Similarities between the great mob classic The Godfather and Rohit Karn Batra’s debut feature Line of Descent probably aren’t coincidental. Like Francis Coppola’s gangland epic, Batra’s New Delhi-set thriller starts with a family celebration, in this case, a toddler’s birthday part, that introduces the viewers to three disparate brothers. And like the Corleone siblings, the Sinha’s are part of their father’s criminal enterprise. But Line of Descent is not The Godfather. Rather than a sweeping saga, it is tense, blood-spattered portrait of resentment and family dysfunction the plays out against the passing of the torch from one generation to the next.
What sets Line of Descent into motion is a father’s will. In life, Bharat Sinha (Prem Chopra) directed the strongarm activities of his two elder sons, level-headed Prithvi (Ronit Roy) and volatile Siddharth (Neeraj Kabi). Half-brother Suraj (Ali Haji) is much younger and has yet to join the family business. Bharat’s death shouldn’t leave a vacuum—he has set up his estate so that Prithvi is in charge. But the decision enrages Siddharth, who becomes even angrier when Prithvi has no interest in his scheme to sell arms. Not only that, Prithvi has lost his taste for crime and wants to pull the Sinhas out of the life and transform the family’s legitimate front, an electronics store, into its sole business. It is a set up for a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
Kabi is scarily good at playing a psychopath willing to put his ambitions before his family, and he’s equipped with two Lady Macbeths in his wife and his mistress. If Prithvi’s urge is to protect, Siddharth’s is to destroy anything in his path that might thwart him. He is oblivious, to the idea that the police (in the form of Abhay Deol’s Officer Raghav) might be investigating the Sinhas or that Charu (an exuberant Brendan Fraser), the American he chooses for his partner, might have second thoughts about hitching his fate to someone so mercurial.
Batra excels at atmosphere, particularly in scenes set in the bars and clubs of New Delhi nightlife where so much illicit business is conducted. If the central conflict between Prithvi and Siddharth is clear-cut, the way it plays out is less so. Bullets fly. Bodies fall. If Michael Corleone was able to build an empire out of his particular brand of grandiose psychosis in The Godfather, Siddharth hardly seems that smart or that lucky. But in tracking this crime family sibling rivalry, Batra builds a nail-biter out of a war between brothers where Siddharth might yet prevail—although perhaps not in the way he planned. –Pam Grady
Line of Descent is playing in selected theaters and on VOD.