Shabd (or “Word” if my toddler-level Hindi serves me correctly) is the kind of film you’re either going to fall in fascinated love with, or turn off half-way through in bored, frustrated disgust. (To the people out there that hate this film – I’m not judging, because I can TOTALLY see why someone would). By no means is this your run-of-the-mill, mainstream Bollywood fare, regardless of the cheesy tagline on the cover proclaiming “The world’s biggest love story” and the irritating, charisma-free presence of Zayed Khan.
Whaddya mean I'll never be leading man material?If you’re going to watch Shabd, what you need to know is that it has more in common with art films or experimental cinema than, say, a riotous Manmohan Desai masala flick aimed at entertaining the masses.
So anyway, I fell in fascinated love with it. And NOT JUST because it stars Sanjay Dutt as a smoking hot intellectual.
The film opens with an author, Shaukat Vashist, being awarded the Booker Prize for his first novel, and being showered with critical and public acclaim. Unfortunately for Shaukat, when he publishes his second book, it is universally panned, with the main criticism being that his story isn’t ‘real’ enough.
Poor Shaukat is crushed and doesn’t write a thing for two years, until an offhand comment from his beautiful wife Antara (Aishwarya Rai) inspires him to try writing again.
HERE’S WHERE IT GETS TRICKY…AND AWESOME.
…because the ‘story’ from here on in pretty much depends on how you, the viewer, interpret the ambiguous events playing out onscreen. The film is purposefully muddy – and this is the reason you’ll either love or hate Shabd. So many questions are raised. So many questions.
Does Shaukat, facing the worst writer’s block of his life and with critics damning his work as ‘unreal’, draw his inspiration for his new novel from the events of his real life, manipulating his wife into a one-sided affair with photography teacher Yash (Zayed Khan) to give him more fodder for his fiction?
...maybe if I stand here for a while, people will THINK I am the leading man. Think charismatic, Zayed.
Or does Shaukat possess a more mystical power, and have the god-like ability to manifest events in his real life by first writing them in his novel?
Ominous god-like shot.
At its core, is this really just a film about a marriage in trouble? Why does Shaukat – who clearly loves his wife, and she clearly loves him – push Antara towards another man? To test her love for him? Because he thinks the friendship will bring her happiness and he trusts their marriage is strong enough to survive any flirtation? Or is there a more sinister reason, rooted in his need to create ‘real’ fiction to silence the critics, and his apparent inability to live outside of his head?
So is it about the creative process, and the artist’s struggle in the world to walk a fine line between satisfying a creative impulse and satiating the varying needs and wants of the audience and critics? Is the critical mistake at the heart of Shaukat’s tale that he doesn’t remain true to his own inner voice, but panders to what he thinks his audience wants: a ‘real’ story, hence making it all the more unreal?
You can see how you could watch this film 27 times and get 27 different interpretations.
So many questions: no concrete answers. Only hints: throwaway lines, clever angles, and symbols.
Symbols abound in the film for those looking for them.
Words. Everywhere, words.
A conductor’s baton.
This would be the point in the film where I'm betting detractors lose patience and switch off. Not me though. Two Sanju Babas? YES, THANK YOU!
Antara is doubled as the heroine of Shaukat's novel - and here we see her twice.
For people wanting instant answers and a nice neat ending, Shabd is probably the wrong film for you. But if you enjoy riddles, teasing out and puzzling over what it could all possibly mean – and if ultimately not knowing for sure isn’t going to drive you crazy – then Shabd is a refreshing change of tone in an industry that all too often can seem stuck on one note.