Nov 22, 2010

Notes on Guzaarish

Guzarish is like good red meat which has been cooked by someone like my maid whose idea of culinary variety consists of flavouring almost everything with mustard and cumin seeds, adding coconut, ginger, garlic and onion paste, and tomatoes. In the early days, I'd anticipate that she'd prepare something spectacular with the mutton shank I'd lugged all the way from manish market but no such luck. Guzarish is similar.

Guzarish tells the story of a quadriplegic Ethan Mascarenhas who lives in a dilapidated (though that adjective implies something totally different in a Bhansali film) mansion in  Goa which sometimes looks like Ooty, and sometimes Capri. Ethan was a world-famous magician who has been rendered helpless after a spine accident during one of his performances. Why Bhansali felt the need to invest a sinister angle to this accident towards the film’s close when we are already a little weary of Ethan’s endless nodding and grinning, I don’t know. If the idea is to ratchet up the drama, it fails miserably; if the idea is to strengthen the Christ-Ethan analogy (from his hairdo, to the way his body is placed on the wheel chair and innumerable shots of his torso, he is framed as Christ) and show how forgiving Ethan is, even that is pretty needless. It is revealed that Omar Siddiqui (Aditya Roy Kapur), a young apprentice who wants to perfect his skills under Ethan, is actually the son of the rival magician who caused Ethan’s accident. By the way, all this explanation and conversation between the 2 friends-turned-rivals takes place over a call-in radio program which Ethan DJs.

For a film which wastes no time in getting to the crux of the story within a few minutes of its beginning – Ethan wants his best friend Devyani (an over-zealous Shernaz Patel) to file a petition in court for euthanasia since he’s been quadriplegic for 14 years and his organs are progressively deteriorating – it just meanders and seems to flit from one idea to another till the end. So much so that you wonder if it is about something as facile as euthanasia, or is Bhansali attempting to question the limits of individual power of the mind versus God’s glory, or the fate of a love that survives only on the basis of the knowledge that its fulfillment will be deferred forever. All of these are beautiful themes in themselves, but Bhansali never seems to be sure which one he wants  to explore.

What is sad is that Bhansali has gifted actors and a theme which is really difficult to screw up. I mean, the story of anyone living in a vegetative state for 14 years is moving, but when it happens to someone who is a great artist, of whose genius the world has been deprived of untimely, the story becomes even more touching. Add to that the fact that Hrithik Roshan is that actor who has such a nice, kind personality that you don’t want anything bad to ever befall upon him. But none of these pluses can build the kind of mood you experience when you watch films like ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ or ‘My Left Foot’.  What is truly puzzling is that even the laughs fall flat. Jean Bamby’s smart-ass, sassy thoughts (Diving Bell) which he can’t articulate because his speech is also gone after the stroke, serve to lighten the mood in the midst of the sterile hospital atmosphere the film is set in. Ethan’s deprecatory remarks about his condition, his sexual innuendoes and flirting with his nurse Sophia (a splendid Aishwariya Rai), appear oddly contrived, as if he is striving for affect.

Most critics have praised Hrithik’s performance. The fact that he’s one of the most talented actors we have today is never in doubt – one needs only watch him slowly seep into a spiritual state of oneness with Him in the Khwaja mere khwaja song from 'Jodha Akbar' to know the stuff this hunk is made of. But I suspect he is also a director’s actor; not like an Aamir Khan who will put his foot down when asked to turn on the histrionics in full force. This is a film where a good actor has tremendous opportunity to convey much through his facial expressions alone because the rest of his body is gone but Hrithik throws away this chance. It is like he has a select list of stock responses to situations which he randomly picks from – grinning in maniacal glee, breaking into sudden sobs, weeping silently, striving for an expression of calm acceptance (the fly on the nose scene) and anger when others refuse to see his POV. But isn’t the human mind, especially a mind as evolved as his, capable of feeling thousands of other things as well? Do we live out our individual tragedies and stultified lives in such overtly simple experiences?

Which brings me to the second best thing abt the film – Aishwariya. Looking more radiant and picturesque than ever before, Ash adds the one thing which is missing in this film – a soul. You feel the pain of Ethan’s condition because you see the pain in Sophia’s eyes, you weep for the hopelessness of his condition because you recognize in it the equally hopeless love Sophia bears for him, you are struck by her ruby lips and alluring cleavage but instantly realize they will never know a man's touch; your heart breaks as you see her trying to contain her grief and carry on about her duties with a sometimes surly, mostly grim-faced demeanour. If there are moments which stand out in the film, they all have Ash in them. Like the scene in the car where she sees a tear silently sliding from the corner of Ethan’s eye and wipes it slowly, and then proceeds to light a cigarette for him and put it in his lips. All this is done with remarkable economy and an internalization that I’ve rarely come across in hindi films. You know her heart is breaking at that moment because she has seen the man she loves in tears and yet she wont allow anyone to witness its breaking. You realize that it is this resilience which must be behind her mulish insistence on taking on the entire responsibility of looking after Ethan alone. It is ironical that it has taken Ash this long to make use of eyes that anyone would die for. In another scene where Omar assures her that he’s perfectly capable of taking care of Ethan and exhorts her to take the day off, she responds with a slow painful smile of awareness of her own paralysis, the sterility that defines her existence. She is nothing without Ethan and once his wish of euthanasia is granted, her heart will stop breathing as well. The story of a love as opposed to a 'romance' between these two damaged, wounded and incomplete individuals has the potential of a great tragedy and it is to Bhansali’s credit that he manages to at least hint at it. There is enough pain in her already but again Bhansali wants to ratchet up the drama and he throws in an abusive husband abruptly. 

As i watched Guzarish, i couldn't help wonder how the film would have played out with an Aamir-Rani Mukherjee or even a young AB-Rekha pairing.Rani is not the most beautiful actor around but what she can offer through sheer expertise, none other can.

Of the other actors, almost all of them are disappointing and seem to have been instructed to render their roles in the most melodramatic manner possible. Hence Shernaz Patel is shrill and too earnest, Rajat Kapoor loud, Suhel Seth trying too hard to be simultaneously cool and sad, and Aditya Roy Kapur eminently annoying. The only scene where he seems to get his footing right is when he calls up Ethan on the radio program, and fumbling for words, says that he cannot vote for Ethan’s right to euthanasia. 

Another setback is the film's unusualmusic. Recall the music from Bhansali's earlier film 'Khamoshi' and you know what is missing. The lyrics are haunting but most of you wont revisit them after the film is over. The idea is to first get used to the songs while watching them and then listening to them as an audio piece. There are two songs i played immediately after i returned at 2 am - 'It's a wonderful life' which the film employs well, and 'Keh na Sakun'. The latter evokes memories of someone who has lost everything in love and lives to tell the story to an uncaring world. 

The best thing is the cinematography – lush, opulent, gorgeous, haunting. Kudos to Sudeep Chaterjee, the film’s cinematographer who does more than capture it on lens. He lends it a mood, he evokes thoughts from the way he frames the scenes, and he makes them come alive and sing. I have known Sudeep closely for nearly 12 years now and he deserves every inch of the success Bollywood showers upon him today. Not only a gifted lensman, he is perhaps an even better son, husband, brother, and friend.  

Last, the film’s basic premise – who has the ultimate right over an individual’s life? Is it him or is it those that make his life memorable? This too is a part which is dealt with too pedantically in a contrived court room scenario and a cringing monologue by Ethan’s mother (an irritating Nafisa Ali.) We all know the answer to this question and it’s a no brainer. What the film should have posited via Ash is – when is it the right time to let go off someone without whom your life will cease to have any meaning? All questions of human integrity and autonomy stem from this simple question and it is truly a tragedy that Bhansali lets go of such a splendid opportunity to delve deeper into it.

5 comments:

stonetemplepilot said...

"when is it the right time to let go off someone without whom your life will cease to have any meaning?"

an oxymoron?

drift wood said...

STP,

as i said, all questions of integrity & autonomy stem from this. when do u put your needs ahead and when do u put the other person's needs before? we all know the answer. But are we able to do this in cases of extreme love? for me, that was something worth exploring in Guzaarish.

stonetemplepilot said...

maybe a reading of romeo and juliet might get you some answers!! not in a hindi movie da:)

ramblings said...

didnt want to read, coz wanted badly to see the movie. have been looking fwd to it, but well, chances had become slimmer, so did read ur review. we do sort of cringe when were let down by our favourite team; why do we take it so personally, amazes me! a.gowariker's upcoming khelein hum....seems so promising, but there are these warning bells that seem to tell me, tone down ur expectations..then again overridden by the tone that says...naa they cant let u down..!! never learn!

drift wood said...

STP,

you make fun of Bollywood. not fair.

R,

ur right. probably a lil bit of distance and perspective would help. what can i say? poor expectation management skills, i guess.