Hindi Film Reviews 2006

Brief reviews of current Bollywood films as they appeared in the Independent Weekly.

Hindi Film Reviews 2010* Hindi Film Reviews 2009 * Hindi Film Reviews 2008

Hindi Film Reviews 2007 * Hindi Film Reviews 2005

Screenings at the Galaxy Cinema in Cary, NC * Also, a brief archive of older Hindi films:

*

Baabul (Father of the Bride). A jewellery tycoon (Amitabh Bachchan) and his son (Salman Khan) meet cute on the golf course with an artist (Rani Mukherjee) who has a fab Boho wardrobe, but no paint under her French manicure. The youngsters court, fall in love, marry, and have an adorable son, but fate intervenes. This tear soaked melodrama tackles the controversial issue of widow remarriage, still frowned upon in conservative Hindu circles. Baabul nips off little bits of many other films (particularly the superb Kal Ho Na Ho) but fails to recombine them satisfactorily. Rani’s a first rate actress, but isn’t particularly simpatico with either Salman, strictly a personality star, or John Abraham, playing her sad eyed childhood pal with a single slack expression. She does seem to relish her scenes with old pro Amitabh, but he can phone in those Daddy parts, first fun loving and then sobered by tragedy. The sky is always crying in this glossy misfire.

*

Bhagham Bhag (Run Away). An Indian theater company comes to London, initiating four entwined unfunny slapstick plots. Govinda, the king of 1990s Bollywood comedy, makes an anticipated comeback after a term in politics. But, he looks tired, and not at all pleased with playing sidekick to 2000s king of comedy, Akshay Kumar. Director Priyadarshan directs traffic, as the company searches for a leading lady, some dim-witted drug dealers bungle, a mob of mullet-wigged thugs stalk and the plot of Vertigo all collide. The non-stop activity denies Govinda and Akshay either much of a chance to bounce comedy off each other, or display their superior dancing ability. The audience, however, laughed non-stop, and left the theater singing “Pyaar ka signal” ("Love’s signal").

*

Chup Chup Ke (Shhhh!) Jeetu, a hapless debtor (Shahid Kapoor) attempts watery suicide to benefit his creditors with the proceeds of his life insurance. Inadvertently rescued in a fishing net, he’s left as collateral in a moneylender’s home and falls for #1niece, Shruti (Kareena Kapoor). An insanely convoluted plot involves a huge joint family, Abbott and Costello routines, punning in Hindi and Gujarati and antic pantomime as various characters play deaf and dumb. The spiraling confusion is intermittently amusing; luckily the bland lovebirds are surrounded by a full compliment of second bananas, including the excellent Rajpal Yadav, aided by Paresh Rawal, Anupam Kher and Om Puri. Visually interesting, Chup Chup Ke’s design palette is oddly pale, dominated by whites and pastels even in the fantasies. Teddy bear cuddly Shahid has charm and dancing skill, but a star-making role has eluded him, and Kareena Kapoor (his real-life girlfriend) is wasted in her nothing part. They have zero chemistry on screen. Suniel Shetty has a few nice moments as Shruti’s tender-hearted ass-kicking older brother. (7.4.06)

*

Darna Zaroori Hai (You’ll Definitely Be Afraid). A stormy night, a bhoot bangla (haunted house), a sinister granny spinningweird tales and a sly wink at audience expectations shape producer/director Ram Gopal Varma’s portmanteau horror film. Each story has a different director although they are all RGV protégés and use similar techniques of terror by sound and lighting design. Different star casts have their moments in the shadows, although Amitabh Bachchan, Ritesh Deshmukh, Anil Kapoor, Suniel Shetty, Arjun Rampal (the best) and Bapisha Basu are less impressive than the cast of less well known actors in the final tale. This Twilight Zone-ish anthology (twist endings and no gore) winks at various campfire conventionsand includes not just one, but two riffs on the urban legend of the Mysterious Hitchhiker. Filled with Hindi movie in-jokes, this chilly lark scoffs at, and then abets the fear of having to use an unfamiliar bathroom, right before the interval, the audience’s chance for a bathroom break.(05.03.06)

*

Dhoom 2. A breathlessly entertaining movie of monumental silliness, Dhoom 2, an entry in Hindi film’s premiere action movie franchise, follows 2004’s Dhoom (Noise). Now, straightlaced cop Jai (Abhishek Bachchan) has permanently teamed with bad boy cycle racer Ali (Uday Chopra). But, Hrithik Roshan (just named one of People magazine's Sexiest Men Alive) has snatched the spotlight as master thief, Mr. A. The plot is nonsense, of course. Complex, well-funded heists of unfenceable rare objects occur almost by magic. Mr. A. has no henchmen, and designs all gadgetry himself. Hindustani hai, na? Action guru Allen Amin has devised a dizzying array of stunts for Hrithik, whose superb balance and sinuous dance moves dominate the swift three hours of jet skis, parasails, snowboards, rollerblades, motorbikes and cliffside plunges. The cast is exquisitely styled, and all (including seductresses Aishwayra Rai and Bipasha Basu) radiate a superhuman level of gorgeousness, beautifully lit, primped and moistened. One of the most enjoyable qualities of Bollywood films is that there is equal opportunity gazing, as the academics would say, embracing the pleasure of simply looking at both male and female movie stars, unlike Hollywood films, which are all about looking at women. There is even a kiss, tame by international standards, but so shocking in the context of Hindi films that itis like a bolt of lightening. Jaw dropping action sequences alternate with extravagant dance numbers that don’t pretend to integrate into the narrative. Abhishek, Hrithik and Uday, all sons of industry power houses, grew up together and have great chemistry. This giddy international caper encourages you to rev your engines, check your brain and dhoom, dhoom.

*

Don. The original Don (1978) was an action movie inspired by James Bond and the Blaxsploitation vogue, incorporating two perennial Hindi film plots, lost and found relatives and a person who for no good reason happens to be someone’s exact duplicate. For the new version, Javed Aktar updated his own 30 year old script, about an underworld kingpin and his hapless double, which was a showcase for the inimitable Amitabh Bachchan, Javed’s son, Farhan Aktar (in what was obviously a life long obsession) directs this glitzy remake starring Shah Rukh Khan, the only Indian film star approaching Amitabh’s stratosphere. Don uses the classic masala formula, a term that describes an intentionally clashing genre mish mosh, including lavish musical production numbers. The perception that these songs intrude on standard Hollywood style mise en scene has kept Bollywood films from crossing over to the mainstream. But, Don’s songs make psychological sense, and are metaphors, of recognition ("Main Hoon Don") of rivalry ("Aaj Ki Raat") and of otherwise censored sex ("Yeh Mera Dil"). Self-referentiality is an important part of Hindi films, and Don assumes part of the audience knows—and loves—the old Don and dares Farhan to top the original. There are many winks at the eye-popping disco style of the original, in the funky music, including two famous songs remixed for the 00s, in Roma’s (Priyanka Chopra) Emma Peelesque jump suit (the 70s Roma, Zeenat Aman, pioneered Western chic as well as distaff chopsocky) and recurring shirt patterns and dance moves. Lickety-split editing, ghostly green lighting and lavish stunts, including an incredible airborne sequence in free fall, replace the leisurely emphasis on old style star power. Don is supposed to be fun, and it is. Shah Rukh has always delighted in negative characters, and here he plays both hero and villain. Don, seen lolling in an ornate bathtub and chuckling at Tom and Jerry cartoons, those models of mindless violence, has his own catch phrase. The director evenribs the audience by incorporating a heart stopping moment that simulates a projector breakdown.

*

Dor (String). Parallel, or art house cinema, and popular cinema are considered to be two different genres. There are some filmmakers who manage to make a strong fusion of the two, and one of those is writer-director Nagesh Kukunoor. Dor tells the story of two very different women, Zeenat (Gul Panag) an independent minded Muslim from lushly green Himachal Pradesh, and Meera (Ayesha Takia) a dutiful Hindu wife from dusty Rajasthan. The string that links them is their husbands, toiling as guest workers in Saudi Arabia; they are roommates and friends. When Meera’s husband falls to his death, Zeenat’s husband is accused of killing him, and sentenced to death unless, according to a tenant of Saudi law, Meera will sign a pardon forgiving her husband’s murderer. Zeenat journeys to find her, encountering the playful Behroopiya (Shreyas Talpade). Nagesh is remarkably sympathetic to women’s emotions, and creates rich female characters. Zeenat is a feminist, not because of some wrong done to her, but because she IS, to Western eyes a radical interpretation of a Muslim heroine. Gul Panag’s unwavering gaze and calm demeanor makes Zeenat’s hopeless quest believable. Shreyas is thoroughly charming as an itinerant conman who links up with Zeenat out of curiosity and then, compassion. But it is Ayesha’s remarkable performance that holds the film together. Bereft of the hairstyling and makeup she wears as a Bollywood starlet, her performance as a wife, a widow, and finally as a human being is a revelation. Once, a beloved bahu, she sits stunned with grief as her grim in-laws shatter her bangles, wipe off her sindoor, snatch her colorful clothes and take down her Main Hoon Na poster. Enslaved in their house, she thinks her life is over until an unexpected friendship with a woman far outside the family orbit transforms her. Even though both women are married, and Behroopiya feels a frisson of attraction to Zeenat, the women’s salvation lies not with men, but in themselves. This is a leap of faith that even the gifted Deepa Mehta could not make in her widow’s tale, Water (see review below). Although Dor has plenty of opportunity for shedding tears, it is not bleak, and there are plenty of light moments. It is a difficult task to make a film on a serious subject that is not serious, and frankly, Hollywood has largely lost that ability. There is one scene in which the three protagonists steal a moment to dance joyously to “Kajra Re” that says everything about the balm commercial cinema can and should be. Dor is highly recommended for its cinematography, screenplay, direction and acting, and for the vision of its creator, Nagesh Kukunoor.(04.11.07).

*

Family. Amitabh Bachchan, ominously gnawing a cigar, is the ruthless patriarch of a crime family. His life intersects with the household of a cheerful cook (Akshay Kumar) and his younger brother (Aryeman) with tragic results. Yet another global Godfather riff, Family is splattered with the usual copious amounts of blood. The first half careens much more erratically than usual between murder, comedy, song, family drama, and revenge, only to have the second half settle into a ludicrous kidnapping plot. It's also undermined by the producer’s son screen debut; Aryeman is hero-handsome enough in spite of a drooping eyelid and slight lisp, but he displays a single expression of outraged suffering. One has to ask why Amitabh, the most powerful star inIndia, chose to do this particular movie. Aside from his previous success with director Raj Kumar Santoshi (Khakee) an explanation arrives in the last reel, with a juicy monologue he really sinks his choppers into.(01.18.06).

*

Fanaa (Destroyed by Love) Rehan (Aamir Khan) is a too charming Delhi tour guide who woos Zooni (Kajol) a sheltered blind woman determined to experience life. His secret Kashmiri terrorist mission inevitably undermines their happiness. An intense romance played out against an edgy political background, Fanaa’s power resides in the superb lead pair whose shifting desires and loyalties flow across their expressive faces. Set in a Muslim milieu, with a jihadist played by one of Bollywood’s biggest stars (himself a Muslim) good and evil, by Hollywood standards, are in flux. Kajol’s radiant performance marks a return to the screen after 5 years off at the peak of her career to have a baby, and her pairing with the peerless Aamir Khan creates high voltage. Anumber of fine actors cameo, but Rishi Kapoor dominates the supporting cast as Zooni's father. Director Kunal Kohili’s tightly scripted film uses music effectively, and the icy winter scenes (shot in Poland due to the impossibility of filming in unstable Kashmir) briefly go a little James Bond-y to good effect. How should relationships resolve, and what exactly, constitutes a happy ending? Fanaa is no facile thriller, and 3 riveting hours of passion and sacrifice boils down to a layered and appropriately conflicted conclusion.(05.31.06)

*

Humko Deewana Kar Gaye (We're Mad for Each Other) Adi, a hotshot Toyota engineer (Akshay Kumar) is engaged to Sonia, a fashion designer (Bipasha Basu) before embarking on a pointless Canadian business trip. Sparks fly with Jia (Katrina Kaif) moping in anticipation of her own arranged nuptials. HDKG is a formulaic "love marriage or arranged marriage" romancethat breaks no new ground, even though director Raj Kanwar insists it's based on a true story. Blah Czech starlet Katrina Kaif's Hindi ability is increasing; her voice is still dubbed, although she no longer turns her face from the camera when speaking her lines, and her acting is slowly improving. Still, Adi and Jia don't generate enough heat to make you care about the fate of their passion. Akshay's never been in the stratosphere of stardom, but his latest films coast easily on his laid-back charm, infectious humor and great dancing skills. Anu Malik's music is lively, especially the hip-hop brushed dances in "Fanah" which shifts scenes from an auto junkyard to cowboy Akshay's farm, and "For Your Eyes Only" in which the usually placid Katrina seems to enjoy being tossedaround by Akshay in some elaborate jitterbug lifts. The number even features a cameo by Helen, the sexy cabaret dancer incountless 60s and 70s films.(04.20.06)

*

Jaan-e-Mann (Beloved) A soured college romance between Suhaan (Salman Khan) and Piya (Priety Zinta) presents an opportunity for Champu (Akshay Kumar) to declare his love. Jaan-e-Mann is an incoherent mess, scavenging from countless Holly and Bolly pictures to no avail. Part of the film takes place in a rearranged New York City where everything is just a few steps away from Times Square. The leading couple are so shallow, and so mean to the only nice person in the movie, it’s hard to invest in their happiness. Intended as an ultra-glam spoof, the film runs aground without likeable characters. Anupam Kher, as Suhaan’s uncle, inexplicably walks on his knees playing a dwarf, and is joined in a divertingly bizarre song by a frolicking chorus of little people, bringing to mind Gene Wilder’s Oompa Loompas. A soft spot for Akshay’s mopey NASA astronaut notwithstanding, this starry misfire has little to offer, in spite of the impression created by the generally glowing reviews in the Indian press.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) Two married couples, Shah Rukh Khan and Priety Zinta, and Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee, confront passion and betrayal. Director Karan Johar is the king of opulent melodrama and his previous two films rank amongst Bollywood’s all time hits, but KANK’s emotions are a little askew. It’s not just because adultery is a risky topic in Hindi film, where the sanctity of the family usually triumphs. Karan’s favorite actor, Shah Rukh, plays a wounded (soccer) warrior, who churlishly vents his frustration on his family. His heroes have always had a charmingly cranky edge, but he goes too far this time; the spiteful treatment of his wife and son is alienating. And, there’s too much squabbling all around. Abhishek’s touching devotion to, and furious rages at his unfaithful wife who inexplicably prefers manic housecleaning to intimacy, are the most keenly felt scenes. His real-life father, Amitabh Bachchan, breezily plays his on-screen father, rather embarrassingly enamored of call girls. Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s music compliments the A-list performances, and gives the Bachchan boys a chanceto cut up on the dance floor. (08.25.06)

*

Kabul Express. Documentary filmmaker Kabir Khan fictionalizes his post 9/11 reportage in Afghanistan, as two Indian reporters (John Abraham and Arshad Warsi) search for a Taliban soldier to interview. Fortuitously (or not) their truck is hijacked by one, desperate to reach the Pakistan border. Dark humor (Arshad is as flippant as a 1930s newshound) alternates with terror as they, their Afghan driver, an American girl reporter and the kidnapper argue over the blame for Afghanistan’s despoilment. Everyone agrees that taking American money is a trap, since the US changes loyalties capriciously, “they drain the country of its oil and fill it with Coke and Pepsi.” Arshad steals the film with his naturalistic acting, and John is much better than in his concurrent release, Baabul. Salman Shahid and Hanif Hum Ghum are also excellent, with only an overly made up Linda Arsenio as the Reuters correspondent failing to pull her weight. Filmed in Afghanistan, the piercingly blue sky shimmers over the expanse of rubble and endless dusty roads, and one shot of a blue burkha-clad woman, standing on a cliff and merging into the infinite sky, is surely one of the most breathtaking of the year.

*

Krrish. India’s first superhero bursts onto the screen in the avatar of superhumanly gorgeous Hrithik Roshan. Krrish is raised in an isolated village, hiding his inherited powers, gifted to his father by an alien (in the earlier film Koi...Mil Gaya). Like every good Hindustani boy, he adores his (grand)mummy and has promised her he’ll keep his super self on the down low. He’s compelled to challenge the megalomaniacal Dr. Arya, refreshingly underplayed by Naseeruddin Shah. Superheroes fill a societal niche; Superman sprang from WW II angst, and Spider Man from Cold War alienation. The innocent Krrish is forced into civilization, mirroring India’s confrontation with 21st century technology and Western mores. Hrithik is an intense actor, sometimes causing conventional fluff to veer off course, but saving humanity demands his quivering fury. He stunts convincingly and dances divinely. Sadly, the proceedings are dragged down by Priyanka Chopra’s wimpy Lois Lane “save me” part. Comic bookish Krrish does deal forthrightly with two nagging questions, "Where does the superhero get his outfit?" and "Who pays for the villain's lair?" And the film clearly defines the difference between good and evil. In spite of the nifty Hong Kong-y martial arts battles, and unprecedented acres of CG visual effects, Krrish never kills anyone (06.25.06).

*

Lage Raho Munnabhai (Keep Going, Munnabhai) Lage Raho is a follow up to the blockbuster hit Munnabhai, MBBS in which Sanjay Dutt played a soulful thug who cheated his way into medical school. Sanjay and Arshad Warshi (as his sidekick, Circuit) have returned, and at first, it seems like Munna’s pursuit of a comely radio personality (Vidya Balan) will just be a rehash. But, the film takes a Frank Capra-esque turn, when three days of library reading about Mahatma Gandhi (!) results in Munna’s repudiation of his old habits and his pursuit of non-violence (well, mostly) to win his sweetheart. At first, it's a bit disturbing that the resolution of the first film has been jettisoned. But director Rajkumar Hirani compares it to the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, where the actors played the same characters but the plots had no continuity. An old concept made new again works splendidly for Munna and Circuit. This crowd-pleasing populist comedy may lack the infectious music of the original, and the romance seems a tad perfunctory. But Sanjay and Arshad’s rapport is electric and the laugh lines hit the mark. You’d be hard pressed to find an American movie about gangsters that champions their ability to tell the truth, weep, ask forgiveness, and replace dadagiri (thuggery) with Gandhigiri.

*

Omkara. William Shakespeare’s Elizabethan tragedy Othello is reinvented in the dusty badlands of north India. Director Vishal Bharadwaj’s mire of jealousy, political corruption and thuggery could be unfolding a century ago, were it not for the incongruous trilling of mobile ringtones. Ajay Devgan plays Othello/Omkara with smoldering violence, loved by the devoted Desdemona/Dolly (Kareena Kapoor). She can’t fathom why, even though she has renounced her family to marry someone from a lower caste, her lover still isn’t satisfied. Saif Ali Khan’s villainy as Iago/Langda dominates Omkara, he shades his sly treachery with a limp, a convict’s haircut and one painted fingernail. He’s the rare actor convincing as both hero and villain, and he’s used his current box office clout as a lover boy to play disturbingly dark characters. The subtitles skimp on translating the vulgar dialogue, a terse regional realism replacing Shakespearian poetry. Vivek Oberoi, Konkona Sen Sharma, Deepak Dobriyal and Bipasha Basu provide excellent support. (08.25.06)

*

Phir Hera Pheri (More Fraud) Raju (Akshay Kumar), Shyam (Suniel Shetty) and Baburao (Paresh Ravel) quickly lose the cash they acquired in 2000’s Heri Pheri (Fraud) to a shady investment scheme. Drugs, antique guns and diamonds swiftly appear and disappear as they attempt to reverse their fortunes yet again. The sequel, for once, improves on the source, even though their original Hera Pheri is often slotted amongst the top Bollywood comedies of all time. Phir refines the formula by offering a minimum of screaming, running around and door slamming, while adding some amusing dialogue, less desperate clowning and much better music, including the droll title number filmed in Las Vegas. Akshay’s charming, as always, but even Paresh Rawel, whose mugging can be painful, gets his share of laughs in a film that is already a big hit in India. It’s not over until the man in the gorilla suit swings. Really. (This film has nothing to do with the 1978 Hera Pheri starring Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna). (06.20.06).

*

Rang De Basanti (Colors of Saffron, although the film translates this as Colors of Patriotism.) Five Delhi University Rebels without a Cause are politicized by the arrival of a young English woman (Alice Patten) making a film based on the diary of her grandfather, a British soldier battling freedom fighters during the waning days of the Raj. Reenacting the story for her camera, they are galvanized by their own history. Aamir Khan, (Lagaan, Mangal Pandey) like George Clooney, uses his stardom in provocative ways. Promoted as a breezy look at the lives and loves of some photogenic pals, RDB is an explicit plea for moderate Hindus, right wing Hindu extremists, Muslims and Sikhs to unite against endemic government corruption. The ensemble acting is first rate, and A. R. Rahman’s music is used primarily as a Western-style underscore. Interestingly, Hollywood’s new wave of political films like Munich and Syriana are downbeat exercises for the intelligentsia. RDB’s radical politics are cloaked as colorful entertainment for the whole family, as if Tom Hanks starred in a comedy/drama about Republicans and Democrats joining hands to eject red and blue rascals alike from Washington.(02.07.06)

*

Taxi No. 9211. A n'ere do well heir, Jai (John Abraham) hails a cab driven by shrewd Raghav (Nana Patekar). Both are at the end of their ropes, although dangling at opposite ends of the economic scale, and their hot tempers spark a feud. Filmed against the gritty backdrop of frantic Mumbai traffic, during one eventful day they discover their similarities trump their differences. Nana Patekar looks like an average guy, but displays a terrifying wellspring of rage. His performance is matched by former model John Abraham, easily believable as a spoiled pretty boy, desperation in a rumpled white suit. Hindi films are full of brothers who are separated, or on opposite sides of the law. Although there is no blood relationship here, Taxi No. 9211 is an interesting variation on this familiar masala plot. Samera Reddy is better than the average starlet in her girlfriend role, and Sonali Kulkarni as Raghav's wife ably shades a beleaguered spouse's misery with reluctant loyalty. This Indian take on the Ben Affleck-Samuel L. Jackson Changing Lanes wraps up with a satisfying dose of melodrama, and then Adnan Sami sings the bouncy "Meter Down" (hilariously picturized on both leads, a rare Nana item number) 2006's catchiest song so far this year.(06.07.06)

*

Umrao Jaan. Alluring courtesan Umrao Jaan (Aishwarya Rai) is haunted by her forbidden love for Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan) in this adaptation of a famous 1899 novel by Mirza Haadi Ruswa. Aishwarya, bedeviled by weak and treacherous men, convincingly sobs and suffers through a languorous 3 1/2 hours of exquisite costumes and décor, elegantly dancing to the recurring plaint that she not return as a daughter in her next birth. Abhishek, looking uncomfortable in his period clothes, and Suniel Shetty provide support. Shabana Azmi brings complexity to her role as the brothel keeper, unclear even in her own mind if she is mothering or bartering her charges. While one pities Umrao’s heartbreak, kidnapped from her village and sold into slavery, her alternative is clearly to be summarily married off as a child bride. Reduced to barest essentials, Umrao Jaan is about a “hooker with a heart of gold,” a plot I loathe. The male authors of her cinematic fate make sure she forgives every harami (scoundrel) who wronged her.

*

Water. Directed by Deepa Mehta. Seema Biwas, Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Sarala (114 min).

Deepa Mehta’s Water, the third in her Elemental Trilogy (following Fire and Earth) begins with the image of the lotus, a bloom that flourishes even in filthy water. Set in a starkly impoverished widows’ ashram in the waning days of the Indian Raj, Water depicts the emotional stirrings created by the arrival of Churyia, an 8 year old widowed child bride.

Under the strictest tenants of Hinduism, widows historically were outcast as so unlucky (what could be worse than the death of a husband?) that continuing to live in society would bring misfortune to all. Their options limited to suicide on their husband's funeral pyre, marriage to their husband's younger brother (if available) or exile to a widow's ashram, most chose the latter. Heads shaved, wrapped in coarse white saris, their lives were devoted, sometimes involuntarily, to abstention and prayer. The widows of Water barely survive on the money attained by begging and by the forced prostitution of Kalyani, the one sexually attractive resident (Lisa Ray) allowed to keep her long hair but forced to live apart even from the rest of the widow’s community because of her sinfulness. Churyia, married for economic reasons and uncomprehending of her role as an old man's wife (in name only) is cast adrift like a Dickensian foundling. Her youthful energy breaks the routines of devotion within the ashram. A prickling of expectation stirs amongst the women, resulting in a forbidden romance between Kalyani and Narayan, a dreamboat Gandhian idealist.

Mehta’s trilogy confronts issues still disturbing in India. Earth was about the schisms created by Partition in 1947, personified by the political enmity arising amongst a once close-knit group of Hindu and Muslim friends. Fire, set in the cramped apartment of an unhappy joint family, depicted the love affair between two emotionally deprived wives; so deeply closeted is this issue that there isn’t even a (polite) word for same-sex love in the Hindi language. The issue of widow remarriage, legally permitted since the 19th century, remains controversial among conservative Hindus. Water's original production in Varanasi, India, was physically threatened and shut down by Hindu fundamentalists who hadn’t read the script, which had been approved by India’s still powerful censors. After a hiatus of five years, the film was recast (without Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi, the original Kalyani and Shakuntla) and filmed secretly in Sri Lanka. The superb production design recreating Varanasi is by Dilip Mehta, photographed exquisitely by Giles Nuttgens. A. R. Rahman’s songs are used as a Western style underscore, and, oddly, the poetic lyrics are not translated in the subtitles.

Sarala makes an astonishing debut as Chuyia. She had never acted before, and learned her lines phonetically through a translator. Mehta also inspires excellent work by Lisa Ray, a half-Indian Canadian actress (who had earlier starred in Mehta’s Bollywood/Hollywood) and Bollywood hero John Abraham, both former models. Interestingly, he’s photographed in harsh light to show his uneven completion, moderating his handsomeness. Abraham’s mother is played by Waheeda Rehman, a former leading lady whose beauty was the cinematic obsession of one of the great 1950s directors, Guru Dutt. A holy man who shares an unspoken bond with the devout Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) is Kulbhushan Kharbanda, the veteran of almost 150 Bollywood films, as well as Fire and Earth. Manorma is alarming as the corrupt head of the ashram, indulging in forbidden pleasures while strictly policing the other widows for trangressions. Biwas is the film’s powerful moral center, a victim once resigned to her suffering who begins to question her beliefs when inspired by Gandhi’s dream of transformative change.

The orthodox branches of many religions play out their most extreme tenants by subjugating women. Mehta’s controversial feminist view of some of India’s thorniest problems suggests that even if idealism at first appears to be a weak response to injustice, sometimes it contains hidden powers.(05.12.06)


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