On Guzaarish

24 Nov
On <i>Guzaarish</i>

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!


Posted by on November 24, 2010 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video


Tags: , , ,

13 responses to “On Guzaarish

  1. memsaab

    November 24, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Okay so you have single-handedly convinced me to see this. Curse you!

    • Shalini

      November 25, 2010 at 2:05 pm

      HA! *Exactly* what I was going to say! Compare notes, later?

      • memsaab

        November 26, 2010 at 6:00 pm

        Yes indeed! I have to wait for the dvd though 😦

  2. bhel

    November 24, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    Oh, you’re in so much trouble! Just wait until Ash finds out that you called her zaftig. “Zaftig this, Indie!” she’ll say in her libel suit. :p

  3. suvro

    November 25, 2010 at 12:40 am

    I agree with you.I dont know why people are going ga ga over this movie.Its a piece of ****.I just could not bear it.Do read my blog post for details.

  4. dipali

    November 25, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    There was loads of stuff that was completely unnecessary, but there were some really beautiful scenes. I thought that Hrithik was very good in most of the film. A lot of it was so subtle that I only got it the next morning!!!!! It did leave me rather haunted, though.

  5. Leia

    November 26, 2010 at 2:13 am

    Uh huh… I had no intention of seeing this movie… was sort of done with the blues and blacks of Bhansali. Damn!

  6. Amrita

    November 26, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    @ Memsaab & Leia – this has its issues but I think it’s really worth checking out irrespective of those.

    @ Shalini – why am I not invited to this? I instigated it after all! >:-(

    @ Bhel – But I meant it as a compliment! I did! 😀

    @ Suvro – well, I didn’t hate it that much 🙂 Just very uneven for me, is all.

    @ Dipali – that’s exactly it! It’s something that stays with you, which I thought was excellent.

    • Shalini

      November 26, 2010 at 11:34 pm

      Watched it today. Dare I say that I liked it. Not unreservedly or in sum mind you, but the parts that appealed did so genuinely. This might be the first SLB film where I actually enjoyed the pretty. I found his previous films grotesque.

      And I think SLB may have stumbled upon the secret for getting an effective performance out of Ash – give her as little dialogue as possible. That woman should be seen and not heard. 🙂

      The other thing that I realized with Guzaarish is that despite the hysterical goth look and twisted ambience of his films, SLB is a common (coarse?) sentimentalist at heart. His films make no revelations about human emotions/relationships that cannot/have not been summed up by a bummer sticker.

  7. CheeC

    November 27, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    I’m gonna join memsaab in waiting for the DVD on this one, but guess what had me crying this Thanksgiving week? ’twas the re-run of the “Slapsgiving” episodes (including Part 2 – Revenge of the Slap!) of How I Met Your Mother — I laughed so hard, I cried!! Hope you caught them at least once, since they first aired in 2007.

    Thank you for para 3 (and the bumper-sticker lover in me thanks Shalini for her sweet summary! Related note: Driving back from picking up groceries couple days ago, I saw a dark blue Honda Odyssey with these words glued to its bum, “No Jesus, No Heaven” — lol @ the one Hrithik avatar left out in Kites; per Amrita above, Bhansali must be in seventh heaven!! Though reading elsewhere about this girl Devyani lolling about on his bed, vying for attention alongside Ash, had me thinking of Hrithik as more the south-Indian God Muruga (with the pointy Vel for weapon and Valli for (other) wife…knowWhatI’msayin’?)).

    BTW here’s what the critic who capsule-reviewed the film for Namaste America today said about the film: “It’s an old Disney musical without the wit or, ironically, magic, given the protagonist is a magician. Rai’s make-up is too loud and puts you off. Emotions, set design, dialogue and Hrithik’s beard are all out of this world, residing in some alien planet which only Bhansali inhabits. I don’t know of too many Goan women who wear Victorian costumes, elaborate hairdos and bright lipstick while nursing [ahem! Freudian slip..] a paraplegic.” I LOL’d.

    They also spoke to people exiting the theater and one guy in a green tee with MR JUST BE FRIENDS emblazoned on it in yellow said, “technically, a very good film but I couldn’t connect with it. Watchable up to interval (tends to agree with your para 4 here, it appears) but post-interval was way too complicated…first of all half the movie was in English (incidentally, Kiran Rao said something similar, of Dhobi Ghat being 40% in English, in an interview during this same segment)…and simply couldn’t understand the people or their motivations.” Ha!

  8. Amrita

    November 29, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Shalini – ha! you and I have the same reaction to SLB’s emotional manipulation! 😀 That said, this is the first movie of his I’ve liked since HDDCS although Saawariya improved upon subsequent viewings for me. Black and Devdas otoh remain unwatchable as far as I’m concerned.

    You’re right about Aishwarya’s relative silence but she also made use of her towering presence in this movie, like the scene in which she first meets Omar, which was great.

    CheeC – I have seen Slapsgiving and it was hilarious. I love Barney in whatever form he takes and in fear of Marshall is one I particularly enjoy!
    I don’t really see how Guzaarish is in any way a Disney musical, other than the fact that it IS a musical, but God help us all if Guzaarish is now people’s idea of a movie too complicated to follow!

  9. sitaji

    November 29, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    I saw it big screen style, and going in I didn’t expect to like it, and didn’t really like the film after seeing it, but I did believe that Aish looked FANTASTIC, LOVED her wardrobe, and her acting! My favorite sequence was in the car, with the palm trees ticking by. The movie is worth a watch for that alone. . My rating is: film = eh, but it looked great, boring, but visually lush. I liked Aish’s Frida Kahlo-esque outfit in last sequence. How was I not hip to until seeing his work in this movie? I’ve seen his stuff before, just didn’t know who he was until I was alerted. Each Portuguese-inspired dress/skirt/piece of jewelery of Sophia’s got me to enjoy the film.

    • Amrita

      November 29, 2010 at 4:17 pm

      I love that scene too! Both visually and in content. At first, I was like, “um, arent his lungs collapsing, nurse?” and then it struck me, “oh yeah, last hurrah, euthanasia candidate”. But the way the scenery shifted and wove its way into his own story culminating in the scene on the beach was lovely.

      I didn’t know Sabyasachi made the costumes but it makes sense now that you tell me! his work is dramatic enough to stand out even in SLB’s movies.

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