Shab was released last year but was only shown at the Indian Film Festival without a general release in Melbourne, so I’ve had to wait for the DVD release. I loved Onir’s previous films, I Am and My Brother Nikhil, so I was looking forward to this tale of love, lust and loss in the big city. Unfortunately, Shab doesn’t have the same instant impact despite strong characters and intertwining complex relationships. That complexity is part of the problem, since at times the connections are diffuse and confusing, but the main problem is with the dialogue, which often sounds contrived and unnatural. Shab ends up as a series of beautifully posed moments where the underlying relationships are only vaguely described and the expected passion surfaces only in brief spurts – usually from the supporting cast.
The film tells the story of Mohan (Ashish Bisht), a wannabe model from Uttarakhand who comes to Delhi to take part in a competition. Despite his impressive physique and tight silver shorts, Mohan’s small-town attitude fails to impress the judges and he’s sent packing from the show. Depressed and broke, Mohan finds his way to a café where the owner Neil (Areesz Ganddi) feeds him and gives him a place to wait until his bus leaves later that evening. However, Mohan has one last card to play, and calls one of the competition judges who invites him to her house. Sonal Modi (Raveena Tandon) is a rich socialite in an apparently loveless marriage with an industrialist who is rarely at home. She takes Mohan as a lover, christening him Azfar and deciding that he will be her ‘trainer’. Mohan seems happy enough with the arrangement – he’s dazzled by Sonal’s house and flattered by her attention, but as time moves on his arrangement starts to sour, as exemplified by his changing expression in the mirror where he practices his smiles before leaving to meet his lover.
Meanwhile Neil has problems of his own. His lover Nishant (Shray Rai Tiwari) treats their relationship casually and is also preparing to get married to satisfy the wishes of his family. Neil relies on his friend Raina (Arpita Chatterjee) for support as he weathers his on-off relationship with Nishant and she provides sensible advice and the odd kick up the arse when Neil becomes too maudlin to cope. But Raina has issues too. She lives with her younger sister Anu (Aniha Dhawan) who resents the time Raina spends at work when Anu is home from boarding school in Mussoorie. Raina’s life is shrouded in mystery for much of the film, with veiled references to her work outside of her regular gig waiting tables for Neil and strange encounters with people who call her Afia. She’s also good friends with Benoit (Simon Frenay), a French national who has just moved in to the apartment across from Raina and who works as a French teacher and a waiter in an upmarket restaurant. These five lives all become connected through their various friendships and relationships as they wrestle with their hopes and dreams while juggling the pressures of day-to-day life.
The best realised of the characters is Mohan, and newcomer Ashish Bisht is good as the country boy adrift in the big city. Ashish combines naiveté with charm in his interactions with Raveena Tandon and is also suitably desperate in his pursuit of designer Rohan Sud (Raj Suri), but his performance is let down by inconsistencies in the character. It doesn’t seem logical that Mohan should wait so long before approaching Rohan for a modelling job, and his romance with Raina never rings true. While Ashish nails the puppy dog looks and lusting from afar, when the relationship moves up a gear it appears false and unrealistic, which isn’t helped by Arpita Chatterjee’s disconnected performance. Mohan’s gradual realisation of his real relationship with Sonal is treated much better and helped immensely by Raveena Tandon who does a wonderful job with her limited role.
Raina is the thread that connects all the characters, but she’s the most disappointing and the character whose story is the least interesting. Her ‘secret’ is easy to guess after a few confrontations but her lifestyle is not well explored or explained. She works for Neil so it’s not clear why she still carries on in her previous line of work since money doesn’t seem to be an issue. There’s never any explanation of why she made the choices she did with Anu, and since most of those don’t make much sense it would have been interesting to try and understand her motivation. Similarly her rejection of Mohan seems odd given her advances towards him, although the whole relationship is strange and always feels manufactured.
Thankfully the other threads are better. Neil’s story is good, although there are a few too many coincidences that mar an otherwise interesting look at a same sex relationship that’s falling apart. The emotions here are given more screentime and appear much more genuine, while Areesz Ganddi’s portrayal of a man suffering through a relationship breakdown is realistic and believable. Although Benoit’s story seems rather superfluous since a foreigner in Delhi can be expected to feel alienated at times, Simon Frenay is good and there are elements in his story that help develop the other characters. More could have been made of his antagonism towards Mohan and the reasons behind his dislike, but Benoit is generally inoffensive even if his story seems somewhat incomplete.
Each of the characters has a story that includes loss and feeling alone while surrounded by thousands of other people which should have been the basis for an interesting exploration of alienation in the city. However, the main reason it fails to engage and deliver on that expectation is the clunky and unrealistic dialogue. This doesn’t appear to be a subtitle issue either as even with my limited Hindi, I can understand enough of the dialogue to know it sounds stilted and unnatural. When Sonal taunts Rohan with comments about wanting Mohan in his own bed rather than on the runway, the remarks sound unbelievably immature. It’s also incredibly unlikely she would say anything like this since the two are supposed to be ‘best friends’. Conversations between Mohan and Raina sound equally forced and the only realistic dialogue is when Mohan discovers Neil is gay and blurts out that he doesn’t look ‘like that’. For the most part it feels amateurish and unlike Onir who is normally sophisticated and clever in his use of language.
On a more positive note, the film looks gorgeous and each set is perfectly staged with exquisite attention paid to detail. Ashish spends most of the time shirtless, but his clothes are a good reflection of his personality, including a truly terrible see-though shirt he buys for himself. Perhaps if the film had focused more on Mohan’s story this would have been a more satisfying watch. I would definitely have preferred to see more of Sonal’s story and less of Raina. As it is however, while it is beautifully shot with an excellent soundtrack, Shab seems no more than a superficial glimpse into a small portion of Delhi society. 2 ½ stars.