Before we move on, congratulations India on Independence Day (August 15th)! To my friends in Pakistan, a tip of the hat and many wishes for a peaceful year ahead. Here's the song of the moment, Des Rangeela (Vibrant Country), with vocals by Mahalaxmi Iyer. (More on the music below.)
If you haven’t yet seen Fanaa (and you must tell me why! :), here’s the story in a nutshell. The blind Zooni (Kajol) visits Delhi on a school-sponsored trip, during which she meets Rehan Qadri (Aamir Khan), a tour guide with a passion for poetry. Too innocent to suspect him, she returns his calls for romantic involvement. He is a womanizer, but soon learns no woman has impacted him as much. He also harbors a greater secret which determines the fate of every character presented, including Zooni's parents Zulfiqar (Rishi Kapoor) and Nafisa (Kirron Kher), and her son (Ali Haji).
There is no doubting Fanaa would have been very different (for the worse) without Aamir and Kajol, and any discussion on the film must begin and end with them. (Here's an advertising display I had to convince a store owner to let me purchase; click to enlarge)
Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be given to this pair is that Kajol is second only to Juhi Chawla when it comes to blazing screen presence alongside Aamir. For her comeback film, Kajol looks better than she’s ever looked. Fanaa belongs to her, in what many consider a career-best performance. There’s not a moment when she looks out of place. It was bound to be this way, opposite a superstar secure enough to equally share and even yield screen space.
Zooni is also the catalyst for the film's tribute to Mother India. She is taught that deciding between multiple options that appear good is the bigger challenge in life. She is loyal to herself and to her country. She has a purpose in life and understands it well, and she goes to great lengths for justice, even if it means risking the lives of those she loves. In what is essentially a chronicle of her transformation, we see her go from indecisive and uncertain (as she was at the beginning) to steadfast in resolve.
Like Mother India, Fanaa uses a child to convey attachment to the present, maturity in being, and purpose and hope for the future -- that it starts off at a school is hardly a coincidence.
As was the case in Mother India, the lead male actors are either cowardly or foolish, either of which is enough to dismiss the notion that the films are anti-feminist (they are clearly not). In fact, there's every reason to be believe in the very inverse! The women leads drive both films, and interestingly, there's implicit commentary to be received from the two films side-by-side on the evolution of the Indian woman (not that I claim to understand the Indian woman, or any woman :]) through the decades, with the benchmarking metric their response to being torn between moral obligation and romantic sentiment.
Aamir often appears indecisive and confused, and that is the biggest strength of his fantastic performance. Rehan isn’t the best-developed character in Fanaa, and doesn’t need to be. He is caught between the worlds of love and hatred, and it shows. The inner struggle he undergoes is extremely well portrayed, with fine representation of his knowing well that he is too far down one path to deviate without causing irreparable damage to the lives of those around him, but being in denial at the same time. He says he tries, but does anyone trust him? Does he trust himself? Is he worthy of being trusted? It’s the quiet intensity that Aamir is routinely associated with that works to his advantage here. Zooni's loveliness alone is justification for his anguish.
My favorite scene is the one in which Rehan asks Zooni how one can love another so much. Followed by this dialogue, it's showcased in the first half of the film and carries much more meaning from that point onward:
Among the several other enjoyable segments in Fanaa is the initial courtship segment. Yes, it’s for fans of Urdu poetry, and it’s beautifully done. Those couplets are easy to improvise for those who are intimate with the art, nothing overdone about it. (A special mention of the dialogue throughout, which is one of the most effective elements of the screenplay; one would think this is stating the obvious, but it isn't apparently -- those who don't speak the language, please watch it with subtitles!) Besides being prominent to highlight the traits of a flirt with a way with words, the poetry is used to demonstrate a spiritual connection between Zooni and Rehan. She cannot see, and must rely on what she can gather from his wit and the words he uses to woo her. She obviously finds them stimulating. Aamir’s look in the first half of Fanaa is probably the worst he's worn through his career, but it only cements what Zooni does and does not seek and then finds or finds amiss in him.
Then there is the segment showcasing reigniting passion between Rehan and Zooni, during Rehan's stay at the Baigs'. On several occasions, the camera focuses generously on their faces, and no dialogue would be needed to portray the strength of their emotions. There’s also an antakshari sequence (in which Guru Dutt and Shammi Kapoor hits are prevalent) weaved in that’s beautiful. A scene at the dargaah much earlier is beautifully shot and written.
Of course, given the masala trappings, it’s far from a perfect film. Issues in the first half are inherent in a film with as much fluff. Segments in the second half, especially those involving Rishi Kapoor, are the closest we get to badly executed scenes. Tabu in an extended guest appearance isn’t quite how I like her. Every time I see Fanaa, I feel a little more annoyed at how underutilized she is, but that’s probably the Tabu fan in me saying that. Sharat Saxena, who was also seen in Ghulam (1998), is once again pitted against Aamir. He holds contempt against Tabu too, and no one in that capacity wins any points from me :) And what was I saying above about men being the weaker ones in both Fanaa and Mother India? Here's Saxena delivering a cheap shot:
Of course, we trust Tabu to say it how it is. (Aside: Memo to Aamir and Tabu: Please, please, please star opposite each other some day, I'd fly to India for a premiere to that!)
I like that the Kashmir issue wasn't trivialized; if it were simple, it would have been a lot closer than it is to being resolved 62 years and three major wars later. I also like that terrorism is portrayed as a common enemy of both the South Asian nuclear powers (very relevant to the scope of the film), which it obviously is.
The minor and subtle but inherent political commentary in Fanaa works largely because it avoids propagandization, a pitfall most films dealing with the subject of terrorism and Kashmir, even at the high-level, seem to fall into. The only exception to this might be (and this is just my thought process, excuse me if you disagree) that the appearance of this lead terrorist (right) resembles that of former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf (left), in office in 2006. Tsk-tsk.
The big question in any masala-like movie is whether its songs enhance the narrative. That is not a major concern here, because the songs are mostly good to begin with. Chaand Sifaarish (Shaan) is the pick of the lot, and is still extremely popular at Indian weddings, and for good reason. If you are as addicted to the tune as I am, you must check out the following instrumental versions it has inspired: by a string quartet; on piano; on electric guitar.
Dekho Na (Sonu Nigam, Sunidhi Chauhan) sounds and looks great, but its fit and need are questionable but forgivable. Mere Haath Mein (Sonu and Sunidhi again) is my favorite from the soundtrack, and is amazingly well choreographed and picturized. The visual appeal of two very good-looking people in a very good-looking setting singing some incredible words is undeniable. See for yourself (and if you wish to sing along some other time, here's a karaoke version):
Speaking of good-looking settings, the ravishing cinematography and mystical background score throughout the film are a definite complement. Kashmir, err...Poland, looks breathtaking. Here’s a news report with exclusive footage from the sets of Mere Haath Mein:
Which brings me to the song I dislike most, and what I consider to be the weakest point in the film. Chanda Chamke had all the potential in the world from the standpoint of its positioning, but Jatin-Lalit recycle a tune (to Yaara Yaara) from their soundtrack to Hum Tum (2004), which is annoying for those of us who dislike that Kunal Kohli-directed film. Quite a waste, but that might be me, because I didn't mind use of the tune in Chaand Sifaarish.
These weaknesses notwithstanding, if part of you enjoys masala films based around love stories, I would definitely recommend you see Fanaa. It is one of the more interesting blends of love of person and of country, and is engaging because of the very convincing performances. Most films that begin the way Fanaa does involve rites of passage, whether they be associated with independence, patriotism, philosophies, or simply, through parenthood. What makes Fanaa work is that each of these rites of passage are applicable to and guided by both the principal characters, who are impacted more by their love for each other than they are by who and where they are. For a film that talks of being destroyed in love, this is only fitting, as are the tributes to Mother India.
Movie rating: 4.25/5 (Excellent!)
It doesn't hold up too well to another Aamir film from the last eight years, but is still well, well worth watching. It is very likely my most favorite fluff-filled movie of the decade! Before I bore you more of why I think the Kajol-Aamir pairing is better than any other pairing Kajol's been part of (ssshhhhh, I never said that ;), be sure to check out Nida's Fanaa post. :) Too bad 3 Idiots won't feature them both (Kajol was initially said to be playing a lead role, but will now be making a guest appearance nonetheless). Oh, well.
Music rating: 3.75/5 (Very good)
Jatin-Lalits's last outing wasn't bad at all after all, with at least three excellent tracks that have aged well. Lyrics by Prasoon Joshi are excellent as always.
My Classification: PG-13
Official website: This Yash Raj Films (YRF) link
DVD set details: The YRF two-disc set contains the film in anamorphic wide-screen format, and a supplemental disc with extras including deleted scenes (they were best left out), a neat little section called 'From Paper to Celluloid' featuring Aamir and Kajol (watch it at this YouTube link), awwww...
...an alternate version of Mere Haath Mein, i.e. with different choreography and locations; again, what they stuck with is better. I wonder if this bit was shot during the day and then reworked:
This Aamir and Kajol one-on-one is also included on disc 2, and is a must-watch for any fan of either.
Those who followed Fanaa pre-release know this. Aamir's comments on a political situation resulted in a regional ban (and significant financial loss) of Fanaa in the state of Gujarat. This article and this one have some really cool background reading, in which he addresses the incompetence of the Indian government, the India-Pakistan arts scene, and much more. You can read more about the controversy under the corresponding section at the Fanaa Wikipedia entry. Someone who isn't afraid of compromising popularity to say what is just adds much integrity to the profession.