Something about star-crossed lovers nudges our filmmakers towards formal experiments. Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha is entirely in exquisite verse. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya, itself containing a lot of spoken verse, seals itself from natural light and the outside world – it’s shot entirely on doomed-fairy-tale sets painted in colours of the night. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mirzya – a retelling (also a reimagining) of the legend of Mirza-Sahiban – harks back to folk theatre, and to storytelling through song. We get a sutradhar/narrator in the form of a blacksmith (Om Puri). In the most classical fashion, he reveals himself for a while, and then we only hear his words. And in the songs, we get a Greek chorus in Rajasthani attire, observing and responding to events – there, but not exactly there. In a stunning moment, their faces peer down at a schoolteacher’s body after the poor man is shot dead – yet, when the camera pulls back, there’s no one around. This doesn’t look like something at the local multiplex. It’s something you’d find at Prithvi Theatre.
The words of the narrator, the words in the songs – both come from Gulzar, who, as a child, surely fell into a vat of the literary world’s answer to Asterix’s magic potion. His superhuman fount of imagery never seems to run dry. When that schoolteacher dies, the narrator speaks of how the injury may reside here, but the lesion festers elsewhere: Chot kahin lagti hai… Zakhm kahin par hota hai. Soon, the spoken turns into the sung. The same words appear in the number Hota hai, and Gulzar keeps stepping on the gas, accelerating the metaphor from the earthy to the elemental. Sooraj se jalta hai falak / Aur daag zameen par hota hai. It’s the same thought, only now, on a more cosmic scale – that’s the scale Mehra wants to locate his love story in. At times, it all appears supremely silly. The gap between what’s in Mehra’s head and what we see on screen is the difference between the Big Bang theory and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. We wonder, “Is that all?” But Mehra’s mad-professor conviction is extraordinarily touching. I wasn’t happy with the film, but I’m glad it got made. It’s like a rare celestial event. You won’t see the likes of it soon.
At least for those of us who bemoan the Anglicisation of Hindi cinema, Mirzya is a must-watch. At least, a must-hear. Of the colony of blacksmiths where the narrator lives, Gulzar writes, “Yahaan par garam loha jab pighalta hai to sunehri aag behti hai.” When a little boy is late for class and slips into his seat while the teacher isn’t looking, the latter turns and asks, most delightfully, “Zameen se uge ho ya aasman se tapke ho?” You don’t just hear these words. You smell them. You taste them. The songs by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are marvellous, but the lyrics are perhaps more significant. Ek nadi thi / dono kinaare thaam ke behti thi / koi kinara chhod na sakti thi… The river hugging both banks, unable to let go of either – that’s the heroine, who’s conflicted between two men. Later, when she is about to get married, we hear a song whose lyrics come from our epics and their lovelorn episodes with messenger-birds: Kaaga re kaaga / Piya ki khabar suna na. And what do we see? News about the hero, brought by a messenger in a crow-black burqa. The cinematography by Pawel Dyllus is breathtaking, but the film could have been shot with a handycam and the imagery would still make you gasp.
The rest of the story – of Mirza/Sahiban, and their modern-day counterparts, Munish/Suchitra – is told through images. The wilderness of the mountains that the former inhabit, versus the wilderness of the desert that determines the latter’s fate. The title formed from sand, until a bloody arrow pierces it and turns the letters into glowing metal from a blacksmith’s anvil. (Mirza is to archery what Gulzar is to words.) Mirza’s blue-tipped arrowheads mirroring the blue of Sahiban’s eyes. Or even the way Mirza and his rival for Suchitra’s affections, a prince named Karan (Anuj Choudhry), are introduced. Both are first seen with a horse, but this isn’t the Fitoor scene, which signalled class difference by having the heroine atop the horse, and the hero right there, on the ground, so she could look down at him. Mirza is shown walking beside the animal (he grooms the royal horses), while, in an entirely different scene, Karan is seen riding it. From character establishment, we segue to character exposition. Karan dismounts and kisses the animal, which is more love than he expresses for his fiancée Suchitra. Later, after he finds out about Munish and Suchitra (it’s a giggle-inducing twist on a Mills & Boon trope: the princess-to-be and the stable boy), he sees Munish riding the horse. He takes aim. He shoots the animal down. Karan’s upbringing won’t allow him to cheapen his feelings by verbalising them. We have to put them into words ourselves, by recalling that earlier kiss, by realising that Karan’s hatred for Munish outstrips his love for the horse.
We have to do a lot of filling-in-the-blanks in Mirzya. Besides the narrator, nobody speaks much – at least, nothing that means very much. Perhaps Mehra thinks that for a story this archetypal, no explanations are needed. The actions are the words. The Mirza-Sahiban portions are practically wordless. We hear no names. (This must be a first in the history of our romantic cinema). We just see a man, a woman. We see a family – many savage-looking brothers (who look like they wouldn’t need dialogues anyway; they’d rather grunt) – that wants her to marry someone else. Man and woman elope. Members of her family give chase, catch up… And we keep wondering: Maybe there’s a rich-versus-poor angle. Maybe it’s an honour-killing thing. We have ample time to think. These portions unfurl entirely in slow-motion. It takes about five minutes for the water kicked up by horses to settle. But beyond a point, guesswork isn’t enough. We want answers. We need to know if Sahiban broke Mirza’s arrows only because she feared he’d kill her family. Did she, then, not see that she was leaving him defenceless, ripe for slaughter? And what about Suchitra? Was she conflicted about leaving Karan for Munish? And are we not meant to question how she knew Munish was the childhood friend who disappeared? Is this Mehra’s version of a reincarnation story, where people just know? (The screenplay follows a typical Gulzarian structure, with the past triggering the present – say, Mirza’s arrows giving way to Munish’s game of darts.) The bigger issue: Can you hang psychological questions on chalk-outline archetypes?
Mehra is so gripped by his role as scientist, altering the DNA of the Bollywood romance, that he forgets to be a storyteller. He gives us nothing to hold on to. Years of trauma in Munish’s case – a stint at a correctional facility; separation from the love of his life; and a reunion when she is engaged to his employer – remain unexplored. All we see are abstractions. Munish is a Poor Boy. Suchitra is a Rich Girl. Karan is a Gwalior Suiting model. After a while, it begins to feel like flipping through a stranger’s family album – the pictures have no context. The leads don’t help at all. Harshvardhan Kapoor lets his unkempt facial hair do most of the acting. Saiyami Kher is subdued and tentative where we expect Deepika Padukone in Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram Leela. But I don’t want to blame them. Many movies have worked in spite of the leads. Kajal Kiran and Tariq are laughably bad in Hum Kisise Kum Nahin. But how satisfying the drama was. It’s the same story. A boy and a girl separated as children. Fate conspires. They meet again. They bicker. They do the I-won’t-tell-you-who-I-am and the I-hate-you (times three). And then, the emotional crescendo of Kya hua tera vaada, reducing her – and the audience – to tears. We should applaud Mehra for attempting to push the love story out of its envelope, but he goes too far. He ends up making a series of Instagram images.
And we begin to imagine what Bhansali would have done with this material. Zeenat (Anjali Patil), the narrator’s daughter, doesn’t tell Munish she loves him. She doesn’t have to. We see their closeness in the scene where she delouses his hair. We sense her feelings when Munish comes to her to get a tattoo on his shoulder removed. He takes off his shirt. She brings down a steaming iron rod. Her cries of pain are louder than his. With Mehra, you get the meaning of this scene, but with Bhansali, you’d be hunting for a tube of Burnol. Or take the instances of foreshadowing – the moment where Suchitra and Zeenat exchange bangles (soon after, they will exchange places), or the one where Karan asks Munish to teach Suchitra riding. Munish bends beside the horse, making a step of his clasped palms, so she can mount the horse. She stamps his hands, presses down on his shoulder, then pushes his head down. With Mehra, you get the meaning of this scene, but with Bhansali, you’d have added a serious S&M moment to the collection in your head.
As a purely academic exercise, it’s fascinating to see how Mehra pulls back where Bhansali would have pushed right through. We hear thunder when Suchitra speaks to Karan from an unnamed foreign location, and we hear thunder again when she returns to India. You think Mehra is colouring the character with violent shades from Nature – but that’s it. We never hear thunder again. On the soundtrack, Daler Mehndi’s high-pitched vocals pull us powerfully into the story. On screen, the singer is heard sporadically – and suddenly. It doesn’t sound like a troubadour singing about a legend. It sounds like someone from the colony of blacksmiths after an anvil fell on his feet. The chorus, too, comes and goes – after a while, they stop making narrative sense and start looking like outtakes from a Rajasthan Tourism commercial. Then we have Suchitra’s father (Art Malik), a cop with a thing for Shakespeare. Bhansali must be kicking himself for not thinking him up. The man recites the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet (another star-crossed romance). The man quotes from Julius Caesar (another story of betrayal). The man has a poster of Twelfth Night (another tale of boy and girl separated, then reunited). That’s where Mehra stops, and it’s not enough. Bhansali would have gone all the way. After Munish and Suchitra elope, we’d have heard, “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!”
- Mirzya = see here
- Greek chorus = see here
- Sooraj se jalta hai falak / Aur daag zameen par hota hai = The sun scorches the sky, but the stain falls on the earth.
- Yahaan par garam loha jab pighalta hai to sunehri aag behti hai = When hot iron melts here, we get rivers of golden fire.
- Zameen se uge ho ya aasman se tapke ho? = Have you sprouted from the earth, or have you fallen from the sky?
- Kaaga re kaaga / Piya ki khabar suna na = O crow, bring me news of my beloved.
- Fitoor = see here
- Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram Leela = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.