“Shab”… An underwhelming, unaffecting criss-cross of urban lives

Posted on July 16, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

Onir’s new film, Shab, begins with a migration. A handsome-to-the-point-of-pretty young man, Mohan (Ashish Bisht) hops onto a Delhi-bound bus. He wants to become a model, and he’s got in his bag a pair of shiny briefs he’s going to strut about in before a panel of judges in a Gladrags-style contest. Sonal (Raveena Tandon), who’s a judge, is not impressed. A gay man on the panel asks Mohan, pointedly, “What is your biggest asset?” Mohan is stumped. He says he doesn’t own any real estate. The people in the panel snigger at this man who doesn’t speak much English. When he finally understands the question, he replies, “My smile.”

The rest of Shab – at least a part of it – is about Mohan losing this smile. At first, he’s happy when Sonal makes him her boy-toy, but slowly he realises he’s one of many. He’s a small-town boy, and he yearns for someone to say “I love you” to. In fact, he utters these words to Sonal after she pulls him into her bed for the first time. She just laughs. Why does Sonal, aka Mrs Modi, seek out other men? Is it the thrill of the conquest? Is it the feeling she gets at what her money can buy? Or is it more personal? When her husband, Vivek (Sanjay Suri), bends to kiss her before taking off on one of his innumerable trips, she averts her face. Yet to Mohan, she says, “Do you want to touch me?”

Onir keeps us guessing. The film contains other tracks, other people. There’s Raina (Arpita Chatterjee), who works as a waitress in Neel’s (Areesz Ganddi) restaurant. There’s Raina’s neighbour Benoit (Simon Frenay), who has a traumatic past that rivals Raina’s. There’s Neel’s ex-boyfriend, who’s getting married because he’s the only son, and how can an only son disappoint his parents by telling them he’s gay? Onir keeps us guessing about these characters as well. One gets the feeling that Onir and his co-screenwriter, Merle Kröger, wrote a whole lot of plot around these people and then kept asking “Is this scene really necessary” and subsequently ripped out a lot of pages.

Or maybe they were following the template laid out by Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels, which was about the constant criss-cross of a number of straight and gay people. There, too, the story began with a naive small-town dweller (a woman, though) making it to the big, bad city and struggling to find herself. Shab could have used Maupin’s clarity. It’s hard to get involved with any of these lives, as their problems are so generic (though Onir could claim, rightly, that the generic is the universal). Something’s off. The revelations are underwhelming, and, worse, unaffecting. We keep rooting for Mohan to rediscover a reason to smile, though. Maybe that should have been the real story.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi