--a typically economic but sumptuous Merchant-Ivory production--it often feels less like an indigenous Indian story than one of Peter Sellers’ consummate parodies. This isn’t due to the look of the film. Hai, an ex-documentarian, steeps us in place and texture. He carries his cameras all over the city: from waterside to the palatial abode of the Lals, to seedy police offices, Ghote’s crowded home and the bustling back streets and alleys.

But there’s an artificial edge to the story. The acting is slightly burlesqued, and when people stage chases they’re clearly bumping and swerving in preordained patterns. Perhaps that slightly artificial feel comes from the author’s viewpoint: Keating never visited India until 10 years after first creating Ghote. But it also becomes part of the film’s comforting texture: real but not real, violent but not violent, deadly but soothing. “The Perfect Murder” (Times-rated Mature for adult themes and language) is a throwback--but a charming one.

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‘THE PERFECT MURDER’

A Merchant Ivory production, in association with Perfect Movie Productions. Producer Wahid Chowhan. Director Zafar Hai. Script H.R.F. Keating, Hai. Executive producer Ismail Merchant. Camera Walter Lassally. Music Richard Robbins. Editor Charles Rees. Production designers Kiran Patki, Sartaj Noornai. Art director Ram Yedekar. Costume design Sally Turner. With Naseeruddin Shah, Stellan Skarsgard, Madhur Jaffrey, Sakina Jaffrey, Amjad Khan, Ratna Pathak Shah.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.

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