Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

March 2, 2007

Lolita longings

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 6:55 pm

March 02, 2007

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Jiah Khan, Revathi, Aftab Shivdasani

Director: Ram Gopal Varma

In director Ram Gopal Varma’s Nishabd, newcomer Jiah Khan plays an 18-year-old temptress who initiates and entices her classmate’s 60-year-old father into a complex, inexplicable relationship while she’s staying with the family at their hill-station home one summer.

Amitabh Bachchan plays the man in question, who finds himself falling for this brash, spoilt teenager who’s showering him with the kind of attention he hasn’t experienced before.

Despite working off a script that borrows generously from the Drew Barrymore thriller Poison Ivy, Ram Gopal Varma makes it very clear he’s back in form as he sinks his teeth into what is perhaps his first all-out emotional, character drama. Varma casts a mood of gloominess, a sense of impending doom all over this film, which is reminiscent of the manner in which he’d treated Bhoot.

What I like about Nishabd is Varma’s conscious attempt to avoid clichés and stereotypes. The affair takes place not sneakily and surreptitiously, but right under the nose of Bachchan’s wife and daughter who are just too naïve to read all the signs. When the affair is finally discovered, there’s none of that typical filmi-style screaming and shouting, instead Varma treats the moment realistically using shock and silence to convey the sense of feeling betrayed.

Admirably, the director’s decided not to spoon-feed his audience by explaining every character’s every motivation. While it’s more or less clear why Jiah falls for Bachchan, you are yourself expected to interpret his reason for responding to her affections.

It could be the thrill of physical intimacy with a nubile, young girl. It could stem from a sense of responsibility he feels towards her. It could be a momentary lapse of judgement on his part, or then the result of suppressed apathy he feels towards his frumpy wife. I suspect it’s everything put together.

Because much of Nishabd is shot in real time — the entire second half to be specific — it does seem too long and too stretched out, especially since there isn’t very much happening. But don’t be fooled, that’s exactly the mood Varma’s going for. Remember, Nishabd is essentially about loneliness, and this leisurely pace that Varma creates for the film only contributes to that feeling of loneliness.

I suspect most people, women particularly are going to have a problem with the film’s ending. As much as I’d like to elaborate, I won’t because saying any more here will give away too much. I must confess I had a problem with the film’s ending myself, but for another reason completely — I feel it’s a cop-out! A compromise ending to a bold, brave story. I could have predicted the ending, and it’s no fun when that happens. How I wish Varma had pushed the envelope all the way and gone with a truly bold ending that us regular Hindi-film junkies would never have predicted and would have been totally surprised by!

For the most part, Nishabd is watchable because it’s held together by a truly awe-inspiring performance by Amitabh Bachchan. Unlike other clearly defined roles that are like a road map for actors while constructing their performance, his role in Nishabd is one that has no reference point. It’s a performance that Bachchan creates out of thin air, based on his own understanding of the character. Remember the toughest roles to play are the ones that are too simple, too normal. It’s not easy playing an Average Joe, but Bachchan does it marvelously. Watch him in the scene where he breaks into a laugh in the middle of the night, or watch him in that pre-intermission scene where Jiah confronts him with her feelings, or even that scene where he’s singing to himself much to his wife’s surprise — everything from his expressions, his dialogue delivery, even the movement of his eyes! It’s difficult to imagine any other actor doing justice to a part so simple and therefore so difficult to play.

His co-star Jiah Khan is perfectly cast as the troubled girl who’s very aware of her effect on this man. Wearing her sexuality on her sleeve, Jiah sashays in and out of scenes, showing so much thigh, you feel like you’re in a mutton shop. Also is it just me or did you also notice that Jiah seems to be suffering from a Sharon Stone complex, she’s constantly uncrossing her legs — when she’s standing, when she’s sitting, when she’s lying around on the floor — everywhere. I don’t think there’s a single scene in the film where she’s got her legs together.

All said and considered, Nishabd is bold even though it doesn’t overstep the invisible moral line. It is, nonetheless, an experiment on Varma’s part because it’s unconventional in every sense — the narrative isn’t linear, the pace is leisurely and the plot itself is brave.

For these reasons I suspect there will be many who will not embrace it. Which is fine. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll go with three out of five for Ram Gopal Varma’s Nishabd. It makes you uncomfortable and shifty and even restless at times. It’s everything that makes for a good character study. Give it a shot.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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