Everything that’s wrong with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie-making is evident in the opening scene of Guzaarish: Sophia (a deliciously zaftig Aishwarya with heavily painted face, wearing some Victorian granny’s trousseau) carefully wakes and takes care of quadriplegic Ethan (Hrithik, in the one avatar left out in Kites: Jesus on the cross). It’s a great scene – or it would have been if we didn’t have Dominique Cerejo singing Smile in the background, reminding us that sadness lurks just beneath the artfully bleached surface.
Everything that’s right with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie-making can be seen in the song Udi by Sunidhi Chauhan: the normally contained Sophia takes Ethan out on the town to celebrate a rare outing and throws off her inhibitions to do it. Ethan is a man who likes to make jokes about all the sex he isn’t getting (among all the other things he can’t do any more) and needle Sophia in the process if he can; Sophia is a woman who keeps tight control of her feelings, quicker to scold than coddle. They’re surrounded by people as she taps along to the rhythm, strums an air guitar, and occasionally breaks into dazzlingly graceful steps – he never takes his eyes off her for a second and she meets them at the end of her uncharacteristic performance, making it absolutely clear that it was all for him.
It’s a searingly intimate moment for these two people. Sophia who knows every inch and working detail of his body, and Ethan who will never see more of her than what she allows him. Some movies can’t evoke that sense of amour even by making the actors take their clothes off.
And that to me is Guzaarish‘s big problem: it’s half a great movie. Because it’s made by that most tragic of beings, half a great film maker.
Personally speaking, here was a subject that pushed my buttons. It’s partly because euthanasia is a topic close to my heart for a number of reasons, not least of which is family history. But also because it addresses my greatest fear: a loss of control.
There is a scene in which Ethan proves a point to the cartoonishly unsympathetic prosecutor (Rajat Kapoor) by locking him up in a box. “I couldn’t move at all!” says the indignant lawyer, gulping in deep breaths. Well, sure. But the bigger issue was that for those terrifying 60 seconds, he was absolutely powerless.
The most vile crimes in our world are when man forcibly exerts control over his fellow man. Torture, rape, murder, home invasions, kidnappings… to find yourself at the mercy of a fellow human being, to have your agency stripped away from you, is grotesque. Ethan, of course, is not victimized by those around him – but the results of their good intentions are the same. And his life is a series of confrontations where he is forced to accept his helplessness. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a nightmare.
A less sentimental filmmaker would have let Ethan’s tragedies speak for themselves: his empty threats that turn to pleading, his fantasies of feeling the surf rush through his elegant feet, the dreams in which he soars on beams of light, the easiness with which people grant or withhold his desires, the way he’s repeatedly urged to remember what his life means to others as though that’s the reason for his existence.
These are not experiences that need particular emphasis or gilding. You’d have to be an unimaginative, insensitive moron if you can sit through a scene in which a doctor (Suhel Seth) threatens to declare his perfectly rational quadriplegic patient mentally unsound if he explores all his legal options and fail to be enraged with an overwhelming sense of WTF.
But storytelling, in all its forms, requires a certain amount of manipulation. You need to take your audience with you. Bhansali, ironically for a man who made a paean to the right to make your own decisions, is hell-bent on dragging you by the arm to a foregone conclusion.
He manages to sneak in a couple of renditions of What a Wonderful World – one by Marianne D’Cruz for a picture-perfect Nafisa Ali and one by Hrithik himself – and underscores Ethan’s utter helplessness with the help of a leaky roof and (a hilariously out-of-place) Makrand Deshpande among other things. He even throws in a languidly morose ex-girlfriend (Monikangana Dutt) who apparently lives in a mausoleum sans furniture and repentant nemesis (Ash Chandler). Worst of all is his protege Omar (Aditya Roy Kapur, lately of Action Replayy), an imbecile wrapped in a hideous pink bow – I kept hoping Sophia would take a knife to him some dark and stormy night but she never did, alas.
More mystifyingly, after making a huge hue and cry about how absolutely everybody is against his decision, the movie is at great pains to show public opinion careening on to Ethan’s side, complete with banners and slogans. “Good luck, Ethan!” smiles a reporter on TV as the judge prepares to deliver his verdict. I mean, I’m sure he appreciated it, but… you know? A little tact, lady.
When Guzaarish fires, though, it’s the hands-down weepie of the year. “I can’t live without you,” a battered Sophia tells a sulky Ethan. It’s one of those things people say when they fall in love. And then she offers him a way out, because when you love somebody so much that you can’t live without them, you do things for them you would never dream of doing for anyone else.
PS: Because I simply couldn’t resist – here is Robert Downey Jr. (who played the lead in Chaplin) singing Smile.
What? I’m not crying. I have allergies, okay!