Saturday, December 08, 2007

Khoya Khoya Chand - Past Perfect

याद थीं हम को भी रन्गारन्ग बज़्म-आराइयाँ
लेकिन अब नक़्श-ओ-निगार-ए-ताक़-ए-निस्याँ हो गईं

Yaad thiN hum ko bhi rangarang bazm-aaraiyaaN
Lekin ab maqsh-o-nigaar-e-taaq-e-nisyaaN ho gayiN

This is one way - the Ghalibian way - of looking at memories, where, with time, pleasant memories end up in the 'niche of forgetfulness' (ताक़-ए-निस्याँ). That was Ghalib, but for most of us the situation is different.

For us, recalling memories of a bygone era is an extremely selective process. No matter where one is in the continuum of time, no matter what period one is trying to remember, there's always this those-were-the-days syndrome that clouds the memories. It is convenient to reflect on the past with a strong sense of sweet nostalgia, ignoring anything that is not perfect and, hence, uncomfortable. This rose-tinted view of the past leads to deification of mere mortals and utopianization of an entire era. What if you were told that that era was no different, the moralities were just the same, and the figures that peopled your picture-postcard view of that era were humans too, complete with frailties, insecurities, and moral ambiguities?

Khoya Khoya Chand is Sudhir Mishra's attempt at recreating the golden era of Hindi films - the 50s and the 60s that many consider was the peak of creativity in Indian films. It is an insider's view, a view that can see the grime behind all the sheen and glamour; a view that is besotted by the beauty of the moon, but does not ignore its spots; a view that still longs for that imperfect moon because, imperfect as it might be, it is still the moon. It simply cannot be allowed to go into oblivion (or, in other words, end up in the 'niche of forgetfulness').

क्यूँ खोए खोए चाँद की फ़िराक में तलाश में उदास है दिल

kyuN khoye khoye chand hi firaak, mein talaash mein udaas hai dil

This film should be watched as an attempt to recreate an era rather than a story of a few main characters. The moment you start expecting that, all the flaws of the film will stumble out of the closet. First of all, the narrative will start appearing jerky with no consistent thread tying individually brilliant scenes. The lack of flow, especially in the first 40 minutes, can be annoying for people expecting a smooth flowing tale. Actually, the narrative style of this film is beyond the comfort zone of most Hindi filmgoers, me included.

After the first 10 minutes, I was able to get over that difficulty once I realized that when you try to recall the past, all you remember are a few individual memories interlaced with wide gaps. In that respect, the film demanded a montage like narrative structure. It was also necessary because an entire era was being depicted through a handful of characters. The director had a choice between creating a coherent story revolving around the main characters and showing an entire era. He chose the latter. So, instead of modeling each of his lead characters around one real-life person, he picked up anecdotes about many different film personalities and gave them to his protagonists. For instance, Nikhat (Soha Ali Khan) starts off like Waheeda Rahman and Nargis, and reaches the end of her journey like Madhubala and Meena Kumari, and Zafar is Sahir Ludhianvi and Guru Dutt rolled into one (with a back-story reminiscent of Javed Akhtar's relationship with his father, though Javed Akhtar did not really belong to that era).

The other flaw of the movie is its inconsistency. One is never clear about who, if at all, is narrating the story. The film starts off normally, and then a sutradhaar (narrator) takes over, and then disappears, never to appear again. And finally the film ends with a title card. One does not expect such carelessness from a director of Sudhir Mishra's caliber.

Quoting my favorite film critic Baradwaj Rangan, "But when you find yourself liking a film, you look for reasons to explain away the things that you don’t like as much". I realize I'm doing precisely that. It is very likely that some of the flaws mentioned above might be too much for someone else to ignore. For my part, however, I'm willing to ignore them because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It is an honest attempt at recreating the golden era, and even though the tone of the film is clearly reverential, it makes no attempt at idealization. While it is obvious that the director of the film is completely besotted by that era, there is no lament about kahaan gaye wo log.

The bygone era is beautifully recreated by some great art direction, which is precise and authentic without being extravagant. The music also plays a significant role in evoking a sense of nostalgia. What's great is that most of the songs in the film are created by Shantanu Moitra in the style of the music directors of those days - there are echoes of O P Nayyar, hints of Madan Mohan, generous tribute to the Bengali brigade (Sachin Dev Burman, Hemant Kumar and Salil Chowdhury, and their obvious Rabindra Sangeet influences), and as we move into the 60s there's a bow to the reigning kings of those days - Shankar Jaikishan (there is a New Year song that is completely created and shot on the lines of a song from Anari). The lyrics by Swanand Kirkire also transport you back to the days when lyricists like Sahir, Majrooh and Shailendra could write immensely profound thoughts in deceptively simple words.

Khoya Khoya Chand has a solid ensemble cast. While I would have loved if the peripheral characters were fleshed out just a wee bit more, but Sonya Jehan, Vinay Pathak, Saurabh Shukla and Sushmita Mukherjee show what pure talent can do even with sketchily written role. Sonya Jehans' role is the best written side-role and she comes up with the best performance in the film. Soha Ali Khan gets the most complex, layered and nuanced role to play, which she tries to do with honesty. She still has a long way to go as an actress, but given the right roles she can emerge as one of the better actresses in the industry today. Despite the promise, she is not able to get all the nuances of this extremely complex character, so much so that it ends up being almost unidimensional. My assessment might sound a bit unfair because my reference point for this role was Smita Patil's performance in Bhumika and Waheeda Rahman in Kaagaz Ke Phool. I am a little disappointed with Shiney Ahuja, though. The man can convey a thousand emotions through his eyes, but his facial expressions and dialogue delivery is showy and exaggerated, making his effort at acting amply evident. Here again, when he is just brooding and not talking he is all, a very inconsistent performance.

There is a theory that you tend to like films where you can find a personal moment. What peronal moment could I possibly find in a film that is set at a time when I wasn't even born? Well, my personal moment came in the last quarter of the film when Vinay Pathak gets irritated when he's given parval for dinner. I hate parval!