Review: Fanaa / Ankahee

Posted on May 28, 2006


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Aamir Khan’s new movie marks Kajol’s comeback, but there’s little else that distinguishes it

MAY 28, 2006 – WE’VE READ REAMS ABOUT Aamir Khan’s meticulousness, but only recently did I get to observe it firsthand. It was during the promotional interview between him and Kajol that aired on television a day before the release of Fanaa. The stars were seated across one another, but at a forty-five-degree angle that also made them face the camera. So if either one had to face the other, they had to turn a bit in that direction. When Kajol had to turn, she did just that: turn. But when Aamir had to do so, he first uncrossed his legs, smoothed out the shoulders of his jacket, half-stood and smoothed out the bottom of his jacket, smoothed out the crease on his pants, crossed his legs the other way, and then turned. An offhand postural change became in his hands a subconscious – and, yes, meticulous – performance.

You see that meticulousness, that level of micro-detail, in his performance as tourist guide Rehaan in Fanaa. Near the end, there’s a scene where he has to run a long distance in Kashmir’s biting cold; after he reaches his destination and after a while, you notice he’s still gasping between sentences. And to add to the physical tiredness, there’s the mental exhaustion of a man pushed to a corner not by the choices he made so much as the choices that have been made for him. I can’t recall when I last saw an actor so drained on screen. I think Aamir’s now at a point where he’s always going to be terrific, even if his films – like this one – are nowhere near that level. Oh, with Aamir and Kajol (as the blind Zooni), Fanaa is certainly worth a watch. Then again, with Aamir and Kajol, you expect the moon and the stars and come away unsatisfied with this decidedly earthbound movie.

Fanaa’s problem is that it never really takes off. On one level, it’s about Zooni finding love with Rehaan, and on another level it’s about the soulless Rehaan finding salvation in Zooni (I know this sounds vague, but to explain further would be to give away major plot points) – but neither does the love story soar, nor does the other angle stir. The film plods along trying to hit high notes, but even as you sense the background score rising to crescendos, you don’t sense emotions, epiphanies worthy of all that fuss. You keep wanting for them to reach for something more ambitious than just an okay romantic drama, but that’s all this is.

I first thought Zooni’s being visually impaired was some sort of metaphor, in that she blindly falls for Rehaan’s rakish charms, and after she undergoes surgery and gains vision, she sees him for what he really is. But Fanaa isn’t particularly interested in sustaining such conceits. All it wants to be is an entertainment – and that’s fine. We know this is a Yash Chopra production (directed by Kunal Kohli), and so we know there’s going to be more gloss than grit. After all, even in Hollywood’s Golden Age, different studios were known for different types of films, and the frosting-filled, family-friendly MGM movies would be something we could compare Chopra’s output to, both as producer and director.

So there are the usual Chopra flourishes here – most obviously in the beautiful, chiffon-draped heroine. Never once – not when she’s polishing the table, not when she’s serving dinner, not when she’s lounging around at home – do we see Zooni in anything but the most ravishing, colour-coordinated Manish Malhotra costumes. And if you’ve seen Lamhé, you’ll know the antakshari sequence is something Chopra has a fondness for. That’s here, all right, but there’s also the surprisingly – and unusually – effective use of old songs running through the movie like subtext. It’s as if Kohli felt that playing these on the soundtrack would add a layer to his scenes, thanks to our memories.

When Zooni speculates about falling in love, she quotes from Kabhi kabhi méré dil mein…, and your mind drifts to Amitabh and Rakhee at the beginning of Kabhi Kabhie, lovers in love with the very idea of being in love. Kohli also uses songs for laughs (a Rajesh Khanna lookalike is introduced with the humming that opens Kora kaagaz tha), as cheeky throwbacks (during a bus journey, we hear Dekha na hai ré…), as situational counterpoint (Zooni and Rehaan talk of love as Yeh jo mohabbat hai plays on) and as the things people think but cannot put in words, which, really, is the whole point of movie music. (Zooni yearns for Rehaan to the strains of Lata’s ethereal Lag jaa galé, and when Rehaan reunites with Zooni after ages, he sings Waqt ne kiyabeqaraar dil is tarah milé, jis tarah kabhi hum juda na thé.) These references work far better than the song sequences created specifically for this film. (Whose idea was it to stage Jatin-Lalit’s romantic Chand sifarish as a jokey group number?)

Kohli appears to love not only the movie songs of a bygone era, but the moviemaking style of a bygone era – and I’m not just referring to the fact that a man and a woman sleep together after getting wet in the rain, and this one night of passion results in a child. When Rehaan pulls Zooni away from her friends, she comments on his impudence, “Aisi gustakhi sirf tum hi kar sakté ho.â€? Do Kashmiris still talk like this, as if they’ve stepped out of Muslim socials like Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Mere Mehboob? I don’t know, but the language sounds wonderful when the courtship between Rehaan and Zooni is conducted almost entirely through verse. Some of the shayari may come across as corny in today’s multiplex context, but how can you not love a love scene that has the hero declaring, “Aag sooraj mein hoti hai, jalna zameen ko padta hai/mohabbat nigaahen karti hain, tadapna dil ko padta hai!â€?

With all this, the first hour is almost its own little Shammi Kapoor movie, the story of a girl finding happiness and love with a roguish charmer. Aamir and the lovely Kajol strike the right sparks, the banter is perfect – especially during a bus ride; VJ Shruti makes a delightfully spunky debut as Zooni’s friend – and you realise this is classic heart-over-head filmmaking. You should really be asking: “Would a blind girl go off alone with a tourist guide, that too in a strange city?â€? But instead you’re wondering why he’s so startled at the vehemence of his reaction when she wanders off into oncoming traffic; he’s surprised that he feels so much for her, but that’s a surprise only to him, not to us. And when this love story culminates in their deciding to stay back in Delhi – he’s from there; she’s visiting – the movie could have ended right then.

But it doesn’t, and we enter a very problematic second half. (I’m going to discuss this now, so if you don’t want MAJOR SPOILERS, please skip to the last paragraph.) There’s a moment in the love story that points to how the other story is going to develop; that’s after Zooni and Rehaan make love. She falls into a contented sleep, while he lies wide awake – which is classic shorthand for untroubled soul versus troubled soul. And in what way he’s a troubled soul constitutes the Big Reveal, just minutes before the interval. He’s a terrorist – and that’s when you see this is essentially a gender-bender variation on Dil Sé. For here, it’s a male terrorist resisting the female soulmate’s attempts to humanise him. (Even the timing of the Big Reveal is similar, and I hope that after Fanaa, audiences will have a renewed appreciation for Mani Ratnam’s movie, and also for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission: Kashmir, both of which were commercial films that tackled the individual face of terrorism far more successfully.)

So now we get to talking about nuclear missiles and the conflict in Kashmir, and it’s all so embarrassingly shallow, you can’t help wanting to sneak back to the other movie, the love story in the first half. There are no real surprises. (I mean, the first time we see Kajol is in a shot of her saluting the tricolour, so how much of a stretch is what she does at the end?) Instead, we’re stuck with laughable coincidences – just wait till you see Zooni’s last glimpse of her father (Rishi Kapoor, fine in a Rishi Kapoor role) – and laughable bits of symbolism. (When Rehaan crosses the room to retrieve something important, he steps over his son’s toys. You see? His family stands between him and his mission!) And the most bizarre development is a scene that appears a twisted variation on Chaplin’s City Lights, with Rehaan sponsoring Zooni’s eye surgery; there the benefactor was a tramp, here he’s a terrorist.

Why did Rehaan have to do this when her parents seem perfectly capable of affording such a procedure? For that matter, why does Rehaan use his real name in an undercover operation? Why did Tabu sign on for the supremely silly role of a member of the Anti Terrorist Group out to nab Rehaan? Why does this film, when it needs to become edgier and bleaker and tighter, begin having extended, warm-fuzzy family scenarios – songs, dances, tears, laughter, the works? Isn’t it enough that Ravi K Chandran’s superb cinematography has already laid out the essence of Rehaan’s family-versus-fratricide dilemma, with the warm, earthy colours of the inside of Rehaan and Zooni’s home making for a loaded contrast against the bleak, inhospitable whites of the Kashmiri winter outside?

You don’t question a film that’s entirely make-believe, but Fanaa wants both the guarantee of the box office and the gratification of tackling a subject seemingly unconcerned with the box office. And that’s why the Yash Chopra production this most resembles is Lamhé, a movie that, for all the good acting and good moments, ended up a major compromise because the makers chose to adapt a theme alien to their sensibilities rather than sticking to a theme that readily lent itself to their sensibilities. I am all for glossy romance amidst golden-yellow mustard fields, but this dark story needed a darker vision.

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Vikram Bhatt takes a grave look at a failing marriage in a mediocre drama that needed much better actors

MAY 21, 2006 – EARLY ON IN ANKAHEE, a character expresses her inner turmoil by sitting down at a piano in the middle of the night and pounding out a plaintive tune, and I thought to myself: “Oh dear, not one of those movies!â€? You know the kind of movies I’m talking about – the kind that supposedly want to project real life around us and not just fantasy, but then go about trying to do this in hilariously silly ways. I mean, when was the last time you tried to salvage a bad day by going plink-plonk on your baby grand?

But Ankahee turns out to be another kind of movie – the kind where, if you were in it, you could tell someone everything about your life by simply handing them your diary, because it would have a record of every sentence you say, every song you sing, every breath you take, every move you make, every vow you break… Okay, I guess I’m being too flippant about something that does have its moments, but Ankahee is also a very frustrating experience – thanks mainly to its leads. This is a film that relies heavily on soul-baring close-ups, and to carry off soul-baring close-ups, you need to be at least something of an actor. Unfortunately, that term applies rather loosely to the likes of Aftab Shivdasani, Esha Deol and Ameesha Patel, who play Shekhar, Kaavya and Nandita respectively. (The story is about the aftermath of Shekhar, a doctor, leaving wife Nandita for a mentally unstable Miss World, Kaavya.)

Shekhar, for instance, is shown as someone who can’t handle confrontation. When his wife asks him if they should try for another child – they have a little girl – he mumbles, “Iske baarein mein kal baat karte hain,â€? and he similarly seeks to postpone Kaavya’s request when she asks that he divorce his wife. But it’s one thing for a character to be lightweight and ineffectual, quite another for an actor to be so. Aftab appears so bewildered throughout, he comes off as such a spineless wimp, you wonder what Nandita or Kaavya ever saw in him. And I dare you not to giggle upon seeing him try to embody old age with what seems like streaks of chalk in his hair.

Besides, what kind of doctor is he? What’s his specialisation? How is he able to spend so much time with Kaavya that he even plays chess with her? (Yes, he’s her knight in shining armour, but still…) Doesn’t he have other patients? And why isn’t Kaavya made to see a psychiatrist when she’s clearly tried to kill herself? Esha tries to tackle a difficult (but severely unidimensional and underwritten) role that has shades of her mother’s character in Tere Mere Sapne (where she counts on doctor Dev Anand for emotional support and slowly falls for him) and Smita Patil’s clingy, insecure, nervous wreck in Arth. But all I saw was how, even at the hospital, she always managed to look like the face of Revlon. (Clearly, she got herself admitted to the one hospital in all of Mumbai where the nurses were as handy with bedpans as with blushers.)

But Ameesha Patel, surprisingly, comes off rather well. She’s been an annoying presence in her films of late, but here she has the best-written part, and she makes the most of it. Many of her scenes stay with you long after the movie. When she finds out her husband has been sleeping with someone else, she wants details: “Kitni baar?â€? As we saw in Closer, the sexual betrayal matters almost as much as the emotional betrayal. And later, when Shekhar asks for a divorce, the first thing she can think of is that she needs a job, because that’s when it hits her that she’s really all alone and has to raise a child by herself. That’s why she doesn’t sympathise with Kaavya’s suicide attempt; she reasons it’s easy for Kaavya to escape her troubles by killing herself, but she’s stuck with a life of humiliation. She cannot kill herself because she cannot abandon her daughter.

This is supposedly the real-life story of Vikram Bhatt, but even without that insight, you can see he felt really close to the material. When Shekhar embraces Kaavya in her hospital room, Bhatt cuts to Shekhar’s little girl who’s waiting outside, as if to indicate that she’s going to be the most affected by what’s happening inside. And isn’t this true, that children are always the collateral damage in the war between their parents? (Chew on this: Bhatt dedicates this film to his daughter.) And even when the directorial flourishes get a tad too arty, they at least try to say something – as when Shekhar and Nandita are stationed at the extremes of a longish corridor to signify the distance between them, or when Esha’s first and last shots in the movie have her framed in the same pose, telling us that she hasn’t changed at all.

At times, the Ankahee experience appears less about watching a film than overhearing someone’s – that is, Bhatt’s – confessions to his shrink. (The last time a director put his adulterous personal life on screen, it was another Bhatt – Mahesh – with Phir Teri Kahaani Yaad Aayi.) For a long time, I wondered why Shekhar fell for the clearly-troubled Kaavya, but only later did I realise that he himself didn’t know the reason until his psychiatrist-friend explained that he needed her glamour to liven up his boring 9-6 life. That’s a revelation to the character and to the audience at the same time – and that also seems to be Bhatt psychoanalysing why he fell for Sushmita Sen. (At one point, Kaavya is photographed the exact same way as Sen was when she won her Miss Universe crown – white gloves, tiara, mouth forming an astonished O…) With better performances, this could have been a scorcher of a drama, but let’s at least give Bhatt credit for the guts to strip himself naked on screen, not caring that people are going to point and snigger – for Ankahee isn’t showmanship so much as self-flagellation.

Copyright ©2006 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi