Few films are as effective at garnering participation and as easy to get lost in (you know, the kind that make us want to dive into the screen). The question of Meenaxi - A Tale of 3 Cities (2004) is not what the film is about. The question is: what do we want the film to be about? Therein lies ambiguity, but it doesn't take much to appreciate that thinking through the film leads to limitless possibilities. This is only one of the biggest strengths of the film directed by renowned (and controversial, to many of the Hindu and Muslim communities in India, but that is beyond the scope of this post) painter M. F. Hussain, written by him and his son Owais, and with music by A. R. Rahman.
Nawab (Raghuvir Yadav, a Lagaan (2001) alumnus) is a popular poet and writer in Hyderabad, which is where the film is based. At the (Mehndi) wedding ceremony of his sister, he runs into Meenaxi (lovely Tabu) and is mesmerized by her beauty (not more than I am, for the record ;). As he suffers from writers block, Meenaxi -- a mysterious perfume seller -- meets him again and encourages him to write a novel on her.
He hesitates but gives in to her insistence, and so begins the story of Meenaxi and Kameshwar Mathur (Kunal Kapoor in his debut). The real Mathur (as opposed to the character) is an auto repairman for the writer, and has good taste, as the poster in his make-believe workshop suggests!
The story is based in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, where Kameshwar falls head over heels in love with Meenaxi. A love triangle, it progresses with creative, eloquent and witty courtship (subtitles tend to simplify a lot)...
...until the real Meenaxi -- the one in Hyderabad -- loses interest and prompts Nawab to begin writing the novel again. This time, Nawab is part of the story. Meenaxi is Maria Zarkova, a waitress and playhouse actress in Prague in the Czech Republic, and Kameshwar a visitor from India. Their meeting leads to love at first sight. But there is more than meets the eye, as is later revealed.
Meanwhile, in Hyderabad, Nawab's health is failing him, and the novel is not near complete. Will Meenaxi stand by his side? Will he survive long enough to write to the finish? Will Kameshwar and Meenaxi ever unite outside the novel? How will the community react to Nawab's prolonged absence? Watch Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities to discover. Its climax leaves one bewildered but satiated, and surprised but awed at how well the scattered figments of imagination are integrated.
We keep talking of the juxtaposition of the elements, and here is a case in which the character development is brief but extremely effective, given the narrative arc. For a film on art and artists, aware of its inapplicability to the masses, the dialogue (often poetic and abstract but thoughtful) is extremely well aligned for the purpose, and only enhances the screenplay. There's something to be said of its quality when a film begins with the following:
Koi mile ke bichde, yahaan kis ko kya padi hai?
Sab log chal rahe hain, duniya yahin khadi hai.
Whether one unites or separates, who here cares?
Everyone keeps walking, it's the world that stands still.
Everyone keeps walking, it's the world that stands still.
The performances are top notch. Raghuvir Yadav is excellent as Nawab. I really liked his character and the modesty associated (or at least, portrayed) with it.
Aside: Margaret Thatcher had once said, "being powerful is like being a woman -- if you have to say you are, you aren't". Let's apply this framework to quality, and the next time we hear an actor say he is the best, let's please think about this!
Kunal Kapoor does much better than one expects from an actor in his debut film. But it is Tabu who has the most complex role, playing three characters with distinct personalities, looks, and accents, who is cast to perfection. The film revolves around her, and she delivers in an enchanting, bewitching and captivating (insert synonymous adjectives here, they all apply) fashion, as only she can.
Whether it's the individualistic mystery woman from Hyderabad, the collegial and confident social worker in Jaisalmer, or the orphaned actress struggling to make ends meet in Prague, watch her versatility shine through and only validate her standing as certainly one of the best actresses of her generation. Oh, and might I add that she looks absolutely stunning in each role?
The art direction (Sharmishta Roy) and cinematography (Santosh Sivan) are brilliant. This is yet another area where the film oozes class, but that was always expected. Trust few like M. F. Hussain to translate to his crew the angles and vivid color palettes he envisions as tangible output. The wardrobe and styling are excellent. I could certainly relate to the dialogue around the significance of the sherwanis (been wearing them since I was a child), and loved this piece of cloth, although I know I've put more work into this!
The streets and architectural elements of the cities are exquisitely captured, their grandeur and subtlety portrayed in equilibrium. The elements come alive as they seldom do on screen -- one can almost smell the biryani, paan or jalebi as they are presented. There's much more to the cinematography that I'd rather leave for you to discover.
Of course, the film knows its art better than most Hindi films ever will, given the crew. The quality of the visuals is captivating, and almost gives the appearance of the motion being a synthesis of stunning still images. There are even numerous allusions to renaissance art (yes, that's Tabu).
The background score and music (Rahman), lyrics (Rahat Indori and M.F. Hussain), and choreography (Ileana Chittaristi) are fantastic. Each of the cities gets songs specific to its culture and heritage. The common thread in the soundtrack is that each begins with a thought or asks a question, and some lead to a proposition following a breakdown of the case.
The album gives me three A. R. Rahman favorites among my top 20 of all time (and in my Rahmaniac arrogance, that is saying a lot). Here is one of them, with vocals by Reena Bharadwaj:
I'd include the video to the fantastic Rang Hai by Alka Yagnik if I could find it. Noor un ala Noor is as brilliant a qawwali as can be (and is also why this film was banned from theaters -- its lyrics test the fine line between love for God and love of woman, and I'll leave it there, since that's only one way to interpret the song). The other song I must highlight, not only for its sheer musical, lyrical, and vocal brilliance, but for its sentimental value, is Do Qadam Aur Sahih by Sonu Nigam.
A translation to this song -- a dialogue with life at the pinnacle -- is available in the second entry of this BollyWhat thread. Its integration in the film is segmented across junctures.
Here is one of my favorite drawings, the title inspired by the title to the song. It carried a different title before the release of the soundtrack to Meenaxi. Charcoal only and at six feet by four feet, I tell you it's as easy to get lost in the film as it is while drawing. Now, I haven't dared to draw Tabu yet, but that's not to say I shall not ;)
Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities has a lot to like. It knows its very specific target audience well and stays true to its premise throughout. Its few flaws (mostly, the pace of developments) are easy to overlook if we think along and are comfortable letting our imagination run wild while viewing (immersion is a prerequisite), which I've certainly had no issues with each time I've seen it.
It's dessert for the brain no matter how one looks at it, and an underrated film if there ever were one. A sensuous portrayal of the respect womanhood commands, and no less a celebration of words, sounds, colors, beauty (and perceptions thereof), love, life, and living. Like a poem or painting open to our interpretation, the film, its dialogue, facial expressions of its cast, and lyrics to its songs, are subject to our interpretation. This is how the Hindi film industry deserves to be represented more often!
Chances are you've heard little about it. If there is a part of you that enjoys abstract art (if the kind of art is not for you, you're probably better off staying away), you might just want to give this a chance. A masterpiece on the art of art and that of filmmaking, exemplifying thought convergence in nearly all facets, it is a journey well, well worth experiencing.
Movie rating: 4.25/5 (Excellent!)
Music rating: 4.5/5 (Excellent!)
My classification: PG-13
I've been doing this for Tabu to save her from the evil eye (beginning with mine).
M. F. Hussain had a film starring Madhuri Dixit (he's known to be more obsessed with her than I, and can continue with it; Tabu's MINE!) -- Gaja Gamini (2000) -- has anyone seen it?