Review: Nishabd

Posted on March 4, 2007


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Amitabh Bachchan is drawn to a girl his child’s age in a drama that promises much and delivers little.

MAR 4, 2007 – THERE’S CINEMA THAT BREAKS ALL BARRIERS and takes you places you’ve never been before, and there’s cinema that takes you places you’ve been to several times before and, if done well, makes you feel this is your first visit. Examples of the latter – of rule-busting genre cinema – could include Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (because it belonged to the genre of romantic melodrama, yet it gave us a hero and a heroine we weren’t exactly rooting for to be joined in love) or D (because it belonged to the genre of gangster drama, yet it subverted the romantic notion of the underworld and treated crime as just another way of making a livelihood) or pretty much anything that Ram Gopal Varma chooses to make. The man does his most interesting work when he’s boxed in by the constraints of a genre and he has to find ways to think out of that box. He may not be out to expand our cinematic horizons – or, for that matter, his cinematic horizons – but his proponents will say it’s his style that matters. Varma’s style of filmmaking is as identifiable as someone’s handwriting. The big close-ups, the long silences, the pounding music, the off-kilter camera angles – all of these give his frames the effect of a watching a series of still lifes come to life. These quirks impart a charming (and very effective) B-movieness to his cinema. They give a new perspective to old themes; it’s like watching the same part played by a different – and slightly hammier – performer and thrilling in the things the new person brings to it.

But after watching Nishabd, I wondered if Varma has gotten to a point where he is incapable of making any other kind of cinema. If this story of a forbidden, obsessive love had any chance of working, it would be as a free-floating psychological exploration – yet Varma wants to confine it to the genre of “relationship dramaâ€?. And here’s the darnedest thing: it’s not as if Varma hasn’t made a relationship drama before. Naach may have bombed at the box office, but it was a stunningly intense, idiosyncratic look at love – and a strange kind of love at that, about a woman who’s so independent, she doesn’t seem to need her boyfriend the way girlfriends usually do. Nishabd is also about a strange kind of love – about an old man (Amitabh Bachchan, once again as Vijay) who falls for his daughter’s friend Jiah (Jiah Khan). So why do the very things that worked in Naach fail so badly here? Why do the thundering background score and the hyperactive camera and the portentous stretches of silence – in something named Nishabd, yet – feel so out of place? I think it’s the writing. For a film with such a controversial theme – more American Beauty than Lolita – the drama feels so hollow, we’re left with just the atmosphere; all that sound and fury signifying nothing. I never thought the day would come when I would declare Karan Johar gutsier than Ram Gopal Varma, but however much Johar sugarcoated KANK, he at least showed us Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji sleeping together while still married to other people. In contrast, Nishabd is just one giant tease.

The first time we see friend Jiah, she’s sucking on a lollipop, and you don’t have to be a student of Freud to get that subtext. She’s always in minis and shorts – plus, whenever she walks into a frame, she’s photographed from thigh-below, which gives the impression of her being naked – and even when she’s wearing jeans, Varma devises a way to make her lie down and have his camera snake up over her the way Sam Raimi’s did in the tree-rape sequence in Evil Dead. And did I mention that she gets wet in a white shirt? To say that Jiah Khan is used as a sex symbol would be the understatement of the year – and I kept hoping Varma would use this as the peg for Vijay’s infatuation. His dumpy wife (Revathy), after all, is perpetually draped in the most maternal of saris, and when her brother (Nasser) comes visiting he observes that she’s packed on the pounds. Things have gotten to such a point, when Jiah asks Vijay if he’s still in love with his wife, he has to think a long time – in other words, cue another Varma stretch of silence – before saying yes. Besides, Vijay is something of a photographer – so he does have a streak of voyeurism in him, and he does tend to objectify things and people. With all this, and when Jiah begins to play footsie with him under the dining table, you think they are going to end up in the bedroom.

But they don’t – I guess because one of the “theyâ€? is Amitabh Bachchan. As always, this is an interesting performance, but in terms of character, the closest he comes to jumping off a cliff is in the opening scene – where he literally contemplates jumping off a cliff. Varma should have gone with a character actor who isn’t a national monument. That’s surely why Stanley Kubrick chose James Mason to play the old man in his version of Lolita. Can you imagine a more beloved star of the time – say, Spencer Tracy – in the obsessive, yet strangely tender, title sequence where he paints the toenails of the girl he’s fallen for? The only bit in Nishabd that indicates any kind of obsession comes after Jiah distracts Vijay while he’s driving and almost causes an accident. He yells at her, naturally, but when she goes into a sulk, he apologises – fully knowing that it was her fault, not his – as if he couldn’t bear to have her angry with him anymore. Most other times, this is a very chaste love. Even if there are dirty thoughts in his head – and looking at her, how could there not be? – there’s nothing dirty for us to sense. Instead, we get block-letter rationalisations both from him (he’s close to death, so he’s running after youth) and from her (her parents are divorced and she may be acting out a daddy fantasy), when the more interesting reasons for their coming together are the ones that are just hinted at. (Maybe he’s drawn to her poetry, artist to artist. Maybe it’s her looseness in making him dance. Maybe it’s just those tight shorts.)

It’s entirely Varma’s prerogative to dump the more sexual overtones and go with a true-love angle – but what’s the point, then? Is there anyone who really wants to see such an anything-goes director’s take on Jogger’s Park? As a result, we’re left with an increasingly preposterous soap opera, with groan-inducing plot coincidences. (Watch out for the Special Guest Star, who walks in just as Vijay is beginning to question his relationship with Jiah!) And we can’t even treat this as straight soap opera and have ourselves a guilty pleasure, because the heavily stylised compositions keep reminding us to take things very, very seriously. It may have helped if at least the chemistry between the couple was something to savour, but I just couldn’t buy the two of them together. Her willingness to wear those clothes apart, Jiah Khan is completely underwhelming, and it pained me to see Bachchan shouldering the entire burden of convincing us that something was indeed going on between them. And it pained me more to think back on Rozana, the brilliant composition that Vishal Bhardwaj scored for the TV promos, in which the Bachchan baritone moans obsessively about remembering her – every time he sings, every time he puts on his clothes, every time he goes someplace, every breath he takes, every move he makes… Hell, if Varma had merely filmed these lyrics, we’d have gotten something infinitely more interesting.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi