Monday, March 7, 2016

Zubaan: Review

If there’s one scene that best captures the mix of hipster pretension and soap-opera melodrama that is Zubaan, it’s probably the musical number that arrives three-quarters of the way in. "Kori Pukaar" is sung by Amira (Sarah-Jane Dias) from a stage that has—as we’ve been warned earlier—“a whole Japanese minimalist thing happening”. It’s a power ballad, without a hint of a beat, yet the French dance duo Les Twins are there alongside her, writhing and swivelling like the number is more MC Hammer than Maria Callas. Drama enough, one would think, but towards the end, a battered, bandaged Dilsher (Vicky Kaushal) emerges to sing the last stanza. The scene ends with them kissing as fake snow falls and onlookers applaud.

Up till this point, Zubaan has concerned itself with a young Sikh boy from Gurdaspur with a beautiful singing voice who grows up to be the stuttering, ambitious Dilsher. There’s a fleeting moment early on, when a helmeted Dilsher is destroying a rival’s knee in a gym, when I felt the cold, confident spirit of Tom Ripley descend on the film. Like the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, not only does Dilsher want to live a rich man’s life so badly that he’ll commit crimes for it, he changes his identity in order to infiltrate a wealthy household. But Zubaan isn’t willing to follow these dark urges to their logical conclusion, and it’s just a matter of time before Dilsher does what every Hindi film hero who loses his way is made to: return to his roots.

The household that Dilsher attaches himself to is headed by Gurcharan Sikand (Manish Chaudhari), a business tycoon originally from Gurdaspur, which is where Dilsher had met him years ago. We’re shown, via flashback, how he watched Dilsher get picked on by a bunch of boys and didn’t intervene, later telling him that the incident would teach him to rely only on himself. For some reason, it becomes Dilsher’s great ambition to find Sikand in Delhi, work with him and emulate him in every way he can. He does this with some degree of success, gaining Sikand’s trust, taking over responsibilities formerly entrusted to his sulky son, Surya (Raaghav Chanana), even moving into the magnate’s house.

As Surya’s jealousy mounts, Dilsher finds himself drawn to Amira, a vaguely defined singer-dancer-free-spirit. Her purpose in the film seems to be to remind Dilsher of his true calling—music, for he doesn’t stammer when he sings—as well as to supply intermittent blasts of hipster chic, whether it be a rave party in what looks like a lit-up baoli or a white-desert wake with bhaang and sky lanterns held in the memory of her dead brother. Their scenes together have all the heat of a flickering scented candle; there’s more passion, if not much more sense, to be found in the Punjabi-inflected exchanges between Sikand his wife (a nicely campy Meghna Malik) and Dilsher.

Zubaan is the first film by Mozez Singh; it opened the Busan International Film Festival last year and won the Rising Director Asia Star award there. The trailer bills it as “The musical journey of the year”, and though Ashutosh Phatak’s grab-bag soundtrack of Punjabi folk, dance-pop and rock has its moments, it’s hardly path-breaking. The only thing the film cannot dim is the promise shown by Vicky Kaushal. Even in this, his first film (he shot for it before Masaan), he’s a likeable, transparent performer, his face consistently betraying whatever emotions his character is experiencing. I’m sure the audience would have willingly followed him into darker territory. But the film doesn’t seem to believe that and is left, like its protagonist, fumbling for eloquence.

This review appeared in Mint.

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