Searching for a film starring Aishwarya Rai running under two hours for a possible education event, I came across this curio which certainly passed me by in 2004. The ingredients are a successful Bengali director, Rituparno Ghosh, making his first Hindi film, a story ‘inspired by’ the American short story writer O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, and two major stars – Ajay Devgan joins Rai.
Mannu (Devgan) travels to Kolkata from his village in Bihar where he has been made redundant from a jute mill. His task is to try to raise money from friends and colleagues in the city in order to start a business. During the rains (when he wears a borrowed raincoat) he looks up his childhood sweetheart Niru (Rai) who he had ‘lost’ to a wealthy man. She receives him in a gloomy room overstuffed with antique furniture and he spins her a tale about how he is now a TV producer (of soap operas). Most of the film takes place in this room with flashbacks to the characters’ village childhoods (in Mannu’s home). There are only a few extra characters and apart from the strange title sequence (Mannu’s journey to the city by train) with its haunting song, only some lines of poetry and the background sounds of the city add any sense of familiar Indian melodrama traits to the basic ‘romance drama’.
As I watched the film (like most Bollywood films in CinemaScope) I was struck by how old-fashioned it looked. The Kolkata interiors of Niru’s house could have been filmed 40 or more years ago and I began to think of British and American films of the 1950s – two-handers and stage adaptations made into screen melodramas (a character even makes an ironic reference to An Affair to Remember). As the plot progressed and questions were raised about Niru (is she who she says she is?) I began to think about the kinds of romance melodramas made by Max Ophüls and I expected a twist to the story – deception must lead to exposure or tragedy. I remembered the O. Henry connection only after the film finished.
Overall, I found the film interesting but curiously uninvolving. It is certainly well made and the performances well judged. Devgan manages to be convincing as both the older and younger man (in the flashbacks) and Rai is suitably weary and dishevelled, her usual radiance economically disguised by a few wisps of hair falling across her cheeks. I think I would have liked more expressionist devices – something else in camerawork, music and editing to emphasise the emotion.
The reviews and comments on the film are interesting. There are a few who simply ‘don’t get it’, but many more who are seemingly overwhelmed by what is described as ‘art cinema’ or ‘parallel cinema’. I don’t think it is either of these, but there is a similarity to Hollywood in the way that two major stars hope to show that they can act in serious drama. Rai in particular has her detractors who are mainly surprised by her performance. (But she has appeared in a wide range of roles, including a Bengali film for this director, Provoked, set in the UK and, earlier, Tamil films for Mani Ratnam and Rajiv Menon.) The art cinema tag is perhaps lazy and derives from the assumption that a Bengali director is more likely to deal in this kind of film. I think it is more fruitful to think back to when Hindi films were consistently involved with ‘social problems’. There were moments here when I remembered Guru Dutt films. The theme of the film involves the embarrassment of ‘middle-class’ characters who have lost money and status. The modern twist is the play on ideas about television soaps (Mannu takes on the TV producer persona from the friend he stays with in Kolkata and Niru refers to her mother who would watch all the soaps) and the village/city distinction is discussed in terms of the number of TV channels available. I wonder how the characters in 1950s-60s films would have responded to a world in which you could watch television all day? (A mobile phone also intrudes into a story that still uses handwritten letters as essential narrative devices.)
‘Bollywood’ actually produces a much wider range of films than is often acknowledged, but the common assumptions about the musical romance melodrama still hold for many audiences and this film would be useful to show to students. (Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to hire 35mm prints of Bollywood films for education screenings in the UK.)