MY BLOODY VALENTINE
A delectably mounted, dramatically inert black comedy has lots of atmosphere and little else.
FEB 20, 2011 – IF YOU WERE BORN BEFORE the information age and if you grew up addicted to those quaint clusters of printed paper called books, you are already familiar with the process of adaptation – the sentences on page transformed into words and visuals in the head, and you had your own little movie up and running. The process of making an actual movie, however, is a little different, and it involves the quest for the “cinematic.” Even cookbooks and self-help guides can make us form pictures in the head, but who, really, wants to see movies of cookbooks and self-help guides? And thus we define the cinematic book, one that is inherently capable of making the transition to cinema – and all good books, all good stories, aren’t necessarily candidates for good cinema. Ruskin Bond’s Susanna’s Seven Husbands, I suspect, is one such book – short story, rather – and this suspicion arises from Vishal Bhardwaj’s delectably mounted but dramatically inert 7 Khoon Maaf, a coal-black comedy about Susanna’s (Priyanka Chopra) search for the perfect husband.
The film plays like the life of Elizabeth Taylor crossed with The Picture of Dorian Gray – Susanna moves from one husband to another, murdering the previous before marrying the next, and each of her sins, each man, seems to leave a mark on her. As her journey progresses, as time passes – marked by the evocation of events from recent Indian history, like the demolition of Babri Masjid, or the successful nuclear tests – she deteriorates both physically and mentally, with shrivelling skin and a screwed-up mind. The victims of love include a one-legged army man who possesses, we’re told, all the qualities of the typical Indian husband (he’s boring, insecure, suspicious and flatulent, and he’s played by Neil Nitin Mukesh), a rock star with a penchant for wigs and lingerie (John Abraham), a soulful poet with a sadomasochistic streak (Irrfan Khan), a Russian who’s possibly a double agent (Aleksandr Dyachenko), an alternative medicine man who knows his mushrooms a little too well (Naseeruddin Shah), a mousy cop who, with Viagra, begins to roar (Annu Kapoor), and finally, a mystery man who’s hinted at throughout the film by the tolling of church bells.
You couldn’t get more colourful characters if the script had fallen into a kindergarten class having its first tryst with oils, and 7 Khoon Maaf – at its best – feels like a rambling anecdote with a killer punch line. At its worst, though, it’s a lumpily episodic indulgence, with the actors and the director straining to divert our attention from the reality that it’s just the same thing happening over and over and over. The opening is certainly dramatic (and like the rest of the film, beautifully staged) – a tear-stained cheek, a shaking hand with a loaded gun, a shot, and a wall spattered with dripping blood, like a Jackson Pollock canvas in its early stages. But once the first husband dies, and the second one follows, and then the third, and we’re left, at interval point, with the reminder that there are four more to go, the heart sinks. Is that all there is, we wonder – atmosphere passed off as action?
Those who have read Susanna’s Seven Husbands may be in a better position to judge why such a thrilling premise has resulted in such tiring cinema, but I’d wager that this is simply not a cinematic book. Just as an anecdote loses its flavour when you try to explain it, so a short story can be leached of life when padded out to feature length. Maybe there just isn’t any way to capture, cinematically, the tone of a tale that’s so bizarre it can unfold convincingly only inside our heads, where the visuals are only half-formed and therefore capable of accommodating any kind of narrative perverseness, and instead, when presented with the vulgarity of fully-formed visuals, maybe all we’re left with is congealed whimsy. The set pieces include a shirtless fight with whips, a massage ministered to someone whose head rests on a dead leopard’s, and death by earth-shattering orgasm. Did I mention snakes being fed milk and venerated as naag devta by a practicing Christian? Is there any way to make a movie of this material?
When the text isn’t compelling, we begin to scan the margins for scribbled notes – and the Vishal Bhardwaj flourishes keep us watching. We observe the references to literature – not only in the winking display of Anatole France’s The Seven Wives of Bluebeard, but also in the Russian spouse’s name being an amalgam of the names of two different characters from Anna Karenina. We smile at the rhapsodic tendencies of the young narrator (Vivaan Shah, Naseeruddin’s son) who’s as much in thrall to Susanna as the other men, much older. (Seeing her move in a black dress, he recalls snow falling quietly on the mountains.) We laugh at the wicked touches – the silken segues from marriage to death (in one instance, after the “till death do us part” vows are declared), the unexpected cut on television from a rock show to a programme about bovines (something familiar to everyone who grew up with black-and-white-era Doordarshan), the teasing wordplay (a man who returns to Susanna a “keemti cheez” turns out to bear the name Keemat), and of course, the spectacular marriage of music and meaning in the songs. (The rambunctious Darling may be the number topping the charts, but the film’s heart resides in Yeshu, whose swelling refrain we first hear when the title appears in the opening credits.)
But these diversions do little to mask the question voiced by the narrator: Why does Susanna kill these men? Why doesn’t she simply leave them? By way of a reply, we are presented the anecdote of a man accosted by a rabid dog on the road, and instead of taking another road, he proceeds to blow the canine’s brains out and carry on. He’s, thus, not only making the road safe for him but for future travellers. Perhaps Susanna is doing something similar. Stuck with rotten men, she’s perhaps making the world safer for other women who might end up similarly starved of love if she allowed these men to survive – she is, therefore, something of a feminist heroine. And that’s a terrific conceit for a black comedy – a woman scorned dispatching, with fury, her men to hell. But Susanna is also troublingly sentimentalised as someone to whom love is a mirage, someone we’re meant to sympathise with. As much as a mystery as she is, the bigger mystery is whether we’re supposed to laugh with her or cry for her.
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