Maya (Chitrangada Singh), a small-town girl who makes it big in the advertising world in Mumbai, isn’t the kind of heroine we usually see on our screens. She’s ambitious, and she’ll do (almost) anything to further these ambitions. At an ad event, she goes up on stage and makes sure to thank John Doyle, who’s one half of the firm she works in, KK & Doyle. (A disgruntled male colleague comments that this move is a “masterstroke.”) Later, she requests the company’s CEO, Rahul Verma (Arjun Rampal), to postpone a meeting because she has to receive her fiancé at the airport, but on the way, when she learns that the meeting is on as originally scheduled, she orders her driver to head back to the office, making a quick call to her fiancé explaining things. Elsewhere, she even steals Rahul’s idea while making a pitch to a client. As she sees it, she’s become an alpha female to survive in a world filled with alpha males.
But this alpha woman, at times (and when it’s convenient), doesn’t hesitate to be just a… woman, employing wiles that have traditionally come to be seen as “womanly.” After slapping a sexual harassment charge on Rahul, Maya appears before a panel headed by Mrs. Kamdar (Deepti Naval, coming across a little too nice for the job) to explain her side of things, and when asked why she waited so long to bring up these charges, she says crossly, as if reproving herself, “Yehi to problem hai hum auraton ki.” A simple admission of error is transformed into something symptomatic of her gender. This is the masterstroke, for Maya, with this admission, has co-opted Mrs. Kamdar and the other women in the room into a sisterhood that must rally against the likes of Rahul. At another point, Maya receives a call from her mother (Rehana Sultan, of Dastak fame; or infamy, depending on your point of view), and she doesn’t excuse herself. She takes the call in front of the panel, and with her chatty, gossipy conversation, she seems to be telling the panel: “Look what a nice, small-town girl I am. You think I’ll lie about something like this?”
Sudhir Mishra’s Inkaar often plays like Death and the Maiden opened up and set in the corporate world, in the sense that, like that play (which subsequently became a Roman Polanski movie), this film catches fire when the matchstick of long-suppressed anguish is held to the tinderbox of a determined woman’s desire to avenge the wrongs done unto her. And like that play, this film is a mostly a memory piece, with events being presented to us in a series of flashbacks, while, in the present, Maya and Rahul reinforce those memories with their reasoning. As such, we aren’t invited to determine, like Mrs. Kamdar and her panel, whether Maya is right or if Rahul is innocent. All we’re asked to do is muse on the slipperiness of truth. Is Maya, who had an affair with Rahul earlier, still carrying a torch for him, and is her accusation revenge for his not loving her back the same way? Or is Rahul, who mentored Maya, now feeling emasculated by her not needing him anymore, by her rise through the ranks to become a “parallel power centre”? Did he harass her – referring to the way she used to shampoo his hair, for instance – as a means of reclaiming his masculinity, showing her who’s really boss?
With these fundamentally flawed individuals, Inkaar isn’t so much a fiery Op-ed piece generator – as I feared, given the “hot-button topicality” hinted at in the previews – as a reflection on certain types of men and women, those to whom success in their career is perhaps more important than rewarding personal relationships. (When Maya takes Rahul home, her mother sizes him up perfectly. She tells Maya, “Ladka to achcha hai lekin tumse shaadi nahin karega.”) And when, despite their professed allegiance to their profession, they begin to be attracted to each other, they pull apart in self-destructive ways. When Maya accuses Rahul of sleeping with a model, he asks her why he should offer her an explanation. And Mishra captures something we rarely see in the movies, the reality that working together in a creative space, often under pressure and cruel deadlines, can prove to be as intimate as a real relationship, and until you pull out of it, you don’t know what it really was.
And yet, Inkaar doesn’t work as well at is should have. Part of the problem may be the fairly one-note performances by the leads, who remain aloof throughout. (Is it just me, or can Chitrangada Singh pass for Archana Puran Singh’s sister? It’s not just the profile, from some angles – even the voices, with those nasal overtones, sound similar.) And the men aren’t as well-drawn as the women. Maya’s boss wonders aloud if she isn’t proving the cliché that women are too emotional to settle into senior management roles, and Maya’s fiancé turns out to be a pillar of sensitivity who asks her to withdraw the case because she has had a “scene” with Rahul, after all. These men belong in a Madhur Bhandarkar movie. But a bigger problem is the banal closing stretch, which trivialises everything that’s come earlier. The ending is especially ludicrous – it needed to be built up to, not just alluded to through stray flashbacks of Rahul’s principled father. Mishra’s point may be that the sexual harassment case was just a red herring and that the real story was about a man and a woman who realised what’s truly important and reprioritised their lives, but that’s just cheapening a sensitive issue. Such unfortunate decisions are those that generate all those Op-ed pieces.
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