CRIMES OF FASHION
The glam industry’s dirty dealings are laid bare in a naïve morality play that just about scrapes through. Plus, a so-so comedy sequel.
NOV 2, 2008 – FASHION SHOULD BE, AT LEAST IN THEORY, the easiest watch ever – for, how wrong can you go, really, with a viewing experience that essentially involves pretty girls in various stages of leggy undress? Then again, this is a Madhur Bhandarkar movie, and before you know it, this reverie is quickly overrun by righteous fury. My problem with Bhandarkar isn’t that he’s latched on to a hit formula in the guise of “reality filmmaking,” which results in our multiplexes being filled up, every year, with the likes of Page 3 and Corporate and Traffic Signal. If he wants to shine a harsh light on the tucked-away nooks and corners of our magnificently flawed society – and, by extension, country – that’s his prerogative, and God knows we could use a filmmaker who diverts his resources to something more than just the provision of easy entertainment. My problem is that, once Bhandarkar zooms in on his area of interest, he isn’t so much a dispassionate chronicler as a decisive moraliser. He’s a judge who’s already convicted the accused, even before he gives them a fair hearing – and the only participant, in his court, is the plaintiff. The defendant exists solely to go through the motions of a fair trial, stretched to movie length. Even the trailers for Fashion came with a tag line that reeked of ominous finger-wagging: “In the world of fashion, you will have to lose more than just your morals.” Is it any surprise, then, that the film portrays the fashion industry as the inner circle of hell, equating sequins with sins?
My question to Bhandarkar is simply this: We know that the world of fashion – like any other world – is populated by both the good and the bad. Heck, if you made a movie about Nirupa Roy’s life, you’d probably uncover a few squirmy truths. So why not show us, along with the lows, a little of the highs? So these girls starve themselves and shoot up drugs and sleep around, but, along with the much-needed tap on the shoulder about these easy temptations, why not capture for us how it feels to be in front of an adoring audience that is, at least for an instant, a slave to your imperious catwalk pose? In an overlong film (which goes on for nearly three hours), couldn’t at least a few minutes have been set aside to show that the sacrifices have been worth it – when you stand there with the perfect clothes, the perfect legs and the perfect breasts, the perfect smile on the perfect face, knowing that all the men in the room want to be with you, all the women want to be you? Why not take a moment to savour what it’s like to be such an embodiment of physical perfection, before tearing down the world that demands – oftentimes cruelly – this perfection in the first place?
But Bhandarkar probably knows that his loyal audience is more likely to devour the seamy tabloid take of his story than the responsible newspaper version – and in that sense, he’s no better than a filmmaker from the sixties who telegraphed to his viewers that girls like Helen and Bindu were bad because they thought nothing of baring a bit of cleavage or lighting up a cigarette or tossing back a glass of whiskey. How do we know that Meghna (Priyanka Chopra, sinking her teeth into the best part she’s had in ages, and coming off fairly well) – a good girl from a good Chandigarh neighbourhood who’s now a model in the soul-sucking sin-city that is Mumbai – has turned bad? Because she has a glass of wine and goes to bed with boyfriend Manav (Arjan Bajwa). How do we know Meghna has turned badder? Because she’s begun to smoke. And how do we know that she’s at her baddest, at the scum-pit of supermodeldom? Because she takes drugs and – you’d better be sitting down for this – sleeps with a black man. Perish the possibility that this poor girl is trying to obliterate a series of disappointments – at work; with men – for at least the duration of an evening by fogging her brain with sex and sedatives. That would mean she’s a human being, and that these are her failures – whereas Meghna is really just a construct, a pawn to be played, and the failures are really those of the evil fashion industry.
In fact, we know very little of Meghna as a person. Yes, she says she wants to become a model – but what drove that idea into her pretty head? (Did she plop herself in front of the television set, one evening in the early nineties, and when she looked up from her homework, did she see Aishwarya Rai glittering on the Miss World stage? Is that why she entered the local beauty contest?) Yes, Meghna moves out of a live-in arrangement with Manav – but surely it’s not just because he’s a small-time model who had the temerity to demand why she came home so late one night? (Could it be that, in the heady rush of early supermodeldom, she’s seeking a man of more means and bigger accomplishments?) We keep asking these questions because, especially in the latter instance, the film offers no real reason for the breakup (other than, well, she’s in the fashion industry, and therefore everything is doom and gloom). Meghna walks out of the apartment, tears in her eyes and without a word on her lips, and instead of feeling for her, you want to shake her and sit her down for a frank talk with Manav. That’s how most of Fashion is – people do these things, not because of who they are or what circumstances they’re in, but because if they didn’t do these things, there’d be no cautionary tale to tell.
The one time Meghna comes close to being something of a flesh-and-blood creature is when she tells her married lover (Arbaaz Khan, who plays some sort of fashion czar) that she’s pregnant. He doesn’t miss a beat as he acknowledges the fact. Then amping up her womanly wiles, and perhaps wishing to up the ante in this game of who-will-blink-first, she says she wants to keep the child. At this moment, Meghna isn’t a supermodel; she’s just a simple girl caught up in the love of an unattainable guy, and despite her money and fame and independence, you sense she’s still middle-class enough to feel incomplete without a husband-figure, without a family of her own. Most other times, it’s Janet (Mugdha Godse, making a graceful debut) you care about and whose story you wish to keep returning to. It’s not just that Janet is the only person in the film who’s got her head screwed firmly on her shoulders, she also has an interesting sort-of love story with a gay designer (nicely played by Samir Soni, without the flaming, pinkie-up clichés that afflict all the other gay characters, most of whom are designers). And it helps that Janet is the only model in the film who’s not portrayed as a victim. (Kangana Ranaut is the third model, and along with Meghna, the second victim. The actress is given nothing but a series of shrill notes to hit, and it becomes awfully hard to watch her after a point.)
Fashion is far more successful in its early scenes, when it attempts to engage with the teeth and gears of the industry (which makes me wish Bhandarkar had attempted, instead of full-blooded drama, a claws-bared satire along the lines of Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, which for all its shambling aimlessness, was at least fun in a train-wreck kind of way). It’s amusing to pull back from the people and watch the bigger picture snap into place – like how a model coordinator (played amusingly by Chitrashi Rawat) is the lowest rung in the food chain, and an aspiring model has to then clamber up through photographers and agencies and designers. But even in these portions, it’s clear Bhandarkar isn’t as interested in the mechanics of modelling as he is in the unfolding of his morality play. (Act One: Ascent; Act Two: Fall; Interminable Act Three: Redemption.) Meghna’s first earnings are from an evening at a party, where she thought she’d stumble into valuable contacts, but realises later that the reason she’s there is simply to provide eye candy. Do we get to hear the whoop of joy of making some sweet money, especially considering she’s a single girl slugging it out in an expensive city? Of course not. Bhandarkar makes her lower her eyes, as if she’s shamed herself by making money this way. You have to admire, at some level, the brazenness of the man – he admits that the fashion world cannot be broken into without some amount of compromise, and then he judges you for making that compromise. He bangs the gavel. The case is closed.
HAD I DONE A ROGER EBERT AND WALKED OUT of Golmaal Returns after the first few minutes – in other words, had I experienced my own version of “Minutegate,” wherein the famous critic fled from a screening of Tru Loved after just eight minutes and went on to drub it in his review – I’d have consigned it to the category of trash. The early portions of Rohit Shetty’s sequel to his comedy hit are simply dreadful. Kareena Kapoor and Ajay Devgan (two actors who, to put it mildly, are not exactly gifted with comic chops) execute a tired variant of the routine where a TV-soap obsessed wife suspects her man of infidelity, and Sharad Saxena makes things positively painful with his unfunny malapropisms. But once the supporting cast kicks in (Shreyas Talpade, Tusshar Kapoor, and, especially Ashwini Kalsekar, doing a spirited takeoff on Rani Mukerji in Saawariya), the laughs begin to trickle in fairly consistently. The good thing about Shetty is that he’s a firm believer in the high-gag-ratio school of comedy, which ensures that even if two jokes fall flat, a third comes along to keep you amused. However, if – as we’re threatened towards the end – there is to be a third installment, would it be too much to ask that there’s more to it than just a random assortment of kick-in-the-crotch gags and movie in-jokes?
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