Well, I finally watched it! Took me 6 hours because I had to keep pausing to take notes. So, there will be a much bigger review(s) coming over the next few days. But I want to start with just a simple review of it as a film, not as a sociological study.
I never take notes when I am watching a movie. I don’t have to, I can remember the broad strokes and my thoughts and what I want to say without any effort. A great gift when I was in grad school, I could watch a film once in class and write a paper on it, no need to go back and review and research or anything. I took notes this time because I needed to separate the parts that I needed notes to remember from the other parts, the “regular” film. Because the “regular” film was so incredibly absorbing, I could have easily lost track of the non-regular parts, the commentary on the film industry and what it all means and why people join it. So, this is the review of the “regular” film, with no notes. Oh, and also no spoilers! So please try to keep it spoiler free in the comments, this is a cult hit after all, so I am guessing a fair number of readers haven’t seen it yet and I want them to get a review that won’t spoil it for them and will help them decide whether or not they should watch it. But don’t worry, spoiler review is coming soon.
I love Konkona in this movie! But I think I love Zoya more. Konkona does a great job with her leading role, but it is Zoya’s writing that really makes it work. This is the kind of woman who comes across as wise, as though she always knows everything already, but in fact she is fooling herself, she is too foolish to see her own weaknesses. And, more damaging than that, her own strengths.
That is the ultimate point of the film, we start with Konkona and we end with her. And along the way we, the audience, get to see all the things she is blind to, all the things she thinks she understands but doesn’t. This is a coming of age story, but the coming of age of a grown woman. How unusual! To focus on an adult woman, and acknowledge that she is still growing and changing, instead of on a man, or on a younger woman.
Farhan appears to be the hero, but that is only because that is how the world would view him, of course the promising young man is more important than the older struggling woman. And I think the casting points to that. Farhan is good in the role, sure, but he doesn’t have the depth onscreen that Konkona does. He does now, I loved him in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, but this is his first film and he is young and skinny and scared onscreen, while Konkona is mature and rich and fascinating.
As for the rest of the actors, setting aside the meta qualities of the casting for a later post, they are all fantastic. Zoya/Reema have a great ability to pull unique performances from their actors. Talaash, Honeymoon Travels, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and this one, great cast that breaks through to a new level of performance, outside of their set patterns. This is my theory with female directors, Gauri Shindi and Faraha and Reema/Zoya, there is a need to build a relationship and put in the time to really get to know your cast because nothing is handed to them. The only way they can get their films made, after years and years, is to convince their actors that they are worth making, that they will have a good time on the set and be challenged by the role and all of that. You can’t just boss and pressure people into doing what you need, you have to charm them into it. And in the end, that charm will bring out a better performance from your cast.
Juhi is charming, Rishi is a kick, Dimple is fantastically entertaining. But it is the two unknown actresses who really stood out for me. Isha Sharvani, who I saw most recently in Iyobinte Pustakam, really throws herself into the “empty vessel” kind of performance. It’s not a hard role to play, but it is a hard role to commit to, to resist the urge to put in some kind of depth or emotion to the character.
And then there is Sheeba Chaddha. Who, somehow, ends up feeling like the heart of the film. The same thing happened with Talaash, only that time Reema/Zoya were smart and actually made her the heart of the film, the one character who ends better than she started, who gets the “blessings” of the plot. And she should turn into the heart of the film because what Konkona’s character is playing is what she is in real life. A working talented but not famous actress.
The look of the film is fantastic. Every shot is perfectly framed and colored. Isha has a pink bedroom to rival Sandra Dee’s from Imitation of Life, there is an amazing moment when we first see Farhan’s new fancy apartment from outside, one lighted window in a square building next to a dozen other identical unlit windows. He may think his new fancy apartment is a big deal, but there are a dozen others just like it.
(I am sure this is accurate as to the kind of place that would be rented for an audition, but it is also great in giving the kind of factory/store room feel. These actors are products like any other, gathered into a store room, sorted out, and distributed. Very dehumanizing)
Speaking of Imitation of Life, the over all tone of the film is very Imitation of Life-y. Classic 1950s style melodrama. American 1950s melodrama, not Indian which is a little different. A little less slice of life with a series of characters, and a little more focused on one main story. But American 1950s melodrama, that was all about society as a whole, unfairness of life, and so on and so on. A very cynical “we just survived a World War and what did it get us?” kind of attitude. I guess closer in flavor to Indian 1970s. Anyway, that’s what I was thinking of, Imitation of Life and even more directly A Place in the Sun and Sweet Smell of Success.
A large part of these films is the mise-en-scene. The Brechtian breaking of the wall by showing us how false this world is, combined with a statement on out of control consumerism through the way possessions build identity. And Zoya picks up on that here, but with care. Consumerism has not reached India to the degree it reached 1950s America, I don’t think really it has reached anywhere to the degree it reached 1950s America. The luxury hotels, the fancy apartments, the elegant restaurants, they all have a carefully crafted “look”, because they are sets as much as a film set is a set. But Konkona’s apartment, that is messy and different and her. And so is Rishi’s office, Hrithik’s dressing room, these are the “real” places, not the sets, where they are real people.
That realness at the heart of it, the reminder that while the world may be cynical and cruel, the people in it aren’t, that comes through primarily in the songs. Can I say again how much I love Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy? LOVE THEM! I started calling them my favorite composers back in 2006 when I first heard the Lakshya soundtrack, and I am sticking with that. The reason I love them is, in almost all their films, it truly would not be the same movie without the songs. Wouldn’t even be a complete movie, would feel empty and tensionless and sad. The songs give it everything.
And Zoya knows that. She builds around the songs (just like she builds around the stars), not in spite of them. The opening song in particular, sets the tone immediately that this may seem like a silly empty story, but it is a story about real people with real hearts that can be broken and dreams that can be fulfilled and lives that need saving. And the closing song closes that circle, tells us again that this silly world with silly people has value and purpose and can help people live better richer happier lives.
Without the songs, this would be another angry screed against the industry, railing at fate and unfairness and shallowness of the world. But with them, there is love there, and hope, and purpose, and meaning. Well, with them and with Konkona. The two go hand in hand to turn this film from a cynical comedy into something a little deeper and a little richer than that.