In the emphatically titled Not A Love Story, Ram Gopal Varma proves once again that the eponymous emotion, in his eyes, doesn’t play out in the mountains of Switzerland but the abysses of the soul. In this, he is a kindred spirit of the more romantic-minded (though equally eccentric) Sanjay Leela Bhansali, another filmmaker who forswears sunshine and lightness and gropes in the dark to grapple with love. They are the anti-Johars, the anti-Chopras. You don’t go to their films – and considering their recent box-office track record, you clearly don’t – for an affirmation of love, the most natural feeling on earth, but to denounce it as unnatural, as something that will warp your being and scorch your sanity. Where the Johars and the Chopras celebrate love as a link common to all humanity, Bhansali and Varma isolate it to the realm of idiosyncratic individuals with whom we have little in common and whose fates we dread. When Varma calls his film Not A Love Story, he really means Not Your Usual Love Story.
And it’s not your usual beginning. Where another filmmaker – a more conventional storyteller interested in throwing his audience an emotional hook that they’ll bite, so that he can reel them in later – might stage a moving scene of separation between Anusha (Mahie Gill) and Robin (Deepak Dobriyal), Varma keeps cutting between the couple and what appears to be the train she subsequently takes to follow her dreams of becoming a star. Varma seems least interested in their last moments together – he’s already jumping ahead, and with the sounds of the train overwhelming their lines we get mere fragments of a farewell scene. Anusha takes her cues from Varma – her ambition has already come in the way of their love; in her mind, she’s already barrelling ahead to Mumbai. And once there, she begins her rounds of auditions, in clothes that Robin might not approve of, and she begins to cut off his phone calls when she sees incoming calls from people who can make her dream a reality. She’s not selfish exactly – just a girl on a mission.
Robin, on the other hand, is a man in love, seriously in love – and it isn’t till later that we realise how much he loves Anusha. At first, he comes off a typical Indian chauvinist, with his incessant calls to her and his irritation when he hears the voices of strange men at the other end. But midway through the movie – after he ends up killing a man (Ashish, played by Ajay Gehi) she’s slept with, someone who said he’d make her the heroine of his film – Robin turns into one of Varma’s most touchingly (and daftly) romantic heroes. Strange as it sounds, he is not angry with Anusha at all. His rage is directed at Ashish, and after the murder, after he decides to dismember the corpse with a butcher’s knife, he turns up the volume on the television set in order to shield Anusha’s ears from the noises outside, and later, he shields her eyes from the results of his efforts by leading her gently out of the apartment, holding her face in his hands and tilting it towards the ceiling. At that moment, you know how much he loves her and you never want to love someone this much. This is love as a malignant disease that has no cure; Bhansali must be having sleepless nights that he didn’t think of getting to this story first.
Ashish kisses Anusha like a man, an ordinary man who simply wants to sleep with her, but Robin kisses her like a vampire, as if he wants to suck out her soul. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a cool and clinical depiction of a man so madly in love – he’s the antithesis of Bhansali’s baroque lovers, and Dobriyal plays him beautifully, walking the knife’s edge between fevered emotion and calm-headed practicality. On the surface, he’s just a two-bit chump bristling at being dumped by his girl for a career, but you see what he’s been going through all along when he asks the cops – after he’s been arrested – what they would have done in his place. He’s made the right noises about being supportive. He’s sent her an expensive dress. When she told him she’s landed the heroine’s role in a film, he’s said that he’s happier than she is. What more can a man do? Dobriyal makes you feel that killing Ashish was his release for a frustration that had been building up right from the time Anusha said she was going away.
Robin should have been the centre of the film, and had Varma realised this vision in its entirety, Not A Love Story could have been not just his greatest ode to love but one of Hindi cinema’s – it’s loony rapture leavened with grim humour, like the couple carrying plastic bags containing body parts to their car as if they were strolling out of a supermarket with groceries. But the director has other ideas. He spends a lot of time detailing Anusha’s struggles, which we’ve already seen either from him (Rangeela) or from his Factory (Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon), and for the most part, Not A Love Story plays like the dark side of Rangeela. Varma uses the title song of his big hit repeatedly and he uses the line Itne chehron mein apne chehre ki pehchaan to illustrate the curdling of Anusha’s dream. When we first hear the line, she’s dancing around in her new apartment, excited at the prospect of being a face that stands out amidst a sea of faces, and when we hear these lines towards the end, as a dirge, we realise she has got what she wanted but not in the way she wanted it – everyone knows her face now, not because she’s famous but because she’s notorious.
Gill, with her large eyes and a big gash of a mouth, is unafraid to make herself grotesque in her grief. It’s a brave performance – but Varma comes close to making a parody of her (and his film) by reducing Anusha to a literal object. So yes, she’s leered at by the men in her building and by the directors she’s attempting to wangle a lead role from, and Varma will probably make the case that he’s only accentuating this leering through his camera, which traverses his heroine’s contours in the fashion of a fervent devotee circumnavigating his idol. We’re not sure what it means when a shot that observes Anusha in a far corner has the camera positioned behind a brassiere hanging off a line. We appreciate Varma for not hiding behind wet saris and cheap innuendo, for making his libidinous intents explicit by literally diving into his heroine’s cleavage like the men around her and like the many men who will (in their fantasies) after she becomes the star she so desperately wants to be. But this technique belongs in a story about a girl who’s trying to carve out a career and falls into ruin, not this tale of a thwarted love which is actually three kinds of procedural.
Not a Love Story is first a procedural from the killers’ point of view (how they do it; what they do later, step by excruciating step), then a procedural from the point of view of the police (how they solve the crime, step by excruciating step), and finally a procedural about love itself, despite the protestations of the title. How does a couple go from being in love to being in cahoots to being at opposing corners of a courtroom, with their lawyers and the police trying to break them up the way the heartless parents of classical lovers did? (This is probably the closest Varma is going to get to a Heer-Ranjha story.) That trajectory isn’t apparent till almost the end, and when it reveals itself, it’s chilling, and for a film that’s so leery about getting close to any kind of emotion (even the tragic story narrated by Ashish is mercilessly truncated), these final portions are curiously poignant. We watch with deepening dismay the attenuation of a love that has been to hell and back.
Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.