Tuesday, 18 October 2016

MIRZYA: Bollywood Epic at London Film Festival

Mirzya was the Gala presentation in the 'Love' strand at the London Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. It's a big, colourful romance, which showcases many of Bollywood's finest moments: lush sets, lavish dance and music, and a cast sometimes as ravishing as its sets. It also uses the popular device in current historical/romantic fiction of running two parallel story lines, in this case a love story in the present which reflects the doomed story from myth of Mirza and Sahiban. You might think director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehta has all the materials for a crossover hit.

In fact, it opens brilliantly, with its historical story, told virtually without dialogue, and offering a vast panorama of action, like a Chinese war epic, interplaying with the tale of two children from different backgrounds, but already young sweethearts as students at the same school. When Adil forgets his homework, because he's been fetching a sweet for Soochi, Soochi passes him hers. When she is then punished harshly by a teacher for not having hers, Adil takes revenge. He is sent to a youth prison, escapes, and their lives diverge.

To this point the stories have been captivating, but when we rejoin the present, Adil, now called Munish, is working with the horses for a maharajah, and the young prince is engaged to marry Soochi, grown into a beautiful woman. And of course, the prince wants his bride to learn how to ride.  It's relentlessly melodramatic, like a epic tele-novella, and although the smaller scale of the children's tale worked, the larger scale of this love story often seems to trip over its own inconsequence in contrast to the epic tale it mimics. And because the luxury is royal in nature, and so modern, it starts to look like Dynasty or the Trump Towers, again undercutting its parallel tale. Screenwriter Gulzar, himself a director as well as a songwriter and poet, tries to weave elements of Romeo and Juliet into the tale, even self-consciously quoting Shakespeare, but the songs (by Shankar Ehsaan Loy) are often too didactic, as if we, the unschooled audience, wouldn't be able to follow the tale otherwise.

The most believable part is newcomer Saiyami Khar as Soochi/Mirzya. She projects the strength needed for the historical character as well as the awkwardness of the beautiful daughter of a police chief, about to become a Rajput princess. But apart from looking petulant, Harshvardhan Kapur as Adil/Munish doesn't really have the power to carry his role off (though he too does better in the mythical story, perhaps because it's silent). He too is a newcomer, but his also being the son of Anil Kapoor may perhaps explain why he seems to be cast over his skills here.  As the jilted prince, Anuj Choudry plays with the foreboding of the classic second lead, sort of like a handsomer Ross from Friends. Veteran actors Art Malik, Om Puri and K.K. Raina invest the older generation with some dignity, but their roles do little to escape stereotypes.

One element that may be harder for western audiences to accept nowadays is the character of Zeenat, played by Anjali Patil with more fire than anyone else in the film. Spoiler alert: it is always signaled that her love for Munish must give way to his love for Soochi. 'We are all links in a long chain', she explains to Soochi. This sort of inevitability of class might seem antiquated, but when he aids the two lovers in their escape, she pays a price that does not, to our eyes, seem necessary, except to add to the melodramatic build up. But Patil is an actress to watch, at times as fiery as the visual metaphor which puncuates the film. That fire is also captured brilliantly by Polish camerman Pawel Dyllus: you can allow your emotions to follow the feelings his compositions suggest and enhance.

In the end, the modern story falls short of the myth it is tracing--though I would have liked one small bit of extra melodrama as the old story reaches its end. Because so much has been telegraphed, so little surprises us. A tighter film might have been more affecting, but a tighter film is not what this has been designed to be, and bikes down cobblestones, horses across desert, and motorbikes into the sunset need to be played out in their own time.

And one lovely moment that pleased me no end: at one point Khar is shown lounging at the pool reading Zealot, Raza Aslan's study of the life of Jesus and the roots of Christianity. It's not only a tribute to a fine book, but perhaps a sort of ironic comment on our own mythologies.

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