Clearly influenced by Broadway, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s tireless attempt to bring old-world theatricality — in all its surreal opulence — to our silver screen continues with his latest, Guzaarish.
This is a filmmaker not even bothering with reality, his fantastically lit and exquisitely framed shots working like rich canvasses, a narrative only in place to string along the art on offer.
It is, then, heartbreaking to watch such a defiantly ostentatious director borrow plot-points from foreign films, stultify his characters with ridiculous dialogue, and fall for painfully mainstream trappings, like a hackneyed, obligatory revenge/redemption subplot that makes a most unnecessary appearance towards the film’s end.
And so Guzaarish — imagine The Sea Inside directed by Rajkumar Hirani but synthetically robbed of all realism — opens with a quadriplegic Hrithik Roshan, helpless and suffering but with conditioned hair and a carefully groomed beard, being tended to by a nurse with tart-red lipstick and a tantalising blouse. Pretty people cry too, the film seems to yell — and sure they do, boss. It’s just harder to really feel for them when the film’s more concerned with appearance than anything else.
And so it is, potentially great moments choked by the need to double up as picture postcards. Even as Roshan’s Ethan Mascarenhas is campaigning for euthanasia, a young groupie — from back when Ethan was Merlin, magician extraordinare — comes knocking, wanting to learn from the master.
This is a setup that could lead to much brilliance, but we never see the physically limited but mentally agile Ethan struggle to teach this slackjawed young man even a card trick: the film instead flashbacks to Ethan’s own glory days, when he slides merrily up and down beams of light.
The laziest writing is saved for the courtroom, legalese thrown out in favour of lines soaked in extreme naivete. The intention is clear, the emotions are simple and yet laughable courtroom proceedings — watch out for the attorney opposite Ethan claim suddenly that he is of unsound mind instead of merely claiming the exact opposite, that he’s far too sound to be put down — that turn it into far less than the film deserved.
For this is not a film not without its share of moments. As Ethan is wheeled into the courtroom, an enthused television journalist, wishing him luck, exhorts him thoughtlessly and smilingly to “break a leg.” Mascarenhas bursts into laughter with the lunatic relief of a man glad for any scrap of anti-sympathy.
These moments, however, are few and far between, and almost completely gifted to us by the leading man. Hrithik Roshan, visibly growing as an actor with every feature, is in terrific form here. Be it taking on raindrops, taking command of a pupil or even just a funeral, Roshan delivers with a calm appropriate to his bearded-messiah avatar. His nasally twang grows on you, even though his shifts to exaggerated breathlessness when on the radio, and the only chink in this performance would be Ethan’s sexual overtures — far too self-conscious and clumsy coming from a man so clearly soaked in charm.
The rest of the performances are mostly passable, and completely overshadowed by the leading man. Aishwarya Rai, as the nurse, is given a lot to work with, and makes use of as little of the potential as she can, instead trying to make her ruby lips the highlight of her role. Shernaz Patel is stirring as Ethan’s committed lawyer friend, but made to spout much tripe in court.
the magician’s apprentice who doesn’t really learn a thing, stands by rather uselessly, while Suhel Seth is most miscast as Ethan’s doctor: sorry, Mr B, but it’s impossibly hard to not giggle when watching Seth quiver and tear up. Still, bonus points for choosing mostly unfamiliar faces.
Ethan gruffly roars at the young magician, asking him what he’d choose if a girl he loves asked him to give up magic. The boy says, without hesitation, that he’d give up the magic. Ethan demands an explanation, and the boy — moronic grin in place — shrugs, “love above all else, sir.”
And yet there is no exploration beyond the obvious, of how a person who loves you will never make you give up on your greatest passion. Even when, in an initially terrific moment Ethan finally performs a trick with white sheets, as a gift to the silly acolyte, it leads nowhere: symptomatic of the film; every trick needs a final flourish to become magical. It is sad that Bhansali, a filmmaker so keen to challenge the way we watch cinema, has to work in such obvious broadstrokes, skimming the surface but hardly ever diving in.
The film starts off capably enough, but seems to lose patience midway through. Post-intermission big, messy chunks of plot are hurled at the audience, with some sleight of hand that never quite casts a spell, despite Sudeep Chatterjee’s impressive yet standard-issue cinematography.
The film tries far too desperately to evoke what Bollywood calls the ‘feelgood’ factor, but ends up evoking more apathy than empathy. Guzaarish starts off slow and beautiful, but gradually, sadly congeals into a wet mess.
The Sanjay Leela Bhansali circus whirrs on, but to what avail? It’s like an old Disney musical — just without the wit. Or, ironically given this film’s subject, the magic.