WOMAN IN DREAD
A quietly effective domestic-abuse drama that really should have been much better. Plus, a barely watchable sci-fi thriller.
MAR 29, 2009 – AFTER FIRE, EARTH AND WATER, Deepa Mehta continues to scan the cosmos for inspiration. Not only is her latest film titled Videsh: Heaven on Earth, even her heroine (an effectively muted Preity Zinta) is named Chand, which is only appropriate if you consider she’s little more than a lifeless satellite orbiting tirelessly around the needs of her tightly packed joint family in Canada. (Rocky, the husband who ushered her into this diasporic Piya Ka Ghar scenario, is played by Vansh Bhardwaj.) When we first set eyes on Chand, she’s in a perpetual smile, that dimple practically cleaving her cheek in two, as she claps along to lusty rhymes at her sangeet ceremony. Mehta holds this scene for a long time, as if impressing on us what Chand looks like when she’s happy, because soon after her move away from home, her life will turn into an unending litany of sorrow.
The warning signs begin to flash almost as soon as Chand enters her new home. Rocky rises to fetch some beer, when his mother instructs Chand to carry out the task, as if the mere walk to the refrigerator would emasculate her son. The umbilical cord remains a tight noose around Rocky’s neck (not that he’s complaining; he assures his mother, after marriage, that his parents still come first), even during his honeymoon. Not one for romantic niceties, he orders Chand to remove her clothes, but if she’s disappointed, she still tries to get to know her husband by enquiring about his hobbies – and then, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Rocky’s mother, who says she feared her son had been in an accident, though it’s amply clear that her real fear is of losing her son to a woman who can satisfy needs that she never can.
At first, Chand keeps a brave face. But when she marvels at snowfall, a relative complains about the slushy nuisance, and when she requests that they take a picture at the Niagara, Rocky scoffs that they’re not tourists – and this relentless negativity begins to chip away at her optimism. Things become worse when she discovers that her earnings from her hourly-wage job (with her BA, she thought she was destined for something better) are being routed to her husband, who is so stressed with the business of making a living, he has no time for the business of making a marriage work. Besides, he has serious anger management issues, beating up his wife as if she were solely responsible for his problems. (Rocky’s mother, expectedly, offers platitudes that Chand shouldn’t take this physical abuse to heart, because it’s a part of every household.)
Chand doesn’t even possess the resources to make a call to her mother back home, and it’s not surprising that, in a weak moment, she scribbles her name and address (in India) on a washroom wall in a gas station, as if willing herself to remember an identity that’s gradually being eroded by her strange new life. At this point, Videsh seems predictably poised to take off into the realm of self-empowerment drama. You recall Chand’s mother advising her to use her strength (“Apni taaqat zaroor istemal karna”), and she also becomes aware about dialling 911 in case of emergencies – and given Mehta’s predilection for posting placards through her screenplays, you expect her hitherto tranquil film to evolve into a fiery feminist manifesto.
But Videsh, unexpectedly, turns even quieter. There are no cops in the picture, no helpful divorced women who know a thing or two about domestic violence and are therefore able to rouse Chand into action against her predicament. Chand retreats into a private inner world by telling stories to herself – little snatches of dreams, really, wishful thoughts about a flying chariot that can whisk her back to her mother – in order to escape the sordidness of her surroundings. And soon, this imaginary space takes over her life in a very strange and surreal manner, to an extent that she, and we, are no longer sure where truth ends and where fiction begins. This is hardly the you-go-girl empowerment saga we were led to expect, but instead, a story about how help can come, sometimes, from the most unexpected quarters, even without our realising it, if we want it badly enough.
I wish Videsh worked as well as it sounds. Mehta struggles with the kind of folksy conceits that Amol Palekar pulled off so effortlessly in Paheli. Could it be that magical-realist feminist sagas work better in colourful never-never-lands that are themselves sprung from a magical-realist imagination? Does the coldly recognisable reality of a modern-day Canada deter us from wholeheartedly embracing the increasing surrealism of Chand’s situation? Or is it just that the oppressively funereal pacing saps the story of the kind of vitality that would set off its more fanciful elements? For all this, however, Mehta reclaims some bit of lost ground as a filmmaker. (I found Water unbearable.) Videsh has a delicacy of touch that transcends the formulaic material about patriarchal oppression, and if this is a pointer to a future style, it’s certainly one less reason to dread Wind or Ether or whatever Mehta names her next feature.
IN WHAT MAY BE A COMPLETELY UNINTENTIONAL CRITIQUE of the ruthlessly capitalistic climate of our times, Ray (Neil Nitin Mukesh) becomes the beneficiary of a contraption that can gaze into the future, and instead of attempting to discover if he’s going to hit it off with the hot girl opposite his house (Simi, played by Bipasha Basu), he sets his sights, at first, on making some serious money. Romance, in Jehangir Surti’s Aa Dekhen Zara, is a distant afterthought. There’s neither hesitant wooing nor aggressive canoodling, and there’s certainly no hand-wringing over whether or not Ray’s amorous attentions will be reciprocated. Simi ends up by his side regardless – first when he’s penniless, and later, when he’s happily ensconced in the biggest bungalow money can buy, with a Mercedes purring in the garage.
But if Aa Dekhen Zara isn’t interested in plotting empathetic character graphs, it’s probably for the better – because the only aspect that renders this thriller halfway watchable is its breathless pace, accelerated by a score on steroids. Stopping to smell the red roses that Ray might have thrust in Simi’s hands would have only made us aware of the utter ridiculousness of it all. Even as it plays out – with Ray on the run with the device, pursued by a villain (Rahul Dev) who, naturally, wants to ensure happier tomorrows for himself – there’s a fair amount of eye-rolling, especially when, towards the climax, the film stops cold for a song-and-dance in a Thai nightspot. With better handling, we could have had a genuinely suspenseful sci-fi thriller that posited fascinating questions about playing God and meddling with destiny, but at least, the B-grade Bond adventure vibe keeps you from nodding off.
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