HALL OF FEMME
With his heartwarming women-centric story, Nagesh Kukunoor announces himself as one of the best in the business today.
SEPT 24, 2006 – AFTER SEEING THE EARLY WORKS OF Nagesh Kukunoor – say, the amateurish, slapdash Hyderabad Blues, or its equally amateurish, slapdash sequel – I never thought I’d say this, but Kukunoor appears to have become, in some ways, this generation’s Hrishikesh Mukherjee. (I’m talking of the early Hrishikesh Mukherjee; the natural heir to the latter-day Mukherjee, the maker of Chupke Chupke and Golmaal, would be Rajkumar Hirani.) It may be no coincidence that there’s an homage to the just-departed director in a title card at the beginning of Dor (based on Kamal’s Malayalam movie Perumazhakalam). As the film unfolds, you see that, just as with Iqbal, Kukunoor seems to do his best work while walking on the middle of the road – not pandering especially to either commercial or art-house considerations. The impression I got with Dor was that of watching something like Majid Majidi’s Baran filtered through a Bollywood-lite sensibility. Like Iranian cinema, this is a heartwarmingly simple story, simply told, but with dialogues and music and melodrama taken from our cinema. When sad-eyed Meera (Ayesha Takia) is looking at the sunset, her husband, who is going away to the Gulf to work, guesses that she’s wishing, “ki yeh sooraj kabhi na doobey, yeh din kabhi na dhaley.” This dialogue-baazi is all us, but the thunder and lightning dramatics that you would assume would follow is missing. And that’s wonderful because there are a lot of us who don’t want to give up entirely our moviemaking conventions, but would also like, at times, to see our films transcend them. We want it both ways, and like Hrishikesh Mukherjee before him, Kukunoor seems to have hit upon the golden mean.
By all rights, Dor should never have worked – and certainly not this well. It’s a mix of several genres and sub-genres – the buddy-buddy movie, the road movie, the you-go-girl movie, the against-all-odds movie, the sugar-coated message movie – that shouldn’t be together in the same rack of a video library, let alone a screenplay. But Kukunoor has become such a confident storyteller, he manages to make us keep asking, “What next?” That’s because his top priority is to tell his story, to keep this story moving. And if that means introducing a character that has no business being in such a film, then so be it. This character – a master of disguises (who’s actually nothing but a big, fat deux ex machina meant to… well, keep the story moving), played by Shreyas Talpade – is the multiplex equivalent of a Johny Lever, someone who mimics stars and gets easy laughs. But Talpade inhabits this role with such wit and heart and energy, he becomes the film’s showstopper. And Kukunoor devises a lovely scene so we see this man isn’t just a joker, that he is human too, but again, all this is done without fuss. That’s the thing about the Kukunoor who’s made Iqbal and now Dor – he tells these stories with no fuss, no frills. When I saw Iqbal, I whined that there were a few too many mood shots of Iqbal silhouetted against the sun, but that apparent artlessness may be part of what makes these movies work so well, because there’s a sense of things not being designed to within an inch of their lives, and this shaggy, low-rent style goes well with the stories that Kukunoor’s been telling of late. The lack of jaw-dropping imagery makes everything look lived-in and you feel that these people are people, not actors assembled on artfully-designed sets.
And as with Iqbal, it’s the actors that put across this story of two women whose fates intersect. (This is preempted by shots of the green vales of Himachal Pradesh being intercut with shots of the brown dunes of Rajasthan. That’s where these women live, and this intercutting warns us that their worlds are about to collide.) With her baby-doll face and her utter lack of actressy airs, Ayesha Takia is the perfect Meera, a child-woman who’s widowed early. And Gul Panag is equally wonderful as Zeenat, who comes in search of Meera for help, and who ends up becoming good friends with her. (Why she tracks Meera down and whether she succeeds in her quest form the rest of the story.) One of the first things I noticed about these girls is that they have no makeup on. There’s just some kajal under Zeenat’s eyes, otherwise there’s no lipstick, no greasepaint, and in close-ups, you notice the moles on their faces, the pores on their skin – and I don’t think I’ve seen a more radiant pair of actresses in a film of late. Looking at them, I was reminded of Karisma Kapoor in Raja Hindustani, where she has this scene where she merely needs to wake up on her bed, and when the camera moves in for a close-up – a soft-focus close-up, naturally – she seems to have just exited from a beauty parlour after requesting bridal makeup. I guess that’s why we never saw anyone but the star Karisma Kapoor in Raja Hindustani, whereas here we forget that Takia was also in the delightful Socha Na Tha and that we’ve seen Panag earlier in Dhoop. They seem to be on screen for the first time – as what they play, not who they are.
As Dor opens, Kukunoor shows Zeenat undergoing a nikaah ceremony in the midst of nature, and he shows Meera’s husband sneaking up on her from behind and sliding her ghoonghat off her head. A few telegraphed touches like these do wonders for our empathy with Zeenat and Meera, because these are the only times we see their spouses, and yet these happy-shots of the two women before the crisis makes us identify with them and care for them after this crisis erupts (and that’s why Zeenat goes to Meera). This may sound like the most elementary of things, but a lot of filmmakers – especially those targeting the multiplex audiences – get so clever with how they are telling their stories that they forget that what’s usually keeping us interested is the people in them. How Kukunoor tells his story is old-fashioned in the best sense. He has the Salim-Sulaiman duo compose a terrific song (Yeh hausla) that sums up the film’s themes, and they also contribute a beautiful background score that drives the movie along and tides it over the loose bits. And Kukunoor isn’t too hip to shy away from audience-pleasing humour or sentiment, though the way he handles these must-haves – a group of people dancing to Kajra Re in the desert, or Meera finding unexpected empathy from an elder after being widowed, or the reference to what they do to girl children in Rajasthan – is refreshingly low-key. I was especially taken with the way he pulled off the scene where Zeenat extracts a teardrop from her eye in front of her about-to-leave husband and says it’s her “aakhri aansoo” till he returns. It’s a ridiculously romantic moment, but it also points to the reserves of steel this girl has in her; the rest of the movie would be unimaginable without this apparently throwaway bit. There’s so much that Kukunoor does right in Dor that I’m really not going to dwell on the few ungainly passages with top-heavy messages, or the terrible miscalculation that comes about when the character played by the director himself (rather limply) shows what he’s all about. Overall, this is a very, very satisfying film, and it’s doubly heartening that it’s come our way the year Hrishikesh Mukherjee passed away. I have a feeling the director of Satyakam and Anuradha would have approved of Dor.
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