Look at me, I finally watched a Merchant-Ivory film! I am so smart and sophisticated and classy. Except, I only watched it because Shashi looks so amazing.
But at least the cast was familiar. Shashi, Nadira, Iftakhar, Helen, all there to reassure me and make me feel safe. Just, in a weird language and a weird film. Art Films! Not for me!
And I think this isn’t fully pulled together maybe? The cuts don’t all feel artsy abrupt, some of them feel actually confusing? And the central storyline is perhaps not purposefully casual and confusing and filled with gaps, but maybe just trying a wee bit too hard?
The one thing that works spectacularly well for me is the performances. Jennifer and Shashi in particular, but Aparna Sen and Nadira are pretty fabulous as well. Our “hero” (?) Zia Mohyeddin is way way more boring than all of them. At least, to me. Maybe I am wrong? I don’t know!!!! It’s a whole new film genre for me!!!! Give me classic Hollywood or any era of Hindi, and I can navigate, this art house type stuff is just not for me.
Anyway, Zia is boring. Well, I think so. It might just be his character as well, he is playing the “nice” guy which is always a thankless role. And in this case, he is a nice guy and a poet, so double boring. Ha! It’s like Kabhi Kabhi! The heroine torn between the drippy self-pitying poet and the charming vibrant exciting Shashi! Or at least, that’s how I watch Kabhi Kabhi. And this movie. And probably both of them are not intended to be seen that way.
I’m pretty sure this movie was intended to be watched as a journey of three people (4 if you count Aparna) finding themselves and discovering meaning, or losing meaning, and all the forces in India of the 1970s. It kind of works. I like the way it deals with the confluence of film and religion and money and the West. As just a way to spend time wondering through interesting places in India, it’s delightful. As an actual film, it doesn’t make me really like or care about any of the characters. But then, that could be on purpose. I don’t know! This is why I don’t watch indie movies!!!! All that intellectualism and metaphors and stuff instead of just saying what you feel and making me happy.
But Shashi makes me happy. Oh my was he amusing in this movie! Charming and light and happy and a little bit shallow and dark too. And Jennifer, she had this kind of fake-deep cool girl older woman vibe, which is fascinating to watch even though a little repellent. They are both so completely buried in their characters that I can’t see even a hint of their real life connection, despite them being married for 12 years by now. Except for one scene late in the film when Jennifer gets trapped in her costume and they both get a fit of the giggles. It works in context as a very silly moment between the two characters, but it really feels more like Jennifer and Shashi in “real life” than anything shown about their characters.
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Jennifer is a successful wealthy novelist. She came to India to research a book idea and Zia Mohyeddin befriended her as a fellow writer. He is a poet, but also writes for films. The movie starts with him taking her to a film set to show her this world, to compare it with the Hollywood world she wrote about in her book. Shashi is the handsome hero of the film and he and Jennifer immediately spark. Jennifer shows up at a success party for his next film, and then at his house on Raksha Bandhan. Shashi follows her to her hotel room and tells her his sad story, Aparna and he haven’t been able to have children, he just wants a son. Jennifer tells her story in return, she has a 15 year old daughter, 4 husbands, and no home. Shashi kisses her, she protests, but gives in and smiles. Shashi starts spending all his free time with her, rejects Aparna’s request that they go on a pilgrimage in an effort for children, takes Jennifer to meet Nadira an aging actress and friend, they fight, then get back together, then fight again and Jennifer decides she wants to go on a spiritual retreat. She goes to stay at an Ashram that seems slightly based on Osho, and writes to Zia while she is there, seems to have chosen him in the love triangle. Shashi is desperate to find her and pressures Zia. He is also desperate for work and agrees to work with scuzzy producer Utpal Dutt. Jennifer is tired of the retreat and returns to Zia in Bombay, but they run into Shashi and the affair starts up again. Shashi isn’t even going to work any more, Utpal Dutt starts harassing Aparna Sen about it. And then one drunken night, to celebrate Jennifer’s birthday, Shashi takes her out. The drag out Zia as well, go to a jewelry story and buy expensive presents (including an antique knife for Zia), then go back to Shashi’s house where Jennifer unknowingly plays with Aparna’s wedding sari. Aparna walks in on this and tells Shashi she is leaving him. Shashi leaves Jennifer at the hotel and goes back home, Jennifer sends Zia after him, Zia finds Shashi, they have another fight, and Zia snaps and stabs him with the antique knife. And then the movie ends.
You see what I mean? It’s all ARTY and stuff!!!! No one is good, no one is right, no one is even sincerely in love. Jennifer’s character is a lost white woman trying to find meaning in a different culture (there is a great moment when she describes her idea for a book and suggests that there would be a colorful festival “you have those, don’t you? They do in Mexico”). She seems to sincerely care about her daughter, there’s a scene where she is desperately trying to understand her on a long distance phone call. But beyond that, she doesn’t seem to really feel anything. She loves Shashi, then she loves Zia, then she is going to follow a Guru, then she isn’t, then she is done with Shashi, then she is back with Shashi, then she is done again.
Shashi is even harder for me to read, because it feels like he is supposed to be shallow but the film keeps giving him bits of depth. He is gross when he talks to Zia, saying that he will “give” Jennifer to him once he is done with her, that she isn’t bad for an older woman. But that only comes out with Zia, it appears that he brings out the worst in Shashi. With Jennifer, with Aparna, he seems sincere. Maybe the point of the film is supposed to be that Shashi is toxic and Jennifer is lost? Maybe his conversations with Zia are supposed to be the “real” him? And he is just pretending to be nice and sensitive with the other women? And maybe Jennifer is truly a good person who is just caught up in Shashi’s web? But then, why would Shashi be so sincerely upset when Jennifer leaves town? And why would Jennifer be so clearly bored with Zia’s poetry?
Now that I think about it, it is the need for a “plot” that kind of kills the film. The bits that worked best for me were the parts that made no sense. Jennifer wandering around the film set, seeing the random interactions at the film party, the home movie show at the Ashram, it’s all far more interesting than the bits that are just about the characters. If the movie had leaned into that kind of travelogue feel, really been about Jennifer just kind of roaming around India, this intelligent but insensitive white woman bumping into Indian culture, I would have enjoyed it far more.
But when you make Jennifer into this lost sad woman with a complicated backstory and a teenage daughter, and you give Shashi this whole thing about his childless marriage and tanking his career for love, and make Zia truly devoted, suddenly the light slightly cynical take on modern India flies away under all that drama.