CRIMES OF THE HEART
An entertaining screwball-noir is also in the running for the year’s unlikeliest love story.
FEB 6, 2011 – A GRE-EQUIVALENT for film school might arrive with a speculative question along these lines: What will result if an Amitabh Bachchan melodrama from the 1970s were filtered through a postmodern prism? Sudhir Mishra attempts an answer, in Yeh Saali Zindagi, by taking the classic tropes of the era, of that kind of cinema – the stoic shouldering of unrequited love; the last gasps of bloodied breath in the arms of a beloved; the climactic avenging of a father’s murder; the falling-in-love flashback; the kinda-sorta love triangle; there’s even a cop mouthing the opening lines to Yaari hai imaan – and retrofitting them into the by-now-familiar sub-genre that the academic-minded cinephile would label screwball-noir (aka colourful criminal-types doing quirky things while swearing like red-blooded sailors who’ve pulled up ashore, after a year, only to find the ladies at the local bawdyhouse laid up with the clap).
At first, we feel Mishra is trying too hard. Like a man of a certain age turning cartwheels in front of a playground filled with schoolchildren, he appears to be making a particular type of film just so he’ll be inducted into the cool group of new kids on the block. It isn’t just the strained humour, like Mehta (Saurabh Shukla) squashing the framed photograph of a mocking woman with the help of his amply upholstered bottom. It’s also the bewildering procession of captioned introductions – to people, to places – with no apparent end in sight. We’re well into the first half by the time a voiceover informs us, “Kahaani yahaan se shuru hui,” that that’s the story’s beginning. Till then, the audience has been left dangling like Arun (Irrfan Khan, using his deer-in-headlights remoteness to excellent effect), who, at the beginning, is literally suspended by a rope from a high rise. (Only, we didn’t realise then that this was a sign.)
Then, slowly, from these jagged bits and pieces of (expectedly) non-linear information, the semblance of a storyline begins to take shape. In order to negotiate the release of a prisoner from Tihar jail, Kuldeep (Arunoday Singh) kidnaps a big-shot who happens to be engaged to a minister’s daughter even as he continues his dalliance with Priti (Chitrangada Singh), who happens to be the one that Arun falls for (as well as the mocking woman in that framed photograph), and Kuldeep meanwhile is doing his darnedest to get back together with his perpetually angry wife (named, funnily enough, Shanti, and played by Aditi Rao Hydari). With this fractured and tightly interlocked syntax, the film takes a while to grow on you (or at least for you to settle into its loopy rhythms), but it comes together nicely by the end, and feels even nicer afterwards as you think back, unhurriedly, on individual moments and individual performances.
Mishra tells his tale in long segments that follow the trajectory of a single character, as the others wait in the wings for their cue, and this narrative gambit pays off handsomely – instead of following the story of one person and branching into the stories of those around him, the traditional way, Yeh Saali Zindagi turns out to be the story of everyone, all at once. There’s no hero at the centre, and it’s not just because there’s an abundance of cartoony villains. And once the story takes hold, the outré setups begin to yield equally loony payoffs – especially if you’re the kind of viewer who’ll delight in a gangster (Prashant Narayanan) from Tbilisi, Georgia, landing up back in India with falsies down his front. (Here’s another question for that GRE-equivalent: What would you get if classic noir collided with a Tom and Jerry episode? Answer: The twisty, poke-in-the-ribs, modern-day crime thriller.)
But an equal number of moments coast along the fatalistic and the existential (this is, after all, some sort of noir, pivoted on a man at the verge of losing his money, his girl, his life, all within the course of a day) – like the fact that no one seems to use home telephone numbers (it’s almost always a work number), or that Kuldeep’s son is as innately prone to violence as his father, or that everything (including the final resting place of a discharged bullet) is the result of random chance, or, best of all, that people will do anything if the price is right, even kill a close relation while the eye wells up with woe. These stray notes bring out the best in a slew of actors (Yashpal Sharma, Sushant Singh, Vipin Sharma) we don’t see much of on screen, actors so powerfully distinctive that they possibly scare off more mainstream filmmakers who think in cardboard-stereotype terms. (And even if these actors were cast in those roles, they’d probably end up neutered. Imagine Yashpal Sharma as an unassuming older brother, or Prashant Narayanan as the villain’s hopped-up sidekick.)
Most surprising of all is the sweetness of tone as the film begins to find its feet. In pure noir, Priti would have exploited Arun’s feelings for her. She needs money – lots of it – to retrieve the worthless man she’s in love with (or at least thinks she’s in love with) from his kidnappers, and what better solution to this problem than fluttering her eyelashes in the direction of the love-stricken Arun, who’s not exactly the brightest of bulbs. That is, after all, the opening instruction in the femme fatale handbook. But Mishra is after something else, something even more fatal, and it’s only later that we see why he needs that early line about love and bullets being equally capable of rending the heart. At heart – and cusswords apart – Yeh Saali Zindagi is simply a most unlikely love story. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl— label that what you will.
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