Sunday, February 10, 2008

Mithya - Illusory Reality

A one line description of the plot of Rajat Kapoor's Mithya might sound so uninteresting and clichéd that it could put off anyone. After all, the concept of look-alikes has been beaten to death in Hindi – and, if I might say, Indian – cinema. You could also dismiss the film as another rehash of Chandra Barot's Don and the innumerable remakes it spawned in various Indian languages. But wait a minute. We all know that films are not about one line plot descriptions….what matters is how the plot develops and unfolds on screen. And that is where Mithya stands out.

The film takes the concept of Maya and Mithya from Hinduism and builds the story from that viewpoint. You could say that Vidhu Vinod Chopra did something similar around the concept of Dharma in Eklavya, but there's a big difference. While Eklavya spelled it out unambiguously through dialogue, Mithya keeps it subtle all through. The title of the film is all that explicitly states this.

So what is Mithya? According to the teachings of Vedanta, all things that constitute Maya (illusion, anything that changes, and by that definition everything we see around us) are Mithya. Mithya are things that have no identity on their own, and depend on other things for their apparent existence.

All is Maya
All is Mithya
All has an end except the I
[Bhagavad Gita 2:17]

Once we know this, everything about the film falls perfectly into place. It's all about the eternal philosophy of 'who am I'. What else is a person’s identity, if not merely an illusion that manifests itself only in the context of the things and circumstances that surround him?

Rajat Kapoor uses the worst of all 'Bollywood' clichés to create his tale which is refreshingly original as well as remarkably layered. The screenplay by Rajat Kapoor and Saurabh Shukla unfolds in an unhurried manner, with each layer revealing itself just at the right moment. The film took me sometime to get used to (the first 10 minutes had me shifting uncomfortably in my seat), but I didn't realize when I got completely drawn into the film. The 'illusions' that appeared on screen became 'real'. The best part of the screenplay is that while the film is quite short (around 100 minutes) it gives ample time for the audience to savour the moody texture of the film, especially in the second half.

Mithya is probably the most genre-defying Hindi film one has ever seen. It is impossible to slot it into a particular category, thereby giving credence to the question raised by film theorist Robert Stam – "Is there a finite taxonomy of genres or are they in principle infinite?" The film starts of as a comedy, suddenly shifts gears to traverse the paths of a crime thriller, till the interval point where one of the most hackneyed of plot devices of Indian films is innovatively used to transform the film into a drama that justifies the title of the film by highlighting the illusory nature of relationships. That is, what you see is definitely not what it really is!

After reading this piece, you might think that Mithya is a very complex film. Absolutely not. It is told in a very straightforward and uncomplicated fashion. It's the sub-text that has philosophical complexities, and that is what elevates this film to a piece of art. You could see it as just a story of a 'Bollywood' extra who gets to play a role that puts him in bizarre circumstances. Or, you can go beyond the surface and see it as a treatise on the Hindu concept of Maya.

No analysis of Mithya can be complete without talking about Ranvir Shorey's performance. Known primarily for his comic roles, Ranvir gets to play an extremely complex role where he is expected to show almost an infinite breadth of emotions. And he does that with amazing ease. Unless every other actor decides to significantly reinvents himself later during the year, this would definitely count among the best performances by an actor in 2008.