“Heroine”… Lights, camera, sensation

Posted on September 18, 2012


Angad (Randeep Hooda), the Indian cricket team’s vice captain, goes up to the star Mahi (Kareena Kapoor) at what she later calls a boring party, and demonstrates his familiarity with the trivia of her life – he knows everything from her favourite drink to her favourite holiday destination. When he sees she’s startled, he laughs and explains that he’s not a stalker, just someone who likes to read film magazines – and a lot of us may see ourselves in him. We may not be the paparazzi, stalking film stars literally, but each time we tune in to a TV show with stars or pick up a tabloid with the latest gossip, we stalk them in our own way. The way we see it, we give them attention and adoration and our hard-earned money, and in return we expect to be part of their lives in a vicarious fashion. They belong to us in a crazy fashion, incarnated in everything from the posters on hostel-room walls to images in masturbatory fantasies.

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 Most stars make their peace with this creepy aspect of celebrity. It’s a necessary evil – and maybe in some cases, it’s why they wanted to be stars in the first place. It’s a life beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and every time you complain that you can’t step out in torn jeans and a scrunched-up T-shirt, the way you lounge about at home, because the paparazzi are always outside waiting to capture your every unguarded moment, you remember the crores in your bank balance, the red carpet that’s eternally rolled out in front of you, and how you’re treated like royalty. I was reminded of the Koffee with Karan episode with Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, where she sulked because he’d forgotten that her favourite holiday destination was Gstaad. Those are the happy side-effects of celebrity, that you go to Gstaad so often that it becomes your favourite place to unwind (as opposed to the rest of us, who’d consider ourselves lucky if we went there once). But you’d never guess any of this from Heroine, which is Madhur Bhandarkar’s latest thesis mounted on the points that fame is a terrible thing that slowly eats up your soul, journalists are unprincipled scum, privileged people smoke non-stop and drink non-stop and have casual sex non-stop, city people are generally evil, and gay men have the limpest wrists

Acknowledging the positive dimensions of fame would leave Bhandarkar with nothing to expend his moral outrage on. (And I have to wonder if that well isn’t running dry. After all these films, all these fulminations against the seedier side-streets of our society, how much more moral outrage can one man still possibly have?) And so we have the saga of poor Mahi, who, early on, struts about in gold and silver costumes in front of a giant illuminated sign that spells out the film’s title. The way the song is shot and the music in the background suggest the brassy numbers that open a 007 movie – and Mahi is her own Bond girl, surrounded by a heaving mass of men. Life, unfortunately, gives her the gold finger. After her stock plummets, a film journalist, appearing and disappearing on whim, begins to narrate Mahi’s sad story, calling her a bunch of unflattering things (“moody,” “impulsive”) and then admitting that journalists like easy labelling. (Bhandarkar, of course, is so filled with nobility of purpose, rolling up his sleeves and showing us the maggots crawling underneath his beautiful corpses, that he completely misses the irony about what a compulsive labeller he is.)

We’re told that stars will perform in award shows only of they are given awards, that former editors of film magazines are busy writing starry bios, that film journalists feature stars on the cover if they’re bought off with laptops and holidays for the family, that everyone’s a fraud in the glamour industry (and Bhandarkar being Bhandarkar, this is not shown to us but spelt out explicitly, when an onlooker at a filmy party says cattily, “Is glamour industry mein kaun fraud nahin hai!”), that character artists are treated badly, that film stars lie about their age and film themselves having sex, that heroes can cut down a heroine’s role if sexual favours are not rendered… The list is endless, but these are anyone’s problems. Aren’t there other professions where these unfairnesses exist? Are clerks treated like CEOs? Don’t business journalists write books about businessmen? Don’t people go about getting promoted by sleeping with higher-ups? When someone comments, “Confidence ke saath bolo to film industry jhooth ko bhi sach maan leti hai,” you want to ask her if she’s ever heard of courtrooms and lawyers.

How to make these general issues specific to the film industry? You cannot do that, as Bhandarkar does, with a series of long shots – because from a distance, the upheavals in all our lives look more or less the same. We laugh, we cry, we love, we lose, we rise, we fall, we do good, we do bad. This is what human existence is – and you cannot be outraged about everyone on the planet. What we need are close-ups, particularities about these people, like the insane starry-eyed drive in Antara Mali in Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, which was more believable as an expose because it showed us the film industry from the other side, through the eyes of someone who will never become a Kareena Kapoor. Or, as with Hema Malini in Abhinetri, we should see what it’s like to throw everything up for love, only to find that you are always going to be slave to that urge to perform. Instead, we’re force-fed songs that tell us it’s all maya.

There are glimpses of these close-ups in a scene between Mahi and her mother (Lillete Dubey), where Mahi asks her mother why she’s prying into her life when she doesn’t ask her mother about her relationships, and her mother says exasperatedly, “Kyonki tum meri maa nahin ho.” This moment doesn’t tell us anything specifically about the film industry, but at least it opens a door on this specific mother-daughter relationship. Kareena’s performance is easier to take when she does the little things, as when she coolly checks out Angad without missing a beat when he accosts her at that boring party, than when she’s having one mascara-streaming meltdown after another, first because she’s running after a married actor (Arjun Rampal) who’s clearly bad news, and then when she’s pursued by Angad at a point she wants to concentrate on her career. This is really all the story that Bhandarkar needed, one that would have given us a personal angle to root for as well as the professional backdrop for him to hang his “Bollywood is Bad” slogans on.

Instead, we’re subjected to a horrifying and time-consuming segue that details Mahi’s attempt at an art movie, under the helm of a chain-smoking, National Award-winning Bengali filmmaker (Ranvir Shorey). Oddly, though, this stretch does end up relevant to what Bhandarkar is talking about, and even to the name of his film – for this is where Shahana Goswami makes an appearance in a small role as an art-film actress. In her brief scenes, she displays so much spark and verve (even in this impossible role, which proves that Bhandarkar is at least an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to sexual minorities) and casual carnality that Kareena, standing in the same frame and looking like she’s never stepped outside an air-conditioned room, is blown to dust. And yet, Kareena’s the country’s highest-paid heroine, Shahana the dispensable “character artist.” Here’s something else for Mahi to be happy about when gazing at the clouds that drift past her sky-scraping apartment, but then how would Bhandarkar make his movie?

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi