EK HASINA THI
JAN 22, 2004 – ALONG WITH THE disappearing aircraft in the Bermuda Triangle and those abominable footprints in the Himalayas, the great mysteries of the world should surely include the baffling issue of Urmila Matondkar’s consistently-revelatory performances in (and only in) Ram Gopal Varma’s films. Ek Hasina Thi is only produced by Varma, and Urmila doesn’t entirely do away with her trademark simpering, but she still reveals depths that even a Partition-era Amrita Pritam novel or a meaty part opposite Shabana Azmi couldn’t dredge up from her.
Maybe it’s the edgy writing here, which makes no big deal about preserving the heroine’s virginity till after marriage, and treats everyone (and everything) from creepy rats to a creepier neighbour as characters capable of adding shadings to the main story. Maybe it’s the vibes from playing off costar Saif Ali Khan, who’s in such a golden phase of his career that he could do nothing more than sit on the pot, reading the proverbial phone book, and still walk away with a movie.
Whatever the reason, in Ek Hasina Thi, as in Varma’s Kaun and Bhoot, under Urmila’s pretty painted face there’s actually a person – Sarika, a single working girl in big, bad Mumbai who falls for the charms of Karan (a super-cool, super-sly Saif), then falls into the clutches of cops for reasons associated with him.
In a lesser film, I’d have wagged an unsympathetic finger at Sarika, saying this is what happens to women who stupidly trust unshaven Casanovas who gift expensive necklaces for no apparent reason. Here, I felt quite sorry for her, as director Sriram Raghavan does such a good job of charting her descent into hell. He does an even better job of showing her, after her travails in jail, as an avenging angel – a Durga Mata in designer kurtas out to get even with those responsible for her misery.
This premise carries whiffs of Sidney Sheldon’s pulp fiction If Tomorrow Comes and Mahesh Bhatt’s pulpy Gumraah, but it all looks and feels brand new, thanks to unusually strong psychological underpinnings – Karan and Sarika play a game about truths and falsehood; Sarika’s friend tries to defend her but one look at Seema Biswas’ steely cop sends her scurrying away; Sarika herself seems to be getting a bit mentally unhinged towards the end. There’s also a real sense of consequence, again unusual in such fare, as when some poor girl gets her brains blown out for no fault of hers.
Towards the end, as Sarika manages to oh-so-easily outwit everyone from cops to criminals, things do become illogical. By then, however, the film has become a supremely well-oiled thriller – there’s just one song, and that’s really part of the background score – racing to a breathless finish, so I didn’t particularly care, especially while rooting for her to get away with her revenge plans. I may not have believed every moment in Ek Hasina Thi, but I did enjoy every minute of it.
JUNE 6, 2003 – IT’S UNLIKELY YOU’VE EVER SEEN anything as claustrophobic as the first hour of Bhoot, which details in almost documentary-like fashion – no cuteness, no syrupy background music – the lives of a yuppie couple (Ajay Devgan, Urmila Matondkar) that moves into a Mumbai high-rise.
The two seem to have no friends. No family. And they’re surrounded by bizarre types – a creepy watchman, a rosary-flipping lady with a shock of white hair and eyes perpetually focussed on an infinite beyond, and a maidservant (the wonderfully loony Seema Biswas) who appears a bit possessed herself.
In this airtight universe, Ram Gopal Varma unsettles you in the most unexpected ways, with enormous help from Vishal Sinha’s cinematography, Dwarak Warrier’s sound effects and Salim-Sulaiman’s background score. From the stylish opening credits that show a spirit rising from a funeral pyre to the play of light on an elevator as it creaks and groans in transit, from the spookily watery view of the high-rise through a rain-soaked windshield to the close-ups of a doll that tease you with your familiarity of the Child’s Play films, each shot is deliberately composed to create the illusion of some sort of parallel universe – things ‘look’ normal but are otherwise disturbingly unfamiliar. And there’s so much quietness, the sudden rainfall sounds like gunfire and the buzz of the calling bell makes your heart stop.
So it’s no surprise Urmila thinks she’s seen a ghost, especially after learning that the previous occupant of her apartment died mysteriously. Ajay doesn’t believe her. He’s Mr. Practical, who proclaims in mock seriousness, “Doctor ne kaha hai tum paagal ho gayi ho,” when she anxiously awaits the results of her psychiatric evaluation.
But she knows – and we know – that this isn’t simply her mind playing tricks. Varma orchestrates a couple of superb, surreal set pieces – at a crowded movie theatre and an equally crowded beach – that tell us there’s more to this business and, along with Urmila’s strong, mannered portrayal that’s very much in tune with the deliberateness of the initial parts of the film, it’s definitely unsettling, this first hour.
But once this mood is established – no, carefully sculpted – Bhoot falls apart spectacularly, becoming derivative (The Exorcist meets What Lies Beneath) and silly. The more things are explained, the less intriguing it all is. The sustained, stomach-churning dread degenerates to a procession of cheap ‘boo’ tactics. The flashy technique that earlier signalled a unique aloofness now seems merely attention-getting; the showy dissolves and the millisecond fade-outs to white appear the handiwork of a director in see-what-I-can-do mode.
And the sealed-off atmosphere evaporates as the stars troop in – Nana Patekar as a cop full of audience-pleasing comebacks, Rekha as a medium, Tanuja and Fardeen Khan as keys to the mystery, Victor Banerjee as a troubled psychiatrist. Like Ajay Devgan, they all do rock solid work, but unlike Ajay’s role, their minuscule, underdeveloped parts may have been better served by unfamiliar faces. The one scene that gets you going is when Rekha’s belief in the occult clashes with Banerjee’s rationalism, but this is a brief flash of unpredictability amidst increasingly predictable happenings.
The terrific start deserved a less tiresome finish. However, this analysis comes about only after you exit the theatre. Inside, for the most part, you’ll be too busy chewing your fingernails to notice that, somewhere along the line, this film about a spirit has lost its soul.
Copyright ©2004 The Economic Times: Madras Plus