Friday, November 18, 2016

Mirzya: Review

In the shrinking swamp that’s the Cinema Of Big Gestures, there’s only one hippopotamus, and that’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali. But if the swamp could also accommodate a crocodile, said reptile would definitely be Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Both directors have a fondness for narratives that teeter on the edge of mania, for scenes that vibrate with the tension of staying sane. But Bhansali tied it all together with Bajirao Mastani last year, whereas Mehra’s Mirzya is as picturesque and empty as the desert it’s shot in.

Mehra has never been one to ease into films. Mirzya opens in a blacksmith’s colony, with Om Puri doing a vague sutradhar thing. As the camera zooms in on a painting of legendary doomed lovers Mirza and Sahiban, we’re transported to the unspecified past, with fiery exploding clay pigeons being shot at by men on horseback in the desert. An observer—a princess, from the looks of it—identifies one particularly talented masked archer by yelling “Mirzyaaa” in a thin voice. He doesn’t reply, but we’re guessing she’s Sahibaan.

It’s a pretty spectacular scene, and only Mehra would think to immediately try and top it. We jump forward to the present day. Teenagers Munish and Suchitra are best friends, go to school together, live close by and are pretty much inseparable. One day, Munish forgets his homework and presents Suchitra’s notebook instead, which results in his friend being caned. In a typically Mehra-esque overreaction, Munish returns the next day, armed with Suchitra’s father’s pistol, and shoots the teacher. He’s sent to a correctional facility but soon manages to escape.

A decade or so passes. Munish (Harshvardhan Kapoor), who now goes by the name Adil, lives in the blacksmith’s colony from the film’s opening. Suchitra (Saiyami Kher) is engaged to the scion of a royal family, a clean-cut young man called Karan (Anuj Choudhry). In a film that has more horses than cars, it is perhaps inevitable that the stable-boy will turn out to be Munish, that he’ll teach Suchitra to ride, and that she’ll discover his true identity and tear his shirt off (maybe that very last bit wasn’t inevitable). As her wedding day draws near, it’s time for them to start making the kind of decisions doomed lovers are apt to.

Every once in a while, Mehra interrupts the Munish-Suchitra story to update us on Mirza and Sahiban (also played by Kapoor and Kher), who have eloped and are being pursued across the desert by her family. I guess we’re supposed to be moved by the similarities between the stories, but the parallels are so obvious—both Sahibaan and Suchitra are being wed to men they don’t love; both are handed vials of poison, etc.—that there’s little resonance. The screenplay is by Gulzar—his first since 1999’s Hu Tu Tu—but there are few poetic flourishes, and all the quoting from Romeo and Juliet is depressingly direct.

None of this would have been watchable if Mirzya wasn’t a fine-looking, great-sounding film. Cinematographer Pawel Dyllus comes up with one long, unbroken, intricate shot after another. Often, it’s his camera movements which seem to supply the necessary energy or emotion to the scene. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy supply their best soundtrack in ages. And I’ve seen worse CGI panthers. Not that all this flash doesn’t tip over at times and end up like an outtake from "Hymn for the Weekend". The worst offender is the musical number "Chakora"—half-experimental dance troupe, half-Vogue photoshoot in a Rajasthani village.

Kapoor, making his screen debut, struggles to fill the outsized character he’s been handed; the part seems to call for someone with the immodesty of a Ranveer Singh. The actor might also be better suited to big city parts: the scene in which he’s demonstrating Munish’s shaky grasp on English falls flat because his pronunciation of the words his character does know is perfect. Kher, a former model who acted in the 2015 Telugu film Rey, presents an immaculate surface, but little evidence of depth. Unlike the doomed lovers of Ram-Leela or Ishaqzaade, these two don’t have much fire in them. Even when they’re on the run, Suchitra and Munish give the impression that they’d rather settle back with a joint and read sonnets to each other rather than rail against the elements.

This review appeared in Mint.

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