A heroine journeys through 1950s cinema in an ambitious, admirable but unaffecting drama. Plus a ten-in-one omnibus movie that has its moments.
DEC 9, 2007 – IT MAY BE NECESSARY TO COIN A NEW TERM to describe Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand – High-gloss Documentary, perhaps. An early image of lovingly hand-drawn posters is underscored by the familiar, muffled rat-a-tat of film running through a projector, and this seems to suggest that what’s to follow is a movie movie – but despite the sumptuousness of the (meticulously art-directed and photographed) period detail, this rise-and-fall journey of an actress of the fifties (Nikhat, played by Soha Ali Khan) is less emotional than educational. Filled with narrative arcs designed to add up to nothing less than a grand portrait of the Hindi film industry of the time, this may well be the most expensive project that Films Division never funded: Bollywood – Before It Was Called Bollywood.
With an archaeologist’s love for artifacts, Mishra lays it all out before our eyes – the radiant, old-world beauty of the leading ladies who’ve paid their dues to the casting couch; the Bengalis who saw the movies as a mode of artistic expression versus the Punjabis who primarily sought to exploit its commercial potential (Saurabh Shukla is terrific as an embodiment of the latter); the decadent hangers-on (Sushmita Mukherjee chews up the scenery as Nikhat’s watchdog-guardian); the endless procession of incestuous (and sometimes internecine) relationship triangles that play out between Nikhat, the sensitive writer Zafar (Shiney Ahuja), the bewigged hero Prem Kumar (Rajat Kapoor, beautifully conveying a velvety hauteur), his trophy wife (Dipannita Sharma), the insecure, manipulative heroine Ratanbala (Sonya Jehan, walking away with the film’s most delicious performance), and the assistant director Shyamal (Vinay Pathak).
Mishra employs the time-tested documentarian’s trick of using music as a signifier (we start with the mid-fifties, with Man dole, and go on to the mid-sixties with Khwab ho tum ya koi haqeeqat), and he stages Shantanu Moitra’s exquisite tunes in the manner befitting the era, when it wasn’t unusual that an entire musical sequence was constructed around a man pounding away at a grand piano. (We also get a mujra and a cabaret, which were – of course – the item numbers at a time they were not yet called item numbers.) And the film unfolds as a series of vignettes that favour mood over exposition, so that we are asked to take a leap of faith that – for instance – Zafar and Prem Kumar could be sworn enemies at one point and badminton buddies a little later.
Had this been the sole purpose of Khoya Khoya Chand – this documentation and depiction of Mishra’s own romance with the movies – we would have come away fully satisfied with this obvious labour of love. But where the film falls apart is in also trying to be a depiction of Zafar’s romance with Nikhat, which is ignited quite literally as he finds her struggling with the ignition of her vintage car. This occurs after she discovers that Prem Kumar, with whom she’s having an affair, is going to marry someone else – and the stalling of her automobile is simply a ripe, juicy metaphor that her life, as she knows it, has come to a standstill. Do you still need to know if Zafar will be able to start the car and drive her off to better tomorrows?
It’s a glorious conceit – but also one brought out in the emotional language of the movies (as opposed to the factual one of documentaries), and it makes us want to see the love story of Zafar and Nikhat. The passionate, full-blown, pull-out-the-stops love story, that is, not just the snippety version that peeps out of the other, bigger love story about the magic of the movies – and Mishra isn’t able to reconcile these two not-entirely-complementary goals. He doesn’t get much help from his leading lady either, who needed to embody the steely determination of Smita Patil in Bhumika, the naked vulnerability of Judy Garland in A Star is Born, and the romantic charms of Waheeda Rahman in Guide (the ego-fuelled relationship between Nikhat and Zafar resembles that of Rosie and Raju, with her taking centrestage as he watches from the sidelines) – and Soha Ali Khan is simply not up to the demands of this hugely complex character.
Shiney Ahuja fares slightly better, primarily because Zafar is more interesting – and less easy to figure out – than Nikhat is. We’re only too familiar with the heroine who is exploited by her family, who is unlucky in her loves, and who, after her downfall, finds solace in alcohol and ambitions of a comeback – but Zafar is, I think, some sort of Guru Dutt: if not a poet as such, at least a poet-at-heart. It’s not just that he has a poet’s way of philosophising away the harshest of happenings – in what has got to be one of the most beautiful lines written for the movies, he consoles someone (who feels guilty about betraying him), “Koi kisi ko dhokha nahin deta… Sirf haalaat hote hain,” that it’s all due to circumstance – he’s also framed Christ-like at a doorway in an instant-recall homage to Dutt and his Pyaasa.
Had we taken to heart Zafar and Nikhat, had they been all that they could have been, we wouldn’t be left with the niggling questions, such as: Why the clumsy, hasty, title-card epilogue, when there’s a narrator introduced early on in the film (only to disappear soon after)? And why does every film that Nikhat stars in come off as disreputable and trashy, with wildly declamatory acting and fake sets and the works? This is, after all, the fifties we are talking about, with Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy and many, many others – so wouldn’t a big star like Nikhat have appeared in at least something worthy?
During the preview screening of one such film-within-the-film, the character that Nikhat plays jumps off a cliff, and her leading man reaches the spot seconds too late, screaming her name over and over. It’s as melodramatic, as tear-jerking an end as you’ve seen, and yet, as the lights come up, there’s not a wet eye in the theatre. As the audience gets up and bursts into a standing ovation, I was thinking: But didn’t even one of them feel anything about this tragic ending? Or were they so distanced from the experience – much as I was with Khoya Khoya Chand – that they found it easier to applaud its ambitions than be affected by its accomplishments?
AS TITLES GO, YOU CANNOT GET MORE SELF-EXPLANATORY than Dus Kahaniyaan, which gives us ten distinct stories (from six different directors) for the price of one movie – and the credits sequence suggests some kind of connective tissue binding these various narratives. We seem to be inside a kaleidoscope, with each turn bringing into focus people and places that shift shape and reconfigure into the next set of people and places. And when Matrimony – the first story, about an adulterous wife (Mandira Bedi) – wound up with a twist in the tale, it appeared that the link between the ten stories was going to be a gotcha! ending.
But that isn’t it – though there are a few others that try to stun us with a last-minute revelation that apparently goes against what we’ve seen before. There’s Love Dale, where Neha Uberoi meets the mysterious, life-altering Anooradha Patel on a train, and there’s Strangers In The Night, where Neha Dhupia’s confession of infidelity to her husband (Mahesh Manjrekar) appears to improvise on the similar sequence in Eyes Wide Shut – and these are generally the least interesting of the bunch. These are stories that hinge on relationships – existing ones, yet-to-be-formed ones – and the surprise twists seem to cheapen the material by winking at us where a focussed, glassy-eyed stare at the people in these relationships would have been more appropriate.
But the twist works very satisfyingly in Zahir, where Manoj Bajpai – who beautifully calls himself a “bekaar banker”, and who wants to be a writer – learns the hard way that the creative muse, sometimes, comes with a high personal cost. And so we move to the next part of the portmanteau, which could be clubbed under Life Lessons – and these stories range from the awful (Rice Plate, where a terribly mannered Shabana Azmi learns about religious tolerance) to the affable-if-no-great-shakes (Gubbare, where a terrific Nana Patekar shows up holding red balloons in a bus whose destination is What Marriage Is All About).
The dark, moody, stylised head-scratchers work much better. High On The Highway features Jimmy Shergill and Masumeh as a couple that’s, well, high on the highway, and seem to pay the price for – you knew this was coming – living life in the fast lane. Sex On The Beach has Dino Morea hilariously confronting Death, whose human form – unknown to us, all this time – comes with cast-iron breasts barely contained in a gold bikini. And Sanjay Dutt and Suniel Shetty – as gangsters, what else? – go mano-a-mano in Rise & Fall, which has got to be the shortest film ever to feature an extended action segment.
The best of the lot is Pooranmashi, where Amrita Singh and Minisha Lamba act out a story of near-Biblical dimensions – this one could be titled Sins of the Mother – and make you wonder why Meghna Gulzar (who directed this segment) hasn’t been able to translate this narrative economy to her feature films. And that’s the success of Dus Kahaniyaan, really. If we’re still looking for something linking these stories, it’s that – put together – they make up a nifty, little showcase for actors (and even directors, including Sanjay Gupta, Hanslal Mehta, Apoorva Lakhia, Rohit Roy and Jasmeet Dhodi) that more mainstream Bollywood typically does not know what to do with.
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