Renzil D’Silva’s directorial debut, a Karan Johar production, has an identity crisis. Every so often, Kurbaan stops to ask itself, “am I fish or am I fowl?” and leaves the audience to think, “nope, just foul.”
Kurbaan‘s fundamental problem is that it’s a decent thriller groaning under the burden of its Relevant Issue tag. It wants to be a movie about a woman who discovers her marriage is a terrible sham and has to work through her feelings for the stranger with her husband’s face even as she struggles to contain its painful consequences, but it’s often compelled to stop and Say Something Meaningful. With its legs running in two different directions, small wonder it falls on its face.
I generally try not to play Monday morning quarterback with movie scripts but the impulse is strong with this one, reminding me as it does of one of my favorite thrillers of all time – A History of Violence. I’ll apologize in advance to those of you who’re irritated, as I frequently am, by questions like, “But why isn’t X like Y? I like Y so much better!”
X isn’t like Y, because it just isn’t. I get that. Unfortunately, this is what I got out of the movie, so here goes:
The Thriller That Was. There is, of course, very little in common between Kurbaan and AHoV in terms of plot or characters. But with a little bit of finesse, Avantika’s (Kareena Kapoor) realization that there was something wildly wrong with her world could have been just as devastating a denouement as it was for Edie.
Although we meet Edie and Tom years into their marriage, there is a passion between these characters, a sense of rhythm to their lives, that is distinctly lacking between Avantika and Ehsaan (Saif Ali Khan). This is a shame because there are a few short moments (that easily fizzle out) between Kapoor and Khan that make you think they could possibly have explosive chemistry in the right hands. Certainly, they do a fantastic job of it with other people – why not each other?
There is a scene in A History of Violence where Edie just can’t take Tom’s lies anymore or what it’s doing to their marriage. What follows is not a screaming match but an incredibly violent, terribly passionate lovemaking scene on the stairs of their home that leaves the viewer half-aroused with its sheer heat as well as half-ashamed because you’re seeing more on the screen than two people having sex, you’re seeing two people laying their marriage bare.
In Kurbaan, when Avantika and Ehsaan come together in the scene leading up to the climax, after he has violated every trust a person could possibly invest in another, the result is a beautiful piece of well-lit choreography. Avantika’s feelings, her desire, her decision to accept this stranger into her body – there isn’t the slightest suggestion of anything deeper than a manipulative piece of showpiece filmmaking unless it’s “lie back and think of England“.
This is deeply odd because if there’s one thing a Bollywood movie, especially with a pedigree like this one, ought to be able to do, it’s make you connect to the feelings between the lead pair, even when the male lead is a thoroughly detestable human being (Shahrukh Khan in Darr and Aamir Khan in Fanaa are just two of many examples). Perhaps especially if the lead male character is a total write-off.
Like I mentioned before, I really want to take this movie as it stands, but the sheer disinterest it exhibits towards the love story that it chooses as its propeller is what makes me wonder if D’Silva wouldn’t have done better with the standard thriller format of a movie like AHoV. Choosing to go with the linear narrative, in which Avantika and Ehsaan meet cute and fall in love, brings up an inevitable question: what the devil was so amazing about Ehsaan that Avantika, a character that the film is careful to embody with the Vestal Virgin Complex of all proper Bollywood heroines, absolutely couldn’t do without him?
Yes, it’s nice to be wanted and wooed, perhaps even in the empty staffrooms of dusty colleges, but if cocksure Ehsaan with his annoying theories of love is the most ardent lover a gori chitti item like Avantika could find in Delhi of all testosterone-laden places… well, things must have changed is all I can say.
The movie might have been better served if we’d been introduced to the happy young couple as they move into their Stepford Muslim Neighborhood because that’s where things get mildly interesting. Avantika’s slow realization that things around her are sort of weird, followed by her abrupt descent into traumatic discovery, culminating in the event that introduces Riyaaz (Vivek Oberoi) as the new player of significance in what up till then had been her personal drama, actually hold your interest unlike the second half, post Ehsaan’s big reveal that he isn’t actually a refugee from the Lost Land of Bad Romance.
It’s the Terrorism, Stupid. So then the focus shifts to the plot point that allows the filmmakers to sell this as a “movie about terrorism”. As all the Hollywood filmmakers who’ve tried their hand at an Iraq-themed movie in the recent past can tell you, shooting a movie about contemporary issues is a crapshoot. You never know whether your movie is going to capture the zeitgeist or suffer under audience fatigue.
In either case, the way to build your “movie about terrorism” is not to lazily pick up arguments from anti-Bush screeds circa 2004 like “X thousands died on 9/11, but X+Y thousands died in Afghanistan”. Is it true? Sure, absolutely. But if you’re going to sell your movie as one centered on a current issue of grave importance to the general public, in India as much as anywhere else in the world, then the onus is upon you to deal with it in a way that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the watching public. Having chosen its pulpit, Kurbaan not only has nothing new to say, it doesn’t even make an interesting case for the few points it halfheartedly mumbles.
Not very smart when your movie is about to release a week prior to the first anniversary of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks to ever take place on Indian soil. In fact I’d have happily taken my money and spent it on Terror in Mumbai, a truly shattering HBO documentary narrated by Fareed Zakaria, had it been playing in theaters.
It’s not fortunate in its timing either given America is struggling to come to terms with the Ft. Hood shooting, and reading the associated commentary just serves to remind you that life in neighborhoods like the one Ehsaan tricks Avantika into must be one hell of a lot more complicated than Kurbaan makes it seem.
Altogether, D’Silva seems more confused than anything else about this Super Important Thing he’s attached to his film. Is this is a Bollywood movie about bad guys and good guys and the hot chick in the middle? Or is this New Age Hindi Cinema about the Meaning of Terrible Things?
In the end he makes the worst possible choice and made a Bollywood movie about bad guys and good guys and the hot chick in the middle that pauses to reflect upon the Meaning of Terrible Things.
As Avantika and Riyaaz go to work to foil Ehsaan’s plans and the focus shifts from their personal tragedy to the possible tragedy that awaits thousands of unknown, faceless Americans, Kurbaan finally crumbles under the conflicting demands upon its nature. Suddenly Avantika remembers she’s a wronged wife as well as a terrified citizen, Ehsaan remembers that he’s a husband as well as a jihadi robot and Riyaaz remembers that he’s not Rambo. Maybe you can find it in you to care by then, but I couldn’t.
That said, I’m sure I ought to give props to all involved for tackling a subject that doesn’t exactly scream “Bollywood property”. And sure, I appreciate the thought. But when I walk into that theater, I’m not paying for the nobility of your purpose.
Give me fish or give me fowl. Just hold the baloney.