'404' is not a film which was anyways made for universal audience. With an eye at the thinking audience which has been exposed to cinema coming from the West, especially the kind that Manoj Shyamalan specialises in, Prawaal Raman has consciously worked towards making this as a niche film and he more than succeeds in doing so.
With the setting of a medical college which is unlike anything that one sees in a regular Bollywood flick, '404' (thankfully) doesn't have any cool dudes and mini skirted girls filling up the frames. Instead, it is all realistic with the bunch of freshers going through the ragging ritual that falls somewhere in between the fun element of '3 Idiots' and dark mood of 'Hostel'.
However for the first 30 odd minutes one keeps wondering whether the film is about ragging, what with a newcomer (debutant Rajvvir Aroraa) being the chosen one, or about paranormal, supernatural and bipolar disorder, something that the visiting faculty (Nishikant Kamat) keeps talking about in his lectures, interviews as well as thesis detailing. This is what that keeps one thinking along practically every minute and while you know that there would be something explosive sooner or later, the waiting period is as enjoyable as well.
The film maintains it's pace (on a slower yet haunting side though) as the college senior (Imaad Shah) and his gang of friends bring Rajvvir to such a state that it begins to seem like a point of no return for the youngster. Psyched to such an extent that he loses all rational about 'reality v/s perception' that he had built over the years and instead begins to talk on the contrary, Rajvvir sees a journey down the bottom of the barrel before Nishikant and his wife (Tisca Chopra) take it upon themselves to revive him. However, by that time it is hard to distinguish between the sufferer and the saviour.
'404' is the kind of film that has to be listened to and not just seen quite closely. The film is verbose and for all the right reasons because every scene that explains the bipolar condition is pretty applicable to the scenes that unfold towards the latter half. Yes, this also means that for many out there who prefer a viewing which is comforting and akin to spoon feeding, '404' is the kind that threatens to go totally over the head. Also, quite a lot of reasoning that is provided is in English which further restricts audience.
Moreover, there aren't any gimmicky camera angles or background score that threaten to take over the proceedings before the script is allowed to speak the language of it's own. Also, it doesn't come across as a regular means at any juncture and hence is devoid of any hero, heroine, villain formula. The strength of '404' lies in the fact that it makes you play the guessing game right from start to finish. Yes, you do crack one of the twists 20 minutes before it is revealed but the finale is something that no one can indeed see coming.
Nishikant Kamat gives a solid account of himself as an actor. A cross between Irrfan Khan and Amol Palekar when it comes to looks as well as acting style, he is fantastic. Rajvvir Aroraa is quite good as well and looks every bit the college student whose personality takes different shades as he goes through some trying times. Imaad Shah is simply superb as a carefree and lethargic young man. Despite the negative traits, you love him whenever he appears on screen. Tisca Chopra is efficient yet again and it is hard to believe that 20 years back she was dancing in the rain in 'Platform' while seducing Ajay Devgn. Satish Kaushik as the college warden is perfect as always and brings in welcome laughs at number of places in this beauty duty drama.
Really, it is impossible to not stop thinking even as the end credit title rolls. Now that's quite an achievement for director Prawaal Raman who manages to keep your interest level alive till the end. In fact last two minutes of '404' reminded me of 'The Sixth Sense'. Staying true to the film's inherent theme of 'what you think as real could well be just a perception', the narrative takes such a shocking twist in the concluding reel that you can't just help but stare at the screen in disbelief.
Go watch it if you want to play the guessing game.