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.

The Dirty Picture

Even without knowing the now denied Silk Smitha association The Dirty Picture is a road well travelled. A young girl runs away to become a star and fame changes her life, not always for the better. Vidya Balan delivers a sensational performance in every meaning of the word. I can’t imagine any other current day actress in the role. She gives Silk a robust earthiness that is a delight to watch and her performance rescues the film from the danger of being a mere ode to sleaze.

Vidya doesn’t rely on just hip thrusting and heaving her ample chest. Despite being lightly sketched as a character, Silk grows and changes and the subtle nuances that illustrate this are all in the acting. Silk starts off Reshma, a quick witted attention seeker who doesn’t care how she gets noticed as long as she gets into the movies. She is outrageous in a ridiculous attempt at being sexy, using lewd tongue gestures and whip fondling to show she is a very bad girl. Her performances in the films within the film become more realistic and practiced as her off screen relationships develop. Silk becomes a real vamp as she delivers what men want but does it in her own style, on and off screen. Through it all, she rarely loses her joyous smile and the wicked sparkle in her eyes. She keeps her cheerfully smutty humour intact, simulating an orgasm and then winking at the director as they joke like schoolboys about who she was imagining. When her story takes the inevitable turn for the tragic, Vidya has a maturity and subtlety that makes the resolution genuinely moving. She shows Silk’s heartbreak, anger and her resignation.

So I have to mention Vidya’s boobs. Yes, they are front and centre for a lot of her screen time. When Silk is performing a dance or scene, putting herself on display, the camera crawls over her body in a voyeuristic way. But if Silk is at home or not on show, the focus is usually more on her face or a full body shot. I was pleased to see that distinction from the unadulterated sleaze of the films Silk was making. She has no false modesty about why men look at her, and she happily uses her body to make an impression.  Silk doesn’t just fall into bed with anyone, but she doesn’t see any reason not to when she is interested. Vidya has the ample curves of a 70s item bombshell and exudes confidence. She also shows the physical changes of a woman aging and paying the price for some riotous living, and that helps make Silk more sympathetic.

Naseruddin Shah is ‘Smashing’ Surya, a parody of aging 1970s Tamil film heroes. He is a narcissist and sleazebag, wanting this fresh piece of meat but turning on her when Silk’s notoriety starts to eclipse his fame. His performance is very good but he has played this kind of aging womaniser so often that I felt it was a bit stale, silly cowboy hats notwithstanding.

Emraan Hashmi is director Abraham. He narrates a lot of the film in a voiceover that sounds bored and it was unsubtitled at times which annoyed me. Abraham represents the arty side of film making and professes to hate Silk. His character is so vague that his motivations are muddled or not evident. When he and Silk eventually bury the hatchet, he does seem more relatable but I don’t think Emraan added anything to the film.

Tusshar Kapoor is also in a thankless role as Surya’s spineless skivvy-wearing younger brother Ramakant. He completes a love triangle but again a weakly written character and a so-so performance left the element of tension lacking. Tusshar did have a fun scene when he cut loose and danced to Silk’s signature song but that was about it for him.

These men represent different attitudes to Silk – the predatory, the judgemental and the romantic. She is the subject of desire, hatred and gossip but is blissfully unaware for ages as she only looks at pictures of herself and never reads the scathing articles. Silk is a huge fan of Silk. When Surya says she has no place in a home only in someone’s bed, that is how she is seen by ‘society’. It is only when Silk’s relationship with Surya ends that she starts to think about the implications of being notorious. That breakup is the catalyst for a downward spiral into drinking and wild behaviour as her career falters. She is surrounded by men who want her, but none who really like her. That’s what made me sad.

The story is the traditional rags to riches, and the exploitation of a woman providing an embodiment of sexual fantasy is not really surprising either. There are some really interesting bits as the movie industry is critiqued, and the script has some funny one-liners. Even though Rajat Arora has some zingers in the dialogue, the main characters lack depth and the way the story is told is quite stilted. There isn’t quite enough tension between the three men and Silk, although the brothers have some good scenes as Ramakant is forced to bow to his older superstar sibling. I’ve mentioned the voiceover by Abraham and director Milan Luthria uses other narrative devices that made me feel distanced. Nayla, a gossip columnist, often appears to make prophetic statements about Silk but rarely interacts with the scandalous actress. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it really doesn’t fit to have this Greek chorus of one pop up and comment. I really liked Anju Mahendru in the role of Nayla. She made the gossip queen a strong and vivid presence, a woman who had seen it all before and only cared as much as it contributed to her next headline.  Maybe it is a characterisation drawn from her experiences?

The retro style music by Vishal-Shekhar is lots of fun as it is mostly used for Silk’s item numbers.  I don’t think there are any future classics in the soundtrack but I loved seeing the cheesy picturisation to the Bappi Lahiri and Shreya Ghoshal duet on Ooh La La. Ishq Sufiana is quite lovely but I don’t think it was necessary to have the 80s style picturisation complete with Emraan in a see through shirt. It felt like an afterthought. Nakka Mukka is used as a recurring theme for Silk, and it encapsulates her energy and physicality. The art direction is great, and the costumes are straight out of films from the 70s and 80s. There are lots of references to famous dances or scenes, and I had a great time trying to place the original. Alas, there was no Chiranjeevi-esque dashing lycra clad hero for this Silk.

When I heard about this film and that Vidya had been cast I did wonder about the dancing as I’ve never found her to be terribly good. That question is neatly dealt with when an assistant director criticises her for missing a beat and his producer says ‘Never mind the beat, look at that heat’.

Silk said it best – Audiences want three things; entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. And Vidya as Silk is entertainment.

Ishqiya (2010)

Ishqiya has a top cast and with the writing and directing team of Abhishek Chaubey and Vishal Bharadwaj, the story and script are top quality as well. This is Abhishek Chaubey’s first directorial venture although he worked with Vishal Bharadwaj on a number of his films as assistant, most recently Kaminey and Omkara. The screenplay here shows many of the same elegantly clever twists and turns, and there is plenty of snappy action. All of the actors make the most of their roles with some excellent performances, and it all adds up to a great film.

The film tells the story of two thieves, Khalujaan and Babban who are on the run after stealing from their boss Mushtaq. Khalujaan and Babban are uncle and nephew, and there is the added complication that Mushtaq is Khalujaan’s brother in law.  Khalujaan tries to rely on this connection to escape Mushtaq’s murderous plans for revenge but it seems that just being family isn’t enough – not when you’ve stolen from Mushtaq at any rate. After being caught by Mushtaq and his merry band of thugs near the start of the film, the pair manage to escape by means of some witty repartee and good team work. There is an interesting subtitle error here. I am quite sure that Mushtaq says kutta and really does mean ‘dog’, although possibly bog makes just as much sense.

Since they can’t find anyone willing to risk the wrath of Mushtaq and take them in, they end up planning an escape toNepal. When they end up at the border town of Gorakhpur, they decide to seek help from an old accomplice Vidyadhar Verma. However on arriving at Verma’s house, they find out that he has been killed in a tragic accident, and end up dealing with his widow Krishna instead. This creates an interesting dynamic as Krishna plays the two men against each other while she plots to use them for her own ends. Meanwhile Mushtaq turns up yet again, and in a final attempt to get enough money to pay for their freedom, Khalujaan and Babban join forces withKrishnato kidnap a local business tycoon. They plan to use the ransom money to pay off Mushtaq, but Krishna has other ideas and their kidnapping ends up with some unexpected results.

The film opens with Krishna and her husband at home and in bed as he teases and cajoles her while she tries to get him to surrender to the police. Although the couple have been kept apart by Verma’s kidnapping schemes they seem to be very much in love and Krishna obviously misses her husband while he is away on his various criminal activities. Abhishek Chaubey has cleverly drawn Krishna and Verma’s relationship in detail in just a few minutes in these opening scenes and this attention to detail in the characterisation is carried out throughout the film. For example, when we first meet Khalujaan and Babban they are celebrating their escape from Mushtaq with the loot, and just from the way they are dressed and the way they dance and celebrate, we have a lot of information about their respective characters.

The more sensible and level-headed of the two is Khalujaan, ably played by Naseeruddin Shah. He’s older, although not necessarily wiser, especially if he has had a bit too much to drink. Despite his criminal tendencies he is a romantic at heart and on meeting Krishna he praises her singing, helps her with the cooking and indulges in idealistic fantasies of the two of them together. After their first meeting he has a good look at himself in the mirror and realising that he looks his age, resorts to using some of Krishna’s kohl to darken his hair and beard to make himself look more attractive to her. It’s all so very human and natural and is just one of the ways that Abhishek Chaubey brings his characters to life. Khalujaan is also more focused on the goal of getting away with the loot, while Babban (Arshad Warsi) votes for killing Mushtaq and getting on with spending the money and enjoying life.

As Khalujaan romances Krishna from afar, Babban eyes her speculatively from almost their first meeting. He’s much more direct and it’s very telling that his first visit in Gorakhpur is the brothel. He is all male, hot-blooded and very ready and willing for action. Despite knowing that his uncle has fallen in love with Krishna, he makes a play for her too. However, even with his ‘love them and leave them’ attitude he ends up under her spell, and falls in love for probably the first time in his life. His betrayal by Krishna seems to cut much deeper than with his uncle, perhaps because this is his first love.

With his kohl rimmed eyes and knowing looks Arshad Warsi revels in the character of Babban. To some extent he revisits a little of his lovable rogue character of Circuit from the Munna Bhai series, but Babban is much more cynical and a harder persona. He has no qualms about accusing Krishna of stealing their money, or using violence to force her to reveal her plans later on. But at the same time his heartbreak when he realises he has been betrayed is very real and he genuinely seems to take an interest in Nandu (Alok Kumar), a local boy he meets at Krishna’s house.

The two men are very easily seduced and led by the enigmatic Krishna. Vidya Balan does an excellent job of portraying Krishna as a woman of many faces. She starts off as the woman in love but with her husband’s death she seems to change and becomes aloof and mysterious, at least until she meets up with Khalujaan and Babban and seems to come to life again. She knows exactly what she wants and how to achieve it, and will allow nothing to stop her reaching her goal.Krishna is a very strong female character, even if she does turn a little crazy and vengeful at the end, and it’s great to see Vidya Balan in a role which suits her skills as an actress. She doesn’t have too much dialogue and in many scenes conveys most of her emotions through her expressions alone, which she does very well.

The interactions between the three leads are the crux of the film, but the other characters all have their place. Salman Shahid is coldly efficient as the omnipresent Mushtaq who has the knack of turning up at the right place every time. Rajesh Sharma as businessman Kamalkant Kakkad and Gauri Malla as his mistress Mamta have some comedic scenes together, particularly when Babban and Krishna first see them indulging in a little role playing to the wonderful Aa Jaane Jaan from Intaquam. (Another film about a woman out for revenge and Mamta nods to the Helen connection with all those feathers.)

There are some beautifully shot scenes of village life in the film and the cinematography by Mohana Krishna Agapu makes the most of the local countryside. While there aren’t any big song and dance numbers, the songs by Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar are excellent and fit well into the film. As well as the film soundtrack, Babban has a tendency to burst into song when he’s happy, and there are some fun renditions of songs from Chak De India and Om Shanti Om. There are so many great moments in this film, both comedic and some very good drama as well. With all the twists and turns the film never drags and Abhishek Chaubey even manages to add in a couple of explosions to add to the mayhem. A very well made film with excellent performances from the three leads – I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel. 4 ½ stars.