Mee Raqsam

Mee Raqsam is a rather sentimental film by Husain Mir and Safdar Mir about a young Muslim girl learning Bharatanatyam in the face of community opposition. Acclaimed cinematographer Baba Azmi directs, and the opening credits explain that the film is a tribute to his father, Kaifi Azmi, who always wanted a film to be made in his home village. Perhaps as a result, the story leans heavily on sentiment and is light on depth, but for those who don’t mind a dash of schmaltz with their melodrama it’s a reasonable time-pass, especially for fans of dance.

The film opens with the sudden death of Maryam’s mother Sakina as she is showing off her dancing skills to her daughter. It’s a bit of an odd start to the film to immediately kill off one of the characters and there is also no context to why Maryam’s mother is dancing on the terrace of their home. Subsequent scenes with her family make it unlikely that she ever had any encouragement from them to learn dance, although it’s suggested by Maryam that she copied dance steps after watching them on TV. Sakina’s dancing seems to be purely a device to link Maryam’s wish to learn dance with memories of her mother, but it feels somewhat contrived without any backstory or explanation. 

Maryam (Aditi Subedi) is understandably devastated by her mother’s death but decides that she will go to classes to learn Bharatanatyam since this reminds her of her mother. Her father Salim (Danish Husain) is supportive, mainly because he just wants his daughter to be happy again, and he can’t see any harm in letting her learn how to dance. The simplistic nature of this part of the story is rather frustrating as it all happens so easily. Maryam wants to learn Bharatanatyam., there is a class nearby, and her father is fine with the idea. There is no explanation of how a poor tailor is paying for the classes, or why Salim doesn’t think through the consequences a little more before agreeing to Maryam’s request. However, everything runs smoothly, at least to begin with, and Maryam begins classes under the aegis of dance teacher Uma (Sudeepta Singh). Of course, it turns out that Maryam is a natural, and despite her lack of experience is selected to perform at a local event for the dance school sponsors. One of these is local Hindu bigwig Jai Prakash (Rakesh Chaturvedi Om), who is unimpressed by the inclusion of a Muslin girl in the classes, dismissively calling her Sultana and later, actively campaigning against her inclusion in a dance competition.

Meanwhile, Maryam’s maternal relatives are equally horrified by the thought of her dance lessons and complain vociferously to Salim. Her aunt Zehra (Shradha Kaul) is loud and bossy, but despite her dictatorial ways it is clear that she genuinely wants the best for Maryam It’s just that it has to be her idea of what is best. She drags Maryam out of classes and instead gets her to join a sewing circle, but Salim manages to allow Maryam to continue classes and still appear to be compliant with her aunt’s demands. However, the local Muslim community is also opposed to Maryam’s dance lessons and community leader Hashim Seth (Naseeruddin Shah) organises a boycott of Salim’s store. Poor to start with, Salim and Maryam face even more poverty and even violence, with stones thrown through their windows and threats made directly to Salim when he attempts to attend the local mosque. Everything culminates in Maryam’s performance at a local dance competition where talent scouts from Delhi will be in attendance. With both the Hindu and Muslim communities against her, the question is will Maryam manage to dance at all, let alone make her mark at the competition.

The story is kept simple, and all the characters apart from Maryam and her father are essentially one-dimensional. On one side are the people who are good – Uma who is thrilled to have a ‘natural dancer’ in her classes and doesn’t care who she is or what her family does. Maryam’s cousin (Juhaina Ahsan) is supportive while local auto driver Ashfaque (Kaustubh Shukla) persuades his fellow drivers to buy their ‘designer’ shirts from Salim when he sees how the family is being shunned by their regular customers. There is a vague love story between Ashfaque and Maryam’s cousin, but despite initial promise this doesn’t go anywhere, and adds little to the story. A track involving Jai Prakash’s ‘modern’ daughter Anjali (Shivani Gautam) is also a little odd and appears forced into the story partly to show a modern viewpoint but mainly so that Anjali can save the day at the end. On the other side are the bad guys – Zehra is traditional and narrow-minded, Jai Prakash and Hashim Seth are as prejudiced as each other, and the local communities follow their lead blindly. 

Although the story follows a predictable path, what really makes the film stand out are the performances from Danish Husain and Aditi Subedi. Danish excels in the role of an understanding and sympathetic father who is completely supportive of his daughter’s decisions. He’s kind, resigned to dealing with his wife’s family, but also stubborn when it comes down to doing what is right. Aditi Subedi is charming as Maryam and she nicely blends together conformity with her rebellious desire to learn Bharatanatyam. She gets the emotional scenes just right and does look lovely when she dances. Deepali Salil’s choreography suits her well, and my only complaint about the dancing is that there just isn’t enough of it. Disappointingly, the final dance competition is spoiled by some erratic camera angles, but the dance scenes in Uma’s classes are simply beautiful. I also enjoyed the music here; the background score by George Joseph and Ripul Sharma is excellent and suits the atmosphere of the film perfectly.

The idea of the story is interesting, and I must admit I hadn’t ever thought about the difficulties of learning Bharatanatyam aside from how complex and physically challenging it appears to be. I’ve always thought of it as a quintessentially Indian dance and it’s fascinating to see it through the lens of religion rather than simply as an art form. The prejudices and conservative mindset of both the Hindu and Muslim communities are well portrayed, although it would have been even better if there had been some more shading of the characters rather than leaving everything quite so black and white. However, the scenes of family disagreement are better and give more of an insight into the difficulties facing Maryam and her cousins as modern attitudes clash with traditional values. Mee Raqsam may not be as ground-breaking a film as it could have been, but it’s a different take on the clash between cultures and that makes it well worth a look. 3 ½ stars.

Raat Akeli Hai (2020)

Raat Akeli Hai is a noir detective tale that puts Inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) at the centre of an investigation into the death of rich patriarch Raghuveer Singh (Khalid Tyabji). The film follows a classic whodunnit format, but within the tale director Honey Trehan tackles a number of prejudices and societal woes that make the film more than a simple murder mystery. Despite a slow start, the film slowly builds and apart from one or two small slips, Raat Akeli Hai is an excellent addition to the Hindi detective genre.

The film starts with a murder on a lonely road at night. A truck crashes into a car carrying a single female passenger, and when the crash isn’t enough to kill her and her driver, the truck driver delivers the final blow himself. Fast forward a few years and Inspector Jatil Yadav is called to the house of Raghuveer Singh when the family find him dead on his wedding day. The prime suspect is his new wife, Radha (Radhika Apte) who was Singh’s mistress and who is resented by the rest of the family. Each has their own reason for wanting Raghuveer out of the way, and as the story unfolds most are shown to be fairly unpleasant people. Even Radha has personality quirks, but she’s easily the most sympathetic of the bunch.

Raghuveer’s first wife was the victim in the opening scenes, and her brother Ramesh Chauhan (Swanand Kirkire) is amongst the suspects at the wedding. He seems resigned to his sister’s fate, but there is the possibility that he’s harbouring a grudge against his brother-in-law. Singh’s daughter Karuna (Shweta Tripathi) is pregnant with her first child and her husband (Gyanendra Tripathi) is violently aggressive towards Radha and seems nasty enough to commit a murder. But then, it’s also more likely that he would kill Radha, rather than his father-in-law. Also included in the suspects are Raghuveer’s apparently drug-addled son(Nitesh Tiwari), his sister Pramila (Padmavati Rao) and her two children Vikram (Nishant Dahiya) and Vasudha (Shivani Raghuvanshi).

The family are rich and despise Radha for being from a poor family. That she was sold into the position of Raghuveer’s mistress doesn’t seem to bother any of them, neither do they seem particularly concerned that he abused her regularly. However, they are at least fair in their general disregard for each other, and most seem to have disliked Raghuveer in equal measure. The more Jatil investigates, the more depraved and dislikeable Raghuveer appears, from his lavishly decorated bedroom with pictures of semi-clad women on the walls to revelations about his preferences for young girls, there seems little to like about the man. What makes the story so intriguing is that there is little to like about the other characters either, and even Jatil has idiosyncrasies that make him appear fussy and unpleasant.

As the investigation unfolds, Jatil finds an unlikely witness in the family’s servant Chunni (Riya Shukla), but when she too is found murdered, it seems as if Jatil may never find the answer. All the clues point to Radha, and perhaps it’s simply Jatil’s developing infatuation that makes him refuse to believe that she could be guilty of the crime.

The story is cleverly developed with small snippets of information gradually building to form the larger picture. I liked how unpleasant everyone is and how they each seem a plausible suspect, even Radha, despite her being the focus of the plot. Her behaviour during the investigation is obstructionist and she refuses to tell her side of the story, presumably from a knowledge that it has never helped her in the past. But even beyond that there is a slyness to her personality that made it difficult to fully empathise with her character. However, Radhika Apte still manages to capture vulnerability and desperation within her portrayal and the mix is simply brilliantly done. Despite not liking Radha, I still felt sorry for her and her situation, while simultaneously wanting to slap her and tell her to stand up for herself! That mix of clever writing and inspired performance makes Radha an intriguing and memorable character, no less because for the most part she is negatively portrayed.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is also excellent as the investigator, bringing a tough, hard-bitten attitude but still displaying compassion when required. His personal fussiness adds depth and a realness to the character that ground his firm focus on the truth and make it seem more reasonable that he would decline to succumb to the family’s desire for a cover-up. The only downside was a developing romance between Jatil and Radha which was uncomfortable and out of step with the rest of the story. After condemning Raghuveer for his treatment of Radha, any relationship between Jatil and Radha seems just as wrong given the power imbalance between the two characters. Writer Smita Singh seems to have tried to mitigate this by introducing Jatil and Radha earlier, but the romance still feels unnecessary.

What I appreciated more was how the story took the darker sides of society and carefully mixed slavery, child abuse and incest with domestic and family violence. Issues that seem to be kept under cover and not spoken about, are dragged into the open, and the horror and anguish caused by abuse of power is suddenly clearly visible. Karuna’s howl of anguish when she finds out the truth resonates as a cry for justice for all abused and tortured individuals, as well as an effective means to demonstrate her own feelings of powerlessness with her own situation. The secrecy and selective blindness by family members is used powerfully to illustrate just how prevalent such treatment of women is throughout all levels of society.  This even extends to Radha’s father, who was the one who initially sold her, and to the family’s treatment of Chunni, who is the only likeable person in the whole film.

I’m a fan of detective films generally and the story and execution here is sophisticated and smooth. The film is perhaps a little slow to get going, but once it does, there are plenty of clues and suspects to keep it interesting. The characterisations are well done, and all the performers seem a natural fit for their roles. This is just different enough to stand out from the crowd of whodunnit’s that have been released recently and I thoroughly recommend it as both social commentary and intriguing detective tale. 4 stars.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan

Hitesh Kewalya’s romantic comedy uses the familiar Bollywood trope of parental disapproval, but this time the couple battling their relatives for acceptance are involved in a same-sex relationship. It’s unusual enough for Hindi cinema to have any gay characters, let alone treat them sympathetically, but in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan the love story is treated exactly the same as a more traditional romance, it just so happens that the couple are both male. While the film isn’t completely successful, it’s a good attempt at a different kind of love story and is hopefully a step towards more realistic portrayals of LGBTI characters in Bollywood. 

The story starts in quintessential DDLJ mode with Aman (Jitendra Kumar) and Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) running to catch a train. Right away the stage is set for a classic romance, and even if the two protagonists are wearing identical red bodysuits and black capes, there is an expectation that ‘Raj’ will somehow have to win his ‘Simran’. There’s a flashback that shows Aman and Kartik live happily together in Delhi but while Kartik’s family are aware of his homosexuality, Aman’s parents have no idea and are happily considering his future life partner even as they get ready to marry off his cousin Goggle (Maanvi Gagroo). Kartik is estranged from his parents who cannot accept the fact that their son is gay, but he convinces Aman that because his father is an educated man, all will be well. Even so, they plan to keep their relationship secret while attending Goggle’s wedding. However, on the train to the wedding, Aman’s father Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) sees Aman and Kartik locked together in a kiss and the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Shankar is appalled and literally sickened by his son’s behaviour, and is determined to ‘cure’ Aman by any means possible. The film follows the family’s attempts to deal with what they see is a life-style choice despite Aman’s attempts to convince them otherwise. 

Ayushmann’s Kartik is the more flamboyant partner, but he never veers into stereotypical territory and his portrayal of a gay man who is happy in his relationship seems pretty spot on. Jitendra’s Aman is quieter and seems naturally the product of his small-town upbringing in a large and mostly dysfunctional family. Jitendra Kumar is very impressive here and his performance rings very true as someone who is naturally more introverted and trying to balance his own wishes with the realistic desire to try and conform to his family’s expectations. The scenario rings true, and even though the conflict is billed as a comedy, there is genuine heartache here on all sides as Aman battles through the difficulties of coming out as gay to his prejudiced and self-centred father. The mix of personalities, Aman’s quieter and more introspective and Kartik’s exuberance and energy also works well and despite a very flimsy backstory, the romance feels genuine simply because the two interact believably together as a couple. 

Aman veers between vulnerability and despair while trying to explain to his parents why there is no difference between their love and his. Which might have worked, except Shankar and Sunauna (Neena Gupta) had an arranged marriage and there appears to be little love on either side. Aman’s explanations involving dopamine and oxytocin are designed to appear to his scientist father, but Shankar is relentless in his homophobia and Aman seems helpless to resist his family’s attempts to solve the ‘problem’ of his sexuality. Since these include a symbolic death and rebirth ceremony, followed by a determined attempt to make him marry Kusum (Pankhuri Awasthy), it’s understandable why he feels as if he cannot destroy his family just for his own selfish satisfaction. Interestingly, Kusum has her own issues too as she is in love with someone deemed totally unsuitable by her family. A marriage of convenience seems an excellent way out, even though Aman is noticeably not thrilled by the prospect. So, it’s left up to Kartik to fight for his lover, win the family’s acceptance and generally try to save the day. 

There is plenty of excellent laugh-out-loud comedy as Kartik attempts to overcome the Tripathi family’s prejudices. The support cast here are all superb and ensure that most of the scenes are genuinely funny despite the underlying seriousness of the issues being addressed. Maanvi Gagroo is excellent as Goggle, a woman who is desperate to get married despite her blind eye which puts off potential suitors and her family’s general disinterest. Manu Rishi Chadha is also excellent as her father Chaman, Shankar’s younger brother who lives in the family home with his wife Champa (Sunita Rajwar). The family dynamic is well played for laughs, particularly in the relationship between Shankar and his younger brother, although both Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta are fantastic as a double act with all the expected familiarity of a long-married couple.

While mostly the comedy works well, a few of the scenes feel forced, more so in the second half. There feel almost like skits that have been added solely for comedy rather than actually fitting smoothly into the screenplay, and as such they break the momentum of the story. While the first half sets up the premise of the film well, the second half has just too much going on to be totally effective. As well as the storyline about Aman’s family’s inability to accept his relationship with Kartik, there is a sub-plot involving Shankar’s invention of disease-free black cauliflowers, Goggle’s really quite distressing marriage difficulties and Chaman and Champa’s own difficult relationship with Shankar and Sunaina. In the process of dealing with so many characters and sub-plots, the film misses some good opportunities to deal with some of the significant and serious issues facing Kartik and Aman. Both characters have good dialogue that raises important points about same-sex relationships but these never last long enough to make an impact. At times the audience in Melbourne started to applaud some particularly insightful lines, but then suddenly were whisked out of the moment by another quick change of subject and new comedic exchange. Despite poignant and keen observations about how difficult it is to find family acceptance of gay relationships, the lure of the next laugh is too great, and the film rapidly moves on, instead of savouring these brief glimpses into the all too real issues facing many people today. 

The best thing about Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is that the film treats the relationship between Aman and Kartik in just the same way as a conventional romance. Although many of the more serious aspects are brushed aside to make way for laughs, the film seems to be at least a step in the right direction to hopefully start some conversations and at least show the possibility of acceptance of same-sex relationships. It’s a lot of weight for the film to carry, which is maybe why Hitesh Kewalya sidesteps most of the serious points and focuses more on the comedy. It may also explain why there are so many sub-plots to act as a smoke-screen for the more controversial romance. Despite its faults, this is an easy film to watch; it’s funny, the songs from Tanishk Bagchi, Vayu and Tony Kakkar fit well into the narrative and the performances are all exemplary. Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar are simply fantastic and even when the story doesn’t quite work, their relationship does. Well worth watching for some light-hearted entertainment that doesn’t push its social message too hard.