Saturday, May 26, 2007

Life in a...Metro

During an intense conversation midway through the film, Shikha asks Aakash, "you left her, or did she leave you?" Aakash ponders briefly and say, "Love left us".

A dialogue like this in a Yash Raj or Karan Johar film would play at an entirely different level, taking on a slightly cheesy hue, accompanied by emotionally charged acting, glycerine-aided waterworks and multi-stringed background score. The scene would be purposely 'designed' to tug at the heart strings, and might even work with the audience and draw a few tears.

In Anurag Basu's Life in a …Metro, this scene is subtle and underplayed, and much more effective – drawing sighs of empathy from audience rather than the sympathy YRF or KJ's vision would have drawn. It is raw, visceral, real, natural and extremely true to life.

Metro is a classic example of the role directorial vision plays in imparting a distinctive character to a film. Traditional love stories in Hindi cinema, no matter how entertaining they might be, tend to be superficial and shallow, relying more on froth rather than real emotions. Metro, on the other hand, is what a love story ought to be – gritty and real. Compare it with the recent turkey - Salaam-e-Ishq - that followed a similar multi-track narrative structure, and the difference would be obvious – flimsy froth vs. grainy grit.

Before I start singing paeans about Metro, let me get my biggest grouse with the film out of the way. It's perfectly legitimate to draw inspiration from other people's work, but why can't our filmmakers learn to credit the source of inspiration? This stubborn refusal to credit the source amounts to pilfering, filching, plagiarism, what have you… By borrowing liberally from Billy Wilder's delightful comedy, The Apartment and not crediting Billy Wilder or I. A. L Diamond (the writer) - not to mention his earlier Unfaithful rip-off, Murder – Anurag Basu commits what in my opinion is the worst creative crime.

But hey, hang on…Anurag Basu is a clever guy. By a stroke of creative genius his 'crime' becomes but a mere peccadillo. The entire Sharman – Kangana - Kay Kay track is lifted completely from The Apartment – characters, sequences, and all – but the treatment is dramatically different. What came across in a purely comic context in the original becomes thematically well-integrated with the all-pervasive grimness of Metro.

In my opinion the most striking aspect of Metro is that it does not shy away from the physical aspects of love. You can even argue that his emphasis on the physical aspects is a tad too much. Every single relationship depicted in the film dwells as much on the physical as it does on the emotional aspects of love. That is what makes it seem so real and closer to life. Even the Sharman - Kangana thread, which talks of unrequited love doesn't shy away from it. When Sharman's character learns that the woman he loves is sleeping with his boss, he is heartbroken and how does he try to cope up with that? He brings a prostitute home (his fumbling interaction with the prostitute is quite funny). Then there is the Dharmendra - Nafia Ali track – a love story of sixty-somethings. Can you think of even a single Hindi film – or any Indian film for that matter – that shows two oldies kiss and share some cozy moments in bed?

Life in a... Metro is similar in structure to many films that have hit the screens recently – multiple tracks crisscrossing to create a meshed whole. Yet, there is a whole world of difference. Unlike the tangled mess that most such films ended up being (Salaam-e-Ishq for one), Metro is like an intricately woven tapestry. Each story follows its complete dramatic arc, and crosses the other stories in a well-orchestrated manner…except probably the Dharmendra - Nafisa Ali story whose link with the other stories is quite tenuous. But this track has a certain amount of cuteness that one would typically associate with a teeny bopper romance, and that's what makes it a pleasure to watch.

Mise en scène: I never thought I would use this word in a film review for I've always thought of it as a word film critics use to show off their knowledge. After watching Metro I can't think of another word to convey what I want. Anurag Basu has evidently worked hard to come up with the perfect mise en scène. Each scene is painstakingly constructed with almost perfect blending of visual and audio elements. The lighting, the setting, the props, the dialogue, the actors, the music, lyrics – everything fits in so well together.

What made my day is the scene where Konkona's boss is exercising and a poster of Brokeback Mountain lurks ominously in the background, subtly indicating how the events would unfold later. In the hands of any lesser director, the poster would occupy a more prominent position in the frame, but not here. As conceived by Anurag Basu, the poster in the scene is not even fully visible and whatever is visible is a bit out of focus because the camera is more interested in the actors in the scene, yet an observant eye cannot miss it. This was the real aha moment for me in the film.

Anurag Basu's gamble of using a rock band as a sort of sutradhaar also pays off. While many people have found the appearance of the band as repetitive and irritating, it worked well for me. The songs here appear as punctuation marks after every 'episode' to underscore the overall feel of that episode. It's after a long time that one has come across a film where the lyrics of the songs match perfectly with the scenes.

Pritam's music plays its part in enhancing the mood of the scenes. Better known as the Plagiarist No. 1 of the Hindi film industry, Pritam's score appears to be quite original except for two songs In Dinon Dil Mera and Oh Meri Jaan, which respectively borrow a line of melody from a Pakistani song and a recurring motif of rhythm from a song called Silent Lucidity by Queensrÿche (source: However, like Anurag Basu borrows from The Apartment and gives it a distinctive treatment, Pritam takes just a thread from the originals and creates such beautiful melodies around them that I can't but applaud his effort. The strong melody and lyrics of In Dinon make this song my favorite song this year so far (Mithoon's Maula Mere Maula from Anwar comes close).

While the overall feel of Metro is sombre and subtle, it is replete with generous helping of humor – cerebral, not slapstick. The Irrfan Khan – Konkona track is designed to be populist and humorous, like a silver lining in an otherwise dark film. The beauty lies in the fact that despite its seemingly light mood, it doesn't look out of place in this film. Add to that the perfect acting by the pair, and you have a track that stands out despite a denouement that borders on being ridiculous. Irrfan and Konkona seem like the most unlikely pair for a rom-com (isn't that the genre of their track?), but they handle their characters so well that one can't help but salute their versatility.

would not have worked this well, had it not been for an extraordinary ensemble cast. Every single actor is in top form. One always expects Kay Kay, Irrfan and Konkona to excel in whatever they do, Kangana has shown her mettle in her first two films and Anurag Basu doesn’t take any risks and gives her a part which is in some ways an extension of her earlier roles. The real revelation are Shilpa, whose performance is well-nuanced, and Sharman who adds shades of complexity to a seemingly simple role.

I must add a point about Shiney Ahuja though. He does complete justice to the part he plays here, but in film after film I'm beginning to see his shortcomings - there is a certain amount of awkwardness in his dialogue delivery and body language. When I first saw him in Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi, I was completely blown away by the energy he displayed on screen, but each subsequent film has had me left a little unsatisfied, if only in comparison with his debut performance.

Even though I have gushed so much about it, I wouldn't say that Life in a… Metro is a perfect film. It definitely has flaws: there are a few plot-holes, there are problems of continuity, there are underdeveloped characters, etc. etc. But then, when is life in a metro perfect anyway?