Review: Life in a… Metro

Posted on May 12, 2007


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A set of superb actors puts over an affecting drama about loves lost and found.

MAY 13, 2007 – AFTER YEARS of trawling through Hindi cinema, I saw in Anurag Basu’s Life in a Metro images I never thought I’d get to see. A woman standing before a mirror, putting on lipstick to prettify herself for her man. A woman in bed, getting kissed on the lips by her lover, and waking up the next morning being spooned by him, in the afterglow of a night spent in his arms. And get this – a woman so giddy in love, she runs out into the rain in a white sari, getting drenched in the process. No, don’t ho-hum just yet – for this woman I’m talking about, she’s a senior citizen. Finding love in one’s autumn years isn’t exactly new – and we just had an instance of that in Pyaar Mein Twist, where Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia fell for one another while being surrounded by grownup children. But that was Dimple Kapadia, for God’s sake – and this is Nafisa Ali (as Shivani). Her hair has gone grey, she wears grandmotherly glasses, and that Miss India figure from Junoon shows its years with the wrinkles and the added weight. But that isn’t the point so much as this being a physical love. Even a today director like Farhan Akhtar kept things merely platonic between the twentysomething Sid and the fiftysomething Tara Jaiswal – while there’s a situation here where an elderly woman and an elderly man aren’t just in it for, you know, the companionship; they actually may be getting it on, putting the ‘sex’ back into sexagenarians. Go Bollywood!

There’s a lot about Metro that makes you want to get up and cheer. The story is a loose lattice of crisscrossing episodes about finding (and also losing) love – the film really should have been called Love in a Metro; there’s nothing much here that talks about life (in that existential sense) – and it plays like Salaam-e-Ishq with a heavy dose of hormones. As with Shivani, there’s a refreshingly physical component to the love stories. Shikha (Shilpa Shetty; I haven’t seen Phir Milenge in a while, but from what I recall, this is at least as good a performance, if not better – plus, she looks fantastic) is stuck in a loveless marriage with Ranjeet (Kay Kay Menon, who locates impressive reserves of humanity in what is essentially an unsympathetic character) – and in one of the many well-shaped lines of dialogue, she remembers about the past, “Bistar pe galti se bhi pair takraate to sab kadwahat pighal jaati.â€? (What’s unsaid is that even the sex has dried up now.) Her sister Shruti (Konkona Sen Sharma) is nearing thirty, and one of the things that makes her unhappy about this situation is that she’s still a virgin. Ranjeet, meanwhile, is sleeping with Neha (Kangana Ranaut, once again portraying a damaged-goods soul; she may be hitting the same notes in all her movies, but she does hit those notes extremely well).

So you have adultery and betrayal and a lot of admittedly banal (in the sense that there’s not much you can’t predict) relationship drama, and it’s inevitable that Metro ends up resembling nothing more than a rather sophisticated soap – but no soap you’ve seen has had this kind of cast, these kinds of performances. This is high-end ensemble acting, and I’d hate to single anyone out – but with a gun to my head, I’d probably admit to liking the story arc with Konkona Sen Sharma and Irrfan Khan the most. By now, it goes without saying that these two actors are terrific in whatever they do, but here they play that most heartwarming of rom-com staples: opposites who end up discovering that they may be destined for one another – and they’re just so good together. They’re funny and sad and confused and philosophical and they almost make you wish for an entire movie about their characters alone. The other performer who made Metro for me is Dharmendra, who’s really quite wonderful as Shivani’s late-life love Amol. (They were sweethearts a long time ago, but they got married to different people and drifted apart.) In his very first scene, he’s at the railway station, on a platform that’s across the tracks from the one Shivani is on. He sees her, his face lights up, and he jumps down and hops over the tracks, as if the mere sight of her has brought back the spring in his step. And after he clambers up the other side, he bends ever so slightly and looks up at her face, apparently absorbing every single detail that’s changed since he saw her last. Dharmendra has played action heroes for such a large portion of his career that when we think back, the flashbacks we have are from Hukumat and Dharam Veer and Sholay. But his gentle performance in Metro reminds you of films that did not feature the clenched-teeth dialogue delivery that became a (rather endearing) cliché – films like Anupama and Devar and Bandini.

Along with Dharmendra, Anurag Basu resurrects another sixties’ icon – Dylan, whose raspy wail on the soundtrack (I want you, I want you, I want you so bad) underscores a moment of desire perfectly, if somewhat strangely. (I mean… Dylan?) And a second music cue that comes out of nowhere is when Shikha’s mobile phone goes off to the ringtone of Ilayaraja’s immortal theme for Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan. (How nice that between this and his upcoming soundtrack for Cheeni Kum, the maestro is finally having himself a little multiplex moment!) The ringtone may be an inadvertent touch, but the director makes very deliberate use of Pritam’s excellent score. (The sound could be approximated to that of the big-hair power ballads – Don’t Stop Believing by Journey or Every Rose Has Its Thorn by Poison or pretty much anything by the Scorpions in the eighties.) Pritam and two other musicians (or are they just actors?) are actually part of the cast, for they appear throughout the film, mouthing lines about love and loss in the tradition of wandering minstrels (or a Greek chorus commenting on the action). In the theatre I saw Metro in, the audience began to hoot and holler as these balladeers showed up repeatedly, but if you pay attention, this is a stylistic gamble that pays off – especially with lyrics that paint an overarching backdrop of emotion that the individual love stories draw from.

Basu made his name with films produced by Mahesh Bhatt (Gangster, Murder), and there’s a lot of that school – for lack of a better word – of filmmaking in Metro. There’s the very casual, frank and unapologetic depiction of topics that are usually taboo in mainstream cinema. Rahul (Sharman Joshi, who underplays beautifully) is in love with Neha, and it doesn’t matter to him that she’s sleeping with someone else. In other words, the fact that she’s not a virgin is a big non-issue as far as he is concerned. There’s also— in one of the movie’s few missteps – a homosexual angle, one that’s rushed through rather unconvincingly. But more interesting is how Basu channels Bhatt’s facility to splatter the screen with angst. Shikha finds herself attracted to theatre artist Akash (Shiney Ahuja, rather good in a smallish part), and at one point, she attends a performance of his in an almost-empty auditorium. It looks like an experimental play, and he’s acting his heart out, when a mobile phone goes off amidst the audience – and Akash stomps off the stage in a huff. That one little incident tells us how much he suffers – both for his art and because of it (all his peers, who opted for rat-race careers, have zoomed ahead in life).

But the major Bhatt imprint in Metro may be that it’s an uncredited mishmash of various films, beginning with The Apartment (which becomes the Rahul-Neha story arc). There’s, of course, an ethical angle to this (which, perhaps rightly, affects people’s perceptions of a work), but – the way I look at it – it’s still been made very well. So many adaptations come our way that are clueless regurgitations, with so little effort to adapt the premise, that I’d rather not shrug off something that works so well. Maybe the writing was easy because there was an original to jump off of, but there’s still the directing – the staging of scenes, the shepherding of actors, the blending in of the music, the shaping of flow and texture and mood – that deserves to be recognised, even if, time and again, you wish they’d just credit the damn source(s). And Basu – like Bhatt – does move beyond the original, adding enough evocative flourishes to make us see that Gangster was no fluke. He establishes early on that the Shikha-Ranjeet marriage is in trouble, and soon, during a downpour, Shikha bumps into Akash. (There’s lot of rain in Metro, an indicator, perhaps, of the bad weather the relationships keep running into.) Her umbrella is ruined in a gust of wind, and Akash uses a safety pin to fix it temporarily. And that’s the point, really. It – the fix with the safety pin, and the subsequent relationship with Akash – is only a temporary solution. The real issues still need to be tackled head-on. They won’t go away because you put a band-aid on them, and that’s as true of life in a metro as anywhere else.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi