Approaches based on target audiences only begin to tell of why the similar subject of root causes of dysfunctional marriages was approached so differently by directors of these three films, each without a conventional villain. Each presents characters with a rather grim assessment of marriage, and each presents moments of happiness in marriage to establish the ideal state. Each highlights that the root causes of the dysfunctional marriage existed from prior to the marriage. And finally, each presents the core issues early in the film so there aren't any abrupt ends and there's plenty of time for viewers to process the information as events unfold.
Back in high school, one of my favorite language teachers was of the view that because a letter is an aesthetic object that one writes and grasps, it is superior in emotional and physical investment to an electronic communication. That’s difficult to challenge, she said, especially in the case of love letters! Even the technology advocate in me has always found that conclusiveness (emotional and physical) difficult to dispute. (Besides, it was she who taught me the difference between 'mischief' and 'misbehavior', which is magnified in Urdu poetry ;)
The Mahesh Manjrekar-directed Astitva (Identity) essentially begins with a letter addressed to Aditi Pandit (Tabu). It is read to her by her husband Shrikant Pandit (Sachin Khedekar) in the company of their child Aniket (Sunil Barve), his fiance Revati (Namrata Shirodkar), and Shrikant's friend Ravi (Ravindra Mankani) and his wife Meghna (Smita Jaykar). The letter carries notification of one deceased Malhar Kamat having willed his estate and savings to Aditi.
Off we go to a flashback, which reveals every symptom of an over-controlling husband too blinded by his narrow-mindedness and narcissism to heed his wife and respond to her needs. This is also where we learn more of Malhar Kamat (Mohnish Bahl), Aditi’s music teacher. His introduction alongside the lovely Tabu comes in the beautifully integrated Gana Mere Bas Ki Baat Nahin by Shankar Mahadevan and Sadhana Sargam; from among the very situational soundtrack by Music Directors Rahul Ranade and Sukhwinder Singh.
What Shrikant deduces from his diaries (the vehicles for the flashback) guides the rest of the film, and it is from this point onward that the two fine actors in Tabu and Sachin take complete charge of the screenplay and do it the justice it deserves.
Astitva picks a side on the gender roles issue and hammers away relentlessly. It knows well where it stands, and it is why the message resonates so clearly. However, it is this lack of an identity crisis (true to the title) that is ultimately its big weaknesses. When it tries to make up, the effort is paltry and inconsistent with the character it uses for the delivery.
Here is my issue with an otherwise extraordinarily well-packaged film. It implies that an educated and progressive woman, by definition, cannot be one who chooses to be a housewife or stay-at-home mom. Please let this not appear as a challenge to one definition of feminism that advocates for extreme independence from men and not being remotely aligned with traditional gender roles. That is most certainly not my intent, and would not be near consistent with my opinion -- to each his/her own is how it should be, and a one-size-fits-all approach has only done harm to the world.
It's the implied exclusivity ('cannot be one...') that's the issue. A definition, by definition, intends to confine, and my contention is that the essence of ‘feminism’ is, first and foremost, freedom of and right to choice. It is simply fair for a woman to have the right, just as a man, to prioritize the focus of her energies. Whatever definition of feminism ignores this is incomplete. (A study of women students at Yale, results from which were shared in this NY Times piece from a few years ago, offers interesting supporting commentary.) Addressing to a greater extent this freedom of choice as an integral component of a woman’s identity would have undoubtedly made Astitva more credible and complete.
I am no psychoanalyst, but as a defender of the film, I would argue the filmmakers deliberately chose to focus overwhelmingly on one side of the issue to provoke even the slightest constructive thought in the minds of men like Shrikant Pandit and the couple’s son, to have them gravitate away from a hopelessly and extremely narrow-minded view to closer to the middle. Treated in this fashion, Astitva is a winner all the way.
Thanks (and thankfully so!) to forces that ensured I didn’t grow up to be a ‘male chauvinist pig’, I cannot attest to the effectiveness of this film in the eyes of what one would imagine are the primary target audience. Like anyone else, I can attest to the relevance of the relationship issues and the need for them to be addressed (in the region, especially). For tackling these issues head-on, and for thunderous performances by the leads (especially in the climax), Astitva is well, well worth watching. No. I mean, for Tabu alone, it is well, well worth watching ;)
Movie rating: 3.75/5 (Very good!)
Music rating: 3/5 (Above average)
True to its purpose, the soundtrack is much better within the film.
My Classification: R (For theme, language)
Speaking of channeling focus and forms of energies, message-based films addressing relationship issues have many forms. Judaai (1997), directed by Raj Kanwar, offers a much less seriously addressed take on the subject (relative to Astitva). It is far more entertaining as a result.
A materialistic Kajal (Sridevi) marries Engineer Raj (Anil Kapoor), assuming he is destined for wealth given his profession. Raj is an honest professional who refuses to accept bribes, and prefers a modest lifestyle. And Kajal cannot stand him that way. This works to the advantage of Jahnvi (Urmila Matondkar), niece to Raj’s boss Sahni (Saeed Jaffrey), who offers Kajal an incredible amount of money to divorce her husband (legally and theoretically) so she could marry him. Jahnvi, of course, loves Raj despite his being married and having children. And Kajal, of course, accepts the offer in her lust for wealth. So begins the power struggle in a wacky love triangle in which the poor Raj must play second fiddle to each woman.
Can anyone be trusted more than Anil Kapoor and Sridevi to pull off a high-drama masala film? Here’s one very dependent on its actors’ abilities, which works well because it caters to their strengths. Urmila is the real surprise, and keeps up with the consistently commanding Sridevi, despite not always having leverage in the power struggle. Given the genre, it's easy to overlook the countless plot holes.
However, like most loud masala films of its era, Judaai is hardly immune to major distractions along the way. Here, those distractions come not from the supporting cast (Kader Khan, Farida Jalal, Johnny Lever, and Paresh Rawal, all effective), but from the soundtrack (Nadeem-Shravan). Picturized in locations that don’t have remote semblance to the plot (look, here’s one in Downtown Los Angeles!)…
…the bigger issue with them is that they are, for the most part, simply not good enough. This is inexcusable, because I identified at least three which were plagiarized from relatively much better works! Ooee Baba borrows its tune from I’m a Scatman by Scatman John. The title song, which is also the best song in the soundtrack, is nowhere close to this remarkable Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan version of the song. Johnny Lever gets a mess of a party song (could not find it online) which is lifted from a famous Ali Haider song in his noteworthy 1991 album ‘Qaraar’, titled 'Main reh gaya kunwara'.
Lever is notorious for not-so-classy comedies, but his comic timing is evident. I turned off the volume for this song (it was testing), truth is his body language alone makes it a laugh riot. He plays an aspiring actor who reenacts film scenes at every opportunity; funny enough to keep one entertained. Beware the cross-cultural challenges inherent in comedy. And be on the lookout for "abba-dabba-jabba!", which I must save for your viewing experience. It's unlike anything I've ever seen, and it's its silliness which makes it hilarious. Back to the music, and Anil and Sridevi do make up for quite a bit with their mere presence, though. Here’s an interestingly picturized Raat Ko Neend Nahin Aati. Perhaps the most popular song from the soundtrack is Mujhe Pyaar Hua.
Enjoyed that Raj and Kajal go to a cinema where Raja Hindustani (1996) is playing!
Speaking of which, Urmila starts from where she left off in Rangeela (1995)! (Did you really think I wasn't going to bring it up? :o)
It's late at night and pouring, and they're stuck in the house. She doesn't like this dude. He's been drinking. No extra credit for guessing where this is headed. =)
It’s intended to be an entertainer and family drama from start to finish, and there’s not a moment during which it loses that identity. Sridevi and Urmila are a sheer joy to watch, and Anil Kapoor is, as he always seems to be, in fine form. Complement these with a fun dose of comedy. Three and a half stars, then, for fun masala viewing.
Movie rating: 3.5/5 (Good!)
Music rating: 2.5/5 (Average)
My classification: PG
At the root of the Santosh Sivan-directed Before the Rains (2007) -- an English-language film -- are two dysfunctional families. Their identities are questioned by their circumstances, and that at least one family does not have a foreseeable pleasant future. Sajani (Nandita Das) and the owner of the house in which she works as a maid-servant, Henry Moores (Linus Roache), are involved in an extramarital affair. Sajani's husband is abusive if there ever were one, and she mistakes Henry's advances and requests for sexual favors for 'true love'. Caught in the web are Henry's wife Laura (Jennifer Ehle), and T. K. Neelan (Rahul Bose), also a worker at Moores', whose loyalty to his boss is tested against what is truthful. Who will be hurt most, and who will emerge victorious?
The cast are great, but we knew that going in. What Before the Rains has in abundance that the two films discussed above do not, are breathtaking cinematography and a fine background score. This is not at all surprising, especially after having seen Tahaan (2008) by the same director.
Aside 1: Would this carry a clue to the primary target audience?
Aside 2: This is not a flashback to Naya Daur (1957). Here's a sneak preview (but I wouldn't watch more videos from the same user, because it gives away a good chunk of the film).
The film, set in the 1930s, casually uses the nationalistic movement in the backdrop, which works. It would likely have been much better served had it used the setting to a much greater effect. It could have gone in several interesting directions, but chooses a conventional approach that gives the product more of a TV movie feel than anything. Works if that’s for you.
It also falls somewhat flat in its narrative, especially with respect to establishing believable motivations behind the characters’ (often drastic) actions. If there's a reason beyond lust for which Henry cheats on a gem of a woman who is his wife, it isn't at all evident. Either way, it's too bad such genuine evil exists. And that's just the way it is.
Problem is, Nandita Das has conditioned us to expect much better, and that’s part of why I was left somewhat dissatisfied. It's far from a bad film, though, and fine enough if treated as just another story of betrayal and infidelity, and their consequences in the specific case.
Movie rating: 3/5 (Above average)
My classification: R (for theme, some sexual situations)
Official website: http://www.BeforeTheRains.net
After seeing this brown striped tie in Garam Hawa (1973) and now Before the Rains, in both cases with some shade of a white shirt and trousers, is it safe to assume the look was extremely popular in the 1930s through ’50s?