“This is mature. The characters never hesitate to communicate what they feel openly. They don’t sit around crying for long, long static shots; they talk. They do’t wait around for misunderstandings to be turned into convenient plot twists like in other movies, and this, perhaps, is one of the first things people won’t like in Shabd. It’s no holds barred without degenerating into a shouting match…”
The job of a movie reviewer, in simple terms, is to tell you about a film and whether or not it is, in their opinion, worth your time and money. This is generally taken as meaning that the films recommended fall within what would be considered a ‘good movie’ by the reader or the majority of them. If it’s recommended, then it must be a good movie, or if it’s not your definition of a good movie then it must be what is considered a good movie by the ‘critical community’ and is therefore worth watching nonetheless.
I recall an incident a couple of years ago when a guy who runs a popular movie website put a film on his top ten of the year list, and mentioned that when he asked critics why they had given said film such a drubbing in print (while admitting to love it personally), they all replied that they couldn’t recommend it to their readers wholeheartedly, that is was a movie that would not be well received by the majority of their readers.
This situation does bring to light the fact that the majority of people look at cinema as a convenient piece of entertainment that doesn’t challenge them. The rationale is that they work hard all day and when they spend their 50 rupees, 30 dhirams or 8 dollars, they expect pay off not just in a general sense, but within a pre-conceived notion they have of cinematic entertainment. This has led to the heavy-handed genre system in place today. In America you have Comedies, Dramas, Romances, Action movies, Fantasies and Horror/Thrillers, and in India we have pretty much the same ones, although they tend to all smoosh together frequently. In a three hour movie with a fifteen minute interval in-between, you can start with a comedy/romance, have a dramatic/horror mid-point cliffhanger, followed by an action heavy second half and dramatic resolution.
This would translate into the standard ‘masala movie’ plotline of boy introduced — SONG — comedy involving boy’s buddies, Girl introduced — SONG — boy meets girl — SONG(s) (depending on duration of courtship) — girl’s parents/boy’s villainous rival/supernatural thingy objects, boy/girl dies/nearly dies — INTERVAL — boy fights all odds to defeat the minions of girl’s parents/villainous rival/supernatural thingy, gets beat up — SAD SONG — villains party — ITEM SONG — boy shows up, has final showdown, wins girl, buddies show up for one last joke, freeze frame on group shot, roll credits.
This is you standard Hindi movie. This is what has, is, and will be the staple plotline of 90% of Hindi films for a long, long time. People say it’s all the same, that they want something different, but when something different — something truly different — does come along, they scoff at it and shun it like the plague (this is why four of the best films last year — Lakshya, Swades, Yuva and Meenaxi — were all critical flops, and not exactly commercial blockbusters).
Variations work. You can keep the same basic plotline, just shuffle the cards around and play it under new lights. In the 70s it was the Angry Young Man kind of films, the post-independence generation grown up and raging against the grimy machine that birthed them. In the 80s it was the more angry young men, only now they’d traded in their suits and
flared pants for stubbles, mullets and red baniyans, and while their predecessors were content with being angry at their daddies and the daddies of their lovers who had killed their daddies, the 80s hero was raging against The System.
Mogambo (and Shakha and every other Blofeld-via-Gemini-Circus villain from that age) were still well tied into The System. Politicians were always hanging around their palatial dens, the pawns of these cancerous megavillains.
In the 90s people got a little sick of all the raging, and so the villains in the traditional sense were removed entirely, and replaced by familial discord, ideological differences, vanity and jealousy and the unstoppable urge to love, with nary a violent finger being lifted, except, of course, in all those gangster movies that followed Satya.
It is now 2005, and it’s about time we saw what this decade’s variation will be. A shrewd movie watcher will have already seen it, most notably last year. Most people don’t like this villain; most people don’t even know that they don’t like this villain, but they shun any movie that features it. The 2000s’ villain is the villain within. Or, to be more specific, it is the villain that many of today’s top directors are featuring.
So while Swades was about a man trying to find his country within him, Yuva was about three paths on that same road, each ending in a different destination. Meenaxi was about the giving of oneself, the cleaving of a part of you, about selfishness and life and the love of your creations, and Lakshya, the most straightforward, was simply about being. It’s not only last year; films like Dil Chahta Hai and Aks were tackling the villain as far back as 2001.
Which brings us to Shabd.
Leena Yadav’s film is very hard to describe, in the same way that M.F. Husain’s Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities was hard to describe, and if I were to compare Shabd to any other film, then it would be that one. Both are about writers, their muses, writers’ block, and love. Shabd has a much more straightforward storyline — unlike Meenaxi, it isn’t abstract — but nor is it a totally straightforward tale. You could say it’s like a Jeanette Winterson novel; it tells a story with rhythm and texture and mood.
The plot is basically about once-great-now-not novelist Shaukath Vashisht (Sanjay Dutt) starting his new novel after a two year dry spell following his second novel’s critical drubbing), his professor wife Antara (Aishwarya Rai) and the new, young professor in her school (Zayed Khan).
It’s a love story that is mature and warm and mad all at the same time, and for once, ‘mature’ doesn’t just mean that the protagonists wear suits instead of garish college-wear, or mention sex once in a while.
This is mature. The characters never hesitate to communicate what they feel openly. They don’t sit around crying for long, long static shots; they talk. They don’t wait around for misunderstandings to be turned into convenient plot twists like in other movies, and this, perhaps, is one of the first things people won’t like about Shabd. It’s no holds barred without degenerating into a shouting match (the other hallmark of ‘mature’ cinema).
The film looks and sounds gorgeous. Too often films use fancy effects and edits without adding anything to the experience, but in Shabd‘s case the editing, cinematography and post-production (along with Vishal-Shekhar’s excellent music) are essential. This is one of those cinematic movies; I can’t imagine it in any other format but on the big screen.
Aseem Bajaj’s cinematography is one of the highlights of the film; it alone is worth the price of the ticket. His camera is intimate and warm, lingering, quietly energetic. His work in Chameli was also top notch — although I was put off by a few times he resorted to gimmicky focus-effects and somewhat staid compositions — but Shabd is on another level entirely.
Performace-wise, Sanjay Dutt steals the film; he has a tough job too, since for much of the film he he alone on screen. I had never pegged him as a solid dramatic actor (he’s great in comedies like Khoobsurat and Munnabhai M.B.B.S.) but this performance is wonderfully nuanced, restrained and complex.
Look, Aishwarya Rai is very beautiful and all, but she’s never really delivered a performance I was 100% happy with. Until now. Yes, true believers, even she does a good job. Zayed Khan is rough in spots, but as the squeaky clean, vivacious ‘other man’ he holds his own. Certainly his best performance so far.
What more can I say; I think the film is near-perfect.
Near Perfect? Why not Perfect?
Because I can tell you right now, that 99% you will not like Shabd. It’s not the kind of film most people (critics included) will like; it bends most of the rules of commercial cinema while still being a commercial film; it’s not set up to be consumed in bite-sized chunks. It expects the audience to have — if not a brain — then at least an open mind and an imagination. In short, it’s a film by a writer, made for writers.
I can’t tell you to go see Shabd because you’ll like it. However, I’m not one of those critics who ‘owes it to his audience’ to
say a film is good only if it will appeal to them.
So I urge you, go see Shabd, because it’s worth seeing.