If there ever were an example of a theater play in the guise of a film, this is it. Although one would think that as a model of abstract art, this would go without saying:
Shot entirely on indoor studio sets, its biggest strength lies not in its cast or its music, but in its dialogue and not surprisingly in the integration thereof with metaphors contained within the art direction. There's symmetry to be discovered among them. But as is the case with any piece of abstract art, there's ambiguity involved. For example, this triangle, when drawn at the foot of a doorstep, is outlined counter-clockwise. But the audience sees a redrawing in the opposite direction. The question is: why?
Five women are involved in a song choreographed to symmetric movements. Each carries the same message. Each comes from a different background. Each is wearing black. But each has a differently styled garment. Why?
A painter seeks inspiration from woman to create his best work yet. The woman is unknown to him, but he has a name for her. Why? A florist seeks revenge from an unknown. Why? A photographer-journalist shows up in a village and ridicules a woman for giving birth to several children. Why? (This one's easy -- the photographer is Shah Rukh Khan :P)
Not everything is explained, nor is everything immediately intelligible. It's probably not supposed to be, because it is why the film, which presents more of a thought process than a conclusion (one I'll leave for you to discover), is effective. Central to the essence of the film (or at least to what I think is the essence) is the debate between a scientist (Ashish Vidyarthi) and a poet, Kalidas no less (Mohan Agashe), related to the scientific versus the supernatural, the merits and demerits thereof, and the potential for harmonizing them.
The characters that give rise to this debate all warrant interest, not only because of who they portray, but also because of who they are. The film obviously belongs to Madhuri Dixit, who plays five roles (Gaja Gamini, Sangeeta, Shakuntala, Monica, and Mona Lisa). No surprises here. Madhuri does what only Madhuri can. Her speech is powerful. Her walk graceful. And her thoughts reflective of the women she portrays. And no mention of Madhuri would be complete without specific mention of her performances to music. Here's one to start with (guys, just stop what you're doing and see this), with more on the music to follow:
Then there's Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah (as Leonardo Da Vinci), Shah Rukh Khan, Farida Jalal, Inder Kumar, Tej Sapru, Raisa Hussain, and several others including M. F. Hussain in a special appearance.
In many ways, this tribute to woman is based around how indifferent we the men of the world have been to her existence and her elegance, objectifying her, trading her, waging wars over her, all while not once wondering what she thinks. What's more, men are even accused of being dim witted warmongers!
At least we are given credit for trying to better understand the opposite sex, although even here, it is the 'riddle' which is the primary character.
And at least all of this gets me and Shah Rukh on the same side of the argument, for once! =) He really does play a rather intriguing character here, and his entry is well-timed.
I joke about the issues, but they're serious, as you know. Even in the U.S., women aren't paid as much as their male counterparts, which is ridiculous (and it's not only gender-based -- race is involved as well). Far from issues related to employment are issues of other basic rights, such as the right to fair treatment in schools and -- given my primary volunteering efforts in social service, this is the most difficult for me to discuss -- freedom from the threat of domestic violence.
The issues presented were almost summed up by Madhuri in Saajan (1992) and especially in Lajja (2001). So from the standpoint of the essence of the message, there's not much that's different. What is different in this film, and for the better, is the approach to delivering the message, which is effective, especially toward the end. (Be on the lookout for an interesting integration of the theme with The Last Supper.)
The theme is universal and relevant, but the issues I have with Gaja Gamini have to do with its pace and dialogue delivery. As much fun as it is to consume, it's clearly longer than it needs to be. And while identity crises are often welcome (the ones here were intentional, and we're talking of some great actors here), I just didn't think the layers of theater-influenced dynamic were smoothly transitioned to film.
I also missed the outdoors. There was all sorts of potential to add to the art direction using realistic settings (again, this was corrected in Meenaxi with fantastic results), and it would be interesting to hear Hussain's take on why it wasn't exploited. (This is not addressed in the accompanying 'Making of' segment.)
On the other hand, the sets are a visual treat in their own right, and are more than good enough, as would be expected in a film by a painter first, to convey the sense of space -- the confinement of woman -- which is central to the theme after all. (So that might be why?)
The film does leave the door open on whether it wants us to perceive its message being two-fold, that the paradox of progress might indeed be better understood if women and men were given equal rights (where applicable), as they are by religions (or so the film says, and I agree to significant extent; a discussion on what religions mandate is not one I am willing to moderate). Unlike Meenaxi (a much more empowered woman, and arguably more appealing), this is more a chronicle than a future perspective. Like Meenaxi, which I think is the much better film (and with a better-aligned performance by Tabu; sorry Madhuri fans :P), there's much to ponder. And for that alone, my time with it was extremely well spent.
I'd recommend it if you enjoy abstract art, are open to a new approach to Hindi cinema, and content with undergoing an experience that facilitates thought but doesn't guide it. And if you're a Madhuri Dixit fan, consider it mandatory viewing!
Movie rating: 3.5/5 (Works for me)
Music rating: 3.25/5
I was expecting more in this department. It's quite a mixed bag by Bhupen Hazarika and Anuradha Pal. Meri Payal is beautiful, but the title song leaves some to be desired. Ek Samay (with subtitles) starring Madhuri and Shah Rukh is fun and funny, and although it reminds a lot of Pakistani pop music from the late 1980s, I must admit I find it amusing. The idea of Madhuri formally celebrating the dawn of a new century, and looking so happy while at it, is priceless! :o)
My classification: PG-13 (for theme)
If you are a Madhuri Dixit fan, you'll enjoy this lovely tribute by Pitu.