Friday, December 10, 2010

Guzaarish (2010): Good's Not Good Enough

Sanjay Leela Bhansali brings dreams to life on celluloid. He is perhaps the only Indian director that can qualify for such a statement. In each of his films, good or bad, right from Khamoshi to Saawariya, he has an eye for visuals that is unparalleled in Hindi cinema. This makes his cinema, for better or for worse, unique. Sometimes, his visuals can add considerable depth to the story as in the case of Black. In other times, it can overpower the story altogether as in Saawariya. However, irrespective of the film in question, a common thread throughout Bhansali's considerable repertoire (both, in terms of accolades and money) is the weak scripting. At best, the scripts he co-authors and works with range from well-intentioned (Khamoshi: The Musical) to the downright deplorable (Saawariya). Further, his direction, though technically flawless, is loud and hammy in technique. Black is the only film where the performances and the sensitivity and daring in addressing the subject matter overcome these flaws. It is, in my opinion, not only his one masterpiece but also his only truly memorable film. However, his films are usually an uneven balance of style and substance.

In terms of subject matter, Guzaarish is the kind of film one would expect Bhansali to make after Black. It is a bigger challenge as it involves greater complexities and nuances. The topic of Euthanasia is not, in any way, an easy one, especially in cinema. The challenges are not only emotional but also political, ethical and legal. The final product we get, is a mixed bag.

Ethan (Hrithik Roshan), once a world famous magician is now a quadriplegic after a near-fatal accident at one of his performances 15 years ago. He is paralysed the neck below and is entirely dependent on his nurse, Sofia (Aishwarya Rai) for his care. Sofia cares for him more than a friend, a wife or a lover and has even given up on her marriage to attend to him. He is dying as his organs give way one by one. He calls upon his lawyer friend, Devyani (Shernaz Patel) to file a petition in court for euthanasia. What ensues is a legal battle where a man seeks a right to die within his fundamental right to live. 

Visually, the film is stunning, as is expected. Each frame is a canvas and on it, Bhansali and his cinematographer paint a portrait so beautiful that it is simply breathtaking to behold. Some have criticized the film for looking unrealistic and nothing like what Goa and its people are really like. These people I think miss the point entirely of Bhansali's films. His films take place in moments largely suspended in space and time. The costumes, the sets and the production are meant to provide a surrealist look and add to the visual appeal. It is this surrealism that adds a certain amount of universality to the story. Guzaarish is no exception where Aishwariya Rai appearance seems to be a cross between gypsy and Victorian styles. The house is again Gothic/Victorian in Architecture. A wide palate of dark, deep, moody colours is used to paint the visuals and it helps set the atmosphere of the film well. Ethan's memories as a magician take place in the same theatre in front of similar, if not the same crowds. This is because the importance for him is not so much because of the place or the people before whom he performed but simply the joy and thrill he got from the performance itself. The only time his audience ever mattered was when he performed his first magic trick. The music, also by Bhansali, is an eclectic mix of styles ranging from Westerns classics like Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" to Arab and Turkish influenced tunes.

On the emotional front, Bhansali manages to give us characters we care for and creates some truly wonderful cinematic moments. The sequences involving Ethan's first magic trick, for example, are wonderful as much as they are painful. However, it is hardly an unqualified success as the script falls prey to loud, painful emotional overkill, especially in the later reels. Although the relationships are well defined and carefully developed, the abandonment of any semblance of restraint in the second half of the film severely dilutes the impact. While Ethan's individual relationships with Sofia, Devyani and Omar are beautifully defined with considerable maturity and complexity, on the whole, especially in the collective moments, the film falls prey to severe emotional spasms with one too many passionate outbursts. Also, the one relationship that deserved more was that between Ethan and his mother (Nafisa Ali). The potential there was immense and the ease with which she acquiesces to the idea of mercy killing for Ethan seems a tad unbelievable.

There are problems in terms of plotting as well. The changes in public opinion hardly seem believable. The legal portions, while somewhat convincing in the courtroom, become really half baked once the drama shifts to Ethan's house. The authenticity of the proceedings is done great disservice by shoehorning emotional moments. Further, going beyond the emotional issues, the political and ethical dimensions are so poorly explored here that the film comes off as amateurish, a fall in standards for Bhansali who addressed some difficult and complex issues in Black. By couching Ethan's plea for Euthanasia simply in terms of personal choice, the film stops short of exploring the real issues of why a person would opt for mercy killing like dying with dignity etc. 

In terms of performances, Bhansali succeeds in extracting some wonderful ones from the entire cast. I have said this before and I will say it again. He is the only director capable of extracting a powerful performance from Aishwarya Rai. She was stunning in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas. Guzaarish is no exception. Here, she has a chemistry with Hrithik Roshan that goes far beyond the damp couple that they were in Jodhaa Akbar. Their relationship is more complex, more endearing. Hrithik gives a lovely restrained performance. The still water runs deep act suits his character perfectly. One can't say that he takes giant strides as an actor or manages a performance like Rani and Amitabh's in Black but it's nevertheless a very good performance. However, the real find in this film is Aditya Roy Kapur who pitches in a solid performances as the relentless, determined but extremely endearing Omar. He demonstrates talent both as a comic and dramatic actor. Shernaz Patel is one of my favourite character actors today. I have seen her both on stage and screen and she is a dazzling actress who deserves more footage. Here also, she excels as a friend who is called upon to put aside her personal opinions and fight for an ailing man's right to die with dignity. Rajat Kapoor, her partner in several stage productions, is wasted as the opposition lawyer.

Overall, Guzaarish is an improvement over Saawariya and yet, several notches below Black. Although it boasts of a daring story with wonderful visuals and performances by the entire cast, it is severely afflicted with emotional overkill that takes away from the political and ethical dimensions of the theme and robs some great individual sequences of their gravitas. It is like an omelet with too much oil in it. Its failure has been likened to Guru Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool. However, I think it has more in common with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Delhi-6: well intentioned, in places good even, but nowhere near the standards that the material could have reached. But maybe it's just me: Euthansia is very important to me not only as a liberal but also on a more personal level. I have seen someone suffer like Ethan in the film with no escape and therefore, have some idea what that feels like. Maybe that's why I think a topic like this deserves a better film than this overproduced, over the top film. If you don't mind watching a film trying to attach a vacuum cleaner to your tear-ducts, be my guest. If not, do yourself a favour: rent Million Dollar Baby or Mar Adentro instead.

Rating: 2.5/5

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