Guzaarish (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2010)
Here's how I approached Guzaarish: with trepidation.
For one thing, I've never been the biggest fan of SLB as a director – his films are undeniably beautiful but I've inevitably found the emphasis on shimmering opulence or perfect composition frame by frame distracting, especially when perfecting the overall 'look' sometimes seems to mean the narrative takes a backseat. And Hrithik? I started out adoring the man, but as my Indian cinema horizons broadened, my love for Hrithik faded a little, and recently I haven't been 'feeling' him much at all. Some red flag at the back of my mind warned me of all the times I've seen Hrithik emote: earnest is the first word that comes to mind; Koi Mil Gaya is the next thing I think of.
But let's face it: for a while there was a period that seemed like FOREVER when all any of the gossip sites talked about was Hrithik's horrifying Guzaarish beard and weight gain, the seriousness with which he was approaching his role (or conversely his difficult behaviour – rolling up to set late and hungover) – so how could I not be a tiny bit curious? Even if it turned out to be exactly what I expected, at the very worst, that just meant Guzaarish would be excessively beautiful and earnest.
Guzaarish opens with the protagonist, Ethan Mascarenhas (Hrithik Roshan) sunnily broadcasting his regular radio show, “Radio Zindagi” (Life Radio). Though Ethan, a former stage magician, has been a quadriplegic for 14 years - since part of his magic act went horribly wrong - he doesn't publicly express frustration at his situation, instead writing uplifting books and dispensing positive, apparently lifechanging advice over the airwaves. Ethan is seemingly endlessly, smilingly positive for his small group of friends/employees: his lawyer; his doctor, and his nurse, Sofia (Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan).
So all of them are blindsided when sunny, smiling Ethan announces he wants to go to court and request legal permission to end his own life.
Here's what I liked about Guzaarish:
- The substantial themes: euthanasia isn't the sunniest or most commercial of topics for a mainstream film but the way it's addressed in Guzaarish gives a lot of food for thought – not just “what would I do in that situation?” but about broader, universal, big things, like...you know, “what does it really mean to love someone?” I wasn't really prepared for this film to be quite as deeply affecting as it ended up being – I've been thinking about various aspects of it for a few days, and I cried a whole lot watching it. Just a heads-up to the sensitive souls among you.
- Hrithik. Hrithik surprised me, SO much, in his portrayal of Ethan – a man trapped in a decaying body, in a decaying house, forced to fight not only the law, but the people who claim to love him for the right over his own life. Instead of the shallow, naïve earnestness I had feared, Hrithik's Ethan is a complex character – outwardly positive and optimistic about the situation he is in, but gradually revealing (mainly through his relationship with Sofia) the bitterness and frustration he feels, the loneliness of having countless people say they love him enough to want him to live, but none who love him enough to understand why he wants to have the right to die.
Hrithik has always been a very physical actor, and with that ability to express himself through movement removed, he expresses a lot through his posture, eyes and facial expressions. This is one of his most restrained and finest acting performances.
- Aishwarya. My favourite moments in Guzaarish - amid all the overload of SLB's artistic vision - are the small, human moments of connection between the lonely-but-pretending-to-be-positive Ethan, and his loyal, possibly in love with him nurse Sofia, who disguises her feelings behind a rigid mask of brisk, stern professionalism. Sofia initially comes across as cold and clinical, Ethan as irritatingly upbeat. But both of the central characters have more going on than that revealed largely in the moments between Aish and Hrithik when they can both let their characters be vulnerable and betray just how well these two – Ethan and Sofia – know each other's foibles. One of the loveliest scenes in the film is when Sofia purposely lets down her strict professional defenses to try and make Ethan laugh when he is at his most despondent: she transforms from uptight, buttoned down nurse to a glowing, loving, flirtatious woman, and she really is breathtaking.
I just love the stunned mullet look on Hrithik's face.
...and the excellently timed subtitles (from the song) matching Aditya Roy Kapur's expression.
All because Aish starts rocking the air drums.
The sad thing is – all of that – all the stuff I liked in this film – seems like it's entirely accidental because of that one thing I KNEW would be a problem: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's apparent need to make every film look like a piece of moving art-work, some theatrical masterpiece. Telling a story, it seems, is not so important to SLB as making sure everyone/everything LOOKS good in the process.
So go direct a remake of Dil Toh Pagal Hai, which is essentially fluff. Don't waste a decent narrative and at least two good performances JUST TO ULTIMATELY MESS IT ALL UP.
Things that took the shine off Guzaarish for me and are hard to ignore:
- Why is everyone dressed in a way that suggests a period film when the setting is apparently modern day? (it wasn't just me; a costume designer was watching snippets with me and thought the same thing).
MISLEADING because NOBODY DRESSES LIKE THIS TODAY
I swear to god, I seriously thought this film was set in like the 1950s until Hrithik told someone to send him an SMS.
Lightbulb moment (ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH THE FILM!)
Please don't tell me Goa looks like that, because IT DOESN'T IN ANY OTHER FILM I HAVE EVER SEEN SET IN GOA. And I get that a designer can set a 'look' for a film, but usually it has some discernible relevance to something. With SLB's films, I can never figure it out.
- I hate watching stage magic on film as a rule anyway because the magical element is gone when there's always the doubt that digital trickery is involved. When my flatmate (who is a stage magician) does sleight of hand tricks in front of me, even though logically I know how they're done, it's still hard to convince myself that magic ISN'T real. In Guzaarish, SLB can't leave well enough alone and stick to presenting an illusion the way it's designed (the way you'd see it in real life if you went to a magic show and were sitting in the audience); he goes ALL OUT to make the illusions seem more impressive by CGI-ing them up the wazoo. I FREAKING HATED THE MAGIC SEGMENTS IN THIS FILM and sure, that might just be a personal thing the same way I hated how they “put on a show” to save a venue in Aaja Nachle. It's one of the times my real life intrudes to stop me from suspending my disbelief. Because I know enough about magic, and have seen enough GOOD magicians to know I don't like magic CGI'd – badly – up the wazoo.
This = UNNECESSARY, SLB.
- the worst, WORST, most shallow, illogical, badly written courtroom scene in any film I have ever seen. If there's one scene that ruins this film, it's the courtroom scene. There's no excuse, in this day and age, for a scene to be this poorly written when even Joe Average off the street can watch any of the dozens of crime procedural shows on TV and have a basic grasp of “movie law”. Instead, we – the audience – are insulted with a juvenile slanging match between impotent cardboard cut-out characters that has no resemblance to ANYTHING judicial.
- Given such little attention was apparently paid to the story side of things, it's hardly a surprise that the narrative structure kind of falls to bits in the 2nd half especially – with a parade of supporting players flitting in and out in episodes that are unnecessary or ill timed. It didn't bother me so much that new characters were entering the story – what bothered me was that their entire purpose was to show up to illustrate an element of Sofia's backstory, or something about Ethan's past – and then they'd vanish again. It's just really clunky storytelling, not to mention unnecessary – those same things could have been illustrated effectively without the jarring lurch into episodic territory.
I don't really know what else to say about Guzaarish. It's sort of 2 films – half restrained and subtle (relatively speaking), complex and deep; half OTT, in your face sensory overload, messages broadcasted loud and clear VISUAL SPECTACLE. And clearly I'm torn about it – parts of it I love, and parts of it I loathe. Maybe I'm tending more towards the love – at least when there's complication, there's something to think about. Even if it's just “Oh Sanjay, WHY DID YOU DO IT LIKE THAT?”