Just what, exactly, is this oddly bloodless film – a Bhansali movie for those who don’t like Bhansali movies?
NOV 21, 2010 – IF THE MOVIES HAVE TAUGHT US ANYTHING, , it’s that normal, unremarkable people may suffer, but it’s the artists who really suffer. The plight of a maidservant or a mousy accountant or a bus driver denied the use of their limbs would, in theory, make for as moving a motion picture as any, but the pain-racked stories up there on screen are almost always about sculptors (Whose Life Is It Anyway) and tormented painters (My Left Foot) and closet poets (The Sea Inside) and chroniclers of high fashion (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). The implication, clearly, is that it’s bad enough when an accident or a congenital condition impairs the motor functions that enable us to eat and move about and clean up after ourselves – in short, the things that make up living – but the agony is amplified when we lose the capacity to manufacture art and beauty, the things that make life worth living for.
Ethan Mascarenhas (Hrithik Roshan) is the latest manifestation of this romantic movie-notion, that the greatest tragedy is to be deprived the ability to infuse magic into the mundane. Ethan is literally a magician – a nimble performance artist who, before his accident, used to elicit gasps of awe by sliding up and down shafts of light and who now cannot even scratch his nose. He’s a quadriplegic, and he’s confined to a handsome house that, like him, is falling apart. The walls of Ethan’s room are mounted with photographs from his earlier life, but pay special attention to the mirrors that hang between these photographs, reflecting his near-immobile form within their frames, his weakened present constantly being mocked by his virile past. This is the reason Ethan wants to die, and we learn the reason behind the character’s name – he seeks euthanasia, which he airily dubs Ethanasia. He petitions the courts through his lawyer-friend Devyani (a superb Shernaz Patel), and he awaits deliverance. This is the ostensible story of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Guzaarish.
Fans of the filmmaker, however, may latch on to a more fascinating narrative, which hinges on the question: After the merciless drubbing bestowed on Saawariya, has this director tamped down his ornery eccentricities? Has he forsaken the self-sustaining interiors of his mind and stepped into the outside world, into sunlight, into a more recognisable (and therefore, more digestible) version of life? Has he, in other words, transformed from auteur to audience pleaser, making a Bhansali movie for those who don’t normally care for Bhansali movies? The surfaces of Guzaarish are certainly familiar – it’s the insides that feel hollow, as if the construction were all art-directed façade and little else. (That, of course, is what his detractors say about all his films. In my opinion, Khamoshi: The Musical and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam were the tentative outpourings of a novice. Bhansali found his take-it-or-leave-it voice with Devdas, and Saawariya is his most characteristic, most representative work – there’s a lot more going on in it than just art direction.)
The crucifix symbolism (here in the form of Ethan’s earring), the billowing tapestries drawn apart to flood cavernous rooms with copious light, the murals with religious art, the theatrical production design (here literally underlined by the proscenium arch under which Ethan performs, emblazoned with the letter M – for Magic? Merlin? Mascarenhas?), the high relief sculptures of frozen-mask visages, the distant tolling of church bells, the God’s-eye-view camera angles, the employment of songs popularised by Nat King Cole (the film opens with an expressive rendition of Smile, written by Charlie Chaplin for Modern Times; later, What a Wonderful World makes an appearance) – they’re all there, along with the women. Ethan is the quintessential Bhansali protagonist, nourished by feminine fortitude. His servants are Rosie and Maria, and he was raised in the absence of a father by a single mother. (What does this say about a director who has assimilated his mother’s name into his own, and who dedicates every film to his father?)
The quasi-lovers (like Paro and Chandramukhi of Devdas) and the caregivers (like Lillipop and Gulabji of Saawariya) of this story are Devyani and Sofia (a devastatingly beautiful Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, styled like the heroine of a Gabriel García Márquez novel and used very effectively). Among the film’s funniest scenes are those depicting the tight-lipped tug-of-war between these two women over Ethan, who appears to be the only significant man in their lives. When, in her customary fashion, Devyani plops down on Ethan’s bed, beside him, Sofia looks up from her embroidery and asks, a little too sweetly, “Can I get you a chair?” Soon after, in what is possibly the most civilised exchange of heated words in the history of the movies, they argue over the kitchen table about Ethan’s euthanasia. Between bites of bread and sips of drink, Devyani boasts about knowing Ethan from his “glory days,” well aware that for the past 12 years, it’s Sofia who’s been by his bedside. Had they been men, the scene might have ended with blood on the floor.
The brazen brandishing of inspirations, again, is pure (and problematic) Bhansali. Like the acknowledgement in Black, over the opening credits, to Helen Keller, he makes little effort to conceal the debts that Guzaarish owes to Whose Life Is It Anyway. “Aakhir yeh zindagi hai kiski?” Ethan’s mother demands, in a startlingly literal translation of the earlier film’s title, and there is also the compliant girlfriend (the stunning Moni Kangana Dutta, who’s terrific in her one big scene) who leaves Ethan after the accident and shapes a life of her own, and later supports his decision to end his life. Ethan’s spine-snapping accident is a replay of the spine-snapping accident from The Sea Inside (and like Alejandro Amenábar, Bhansali does double duty as composer), and the throwaway shot of a fly on the face from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is exaggerated into an affirmation of Ethan’s equanimity. Even the placement of Guzaarish in the director’s oeuvre seems to follow an established Bhansali pattern – a twisted love story (Devdas) followed by a drama about disability (Black) followed by a twisted love story (Saawariya) followed by this drama about disability.
And yet, Guzaarish isn’t quite a Bhansali movie – and not just because there are no fountains. The director appears to be tiptoeing around the intoxicating, hyper-expressionistic style that characterised his films from Devdas onwards, unwilling to quit cold turkey, yet afraid of being labeled the town drunk. The performances are mostly in a realistic vein – far removed from the studied conflation of mime and performance art that characterised, say, Ranbir Kapoor’s performance in Saawariya. Except for Sofia’s breathless appeal in front of a judge, in court, the dialogues are driven by a sure and steady rhythm, like how people speak in real life and not like how people speak in Bhansali’s films, where the dialogues border on the lyrical and where the lyrics verge on the spoken. And the obsessions are noticeably absent. We are used to Bhansali’s films being airless, but this is a film that’s bloodless. It’s like sitting in front of a portrait of a storm-tossed sea inside a museum, as opposed to standing at the shore and watching lightning fork over roiling waves to the accompaniment of thunder.
The opportunities for melodrama are endless, but Bhansali’s priorities are different this time. He’s retained the surfaces, but he’s remodeled the interiors. Where you think this would be the thorny love story between two damaged souls – Ethan scarred on the outside; Sofia inside – this is a more understated relationship. They bicker like an old married couple and, in an amusing moment, they simulate sexual sounds, but by the time their love story actually begins, the film ends. If you’ve listened to the excellent soundtrack album, you’ll be left wondering which situation Keh na sakoon was written for. When, during the course of the film, do we witness such an abundance of emotion that it cannot be expressed in words? Or is this a case of songs filling the gaps in the story? Imagine looking at Sofia every day – her face, her eyes, her hair, her hint of cleavage reminding Ethan of what he can never have again. That is where you think Bhansali will head – instead, he sanctifies their relationship so that the physical is dispensed with at an entirely playful plane.
If the love story is leached of passions, the euthanasia angle doesn’t carry much dramatic heft either. There are several characters – the apprentice magician Omar (Aditya Roy Kapur), Ethan’s mother, Sofia’s husband, the villain responsible for Ethan’s plight who has an inexplicable change of heart – who add very little to the film’s emotional dimensions, and neither are they particularly relevant to the plot’s progress. When Omar approaches Ethan and expresses a desire to learn the craft, Ethan asks him what he’d do if forced to choose between the personal and the professional, between love and magic. But this seemingly loaded question doesn’t colour any other relationship in the film, and these extraneous characters come off as padding – especially by the interminable finale, a farewell stretch as wearisome as the one in Kal Ho Naa Ho, where Shah Rukh Khan seemed to age a few years by the time he was done bidding goodbye to all the people in his life.
Why, we wonder, wasn’t the time spent on these peripheral characters used to detail, say, the trajectory of how Devyani evolves from someone shocked by Ethan’s request to a tireless crusader for his cause? That would actually have some bearing on the story Bhansali set out to tell, for as difficult as it is to move a monolithic system into acting in the interest of an individual, it’s tougher to convince the people who love you that you want to leave them forever. It’s not that these aspects aren’t hinted at – but they remain just that, vague hints, when they could have detonated with dramatic charge. The signature Bhansali moments are few and far between – the lyrical opening stretch that introduces us to Ethan and Sofia, the impulsiveness of Ethan’s first magic trick, Ethan’s rendition of a song at a funeral while wearing pink sunglasses, a magic trick involving the flame rising from a candle like the spirit departing from a body, and especially, Ethan’s battle with raindrops. Still the consummate magician, he summons a downpour on an unexpectedly dry day, but with grim consequences – a leaky roof makes his life hell. And just as Ranbir Kapoor, in Saawariya, donned imaginary gloves and climbed into an imaginary ring to box against an imaginary opponent named unhappiness, an immobile Ethan struggles to overcome the drops of rain battering his face, a prospect made all the more pitiful because of the exaggerated sound effects that make you imagine a fusillade of ping pong balls being rallied across a rec-room table.
This, to my mind, is the truest Bhansali comes to being his willful, eccentric self in Guzaarish – elsewhere, it’s like watching Verdi oversee a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and this incongruity is exacerbated by this director’s uneasy relationship with reality. Every time we move out of the hermetic ecosystem of Ethan’s mansion and into the real world – a radio-listener montage (Ethan hosts “the most joyful show in the whole world,” named Radio Zindagi), or the cheap sessions of courtroom theatrics where, instead of Bhansali’s customary framing of characters in relation to props and to each other, we keep cutting between an exhausting series of head shots and reaction shots – the film droops into dullness. The last scene, the last image actually, is over-the-top ludicrous – but perhaps it’s because the film can never decide on which side of the good-taste divide it wants to fully settle into. Had Bhansali given himself full rein, that image might have made sense, if only emotional sense, and if only to a handful of people.
Hrithik Roshan, however, does his darnedest to keep us watching. This is not a stretch by any means, but just as Shah Rukh Khan’s nervous energy found a perfect outlet in the autistic character from My Name is Khan, Roshan’s vein-popping histrionics fit flawlessly on a character whose only vehicle for expression is his face. The casting works beautifully because of how he moves (the then-versus-now contrast is highlighted and double-underlined by his preternaturally fluid grace) and how he looks – even his double-thumb comes off like a magic effect. With his face framed by unruly tresses, he looks, at times, like a rock-star Jesus, never more so than when propped up against a support, crestfallen, as the judge reads out his verdict. Had Ethan’s arms been outstretched, this might have been a replay of Pontius Pilate issuing a sentence to a man on a crucifix. Of such indelible images are passion plays made.
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