Fiza was a film that had everything going for it - a fantastic star cast, an extremely strong technical team, and at its helm - film critic-turned-director, Khalid Mohamed. The same Khalid Mohamed who has written those deeply personal films for Shyam Benegal, the same Khalid Mohamed who has reviewed Bollywood offerings week after week and contemptuously dismissed 99% of them, the same Khalid Mohamed who turned director to make a 'commercial film with a purpose.' Consequently one's expectations for the film were high - not that one expected a blockbuster but yes, definitely a quality film.
Sadly, Fiza comes across as neither commercial nor purposeful. No doubt it has gone through the entire journey of a typical Bollywood film - a brilliant idea to start with, an average treatment, a bad script, and finally... a mediocre film. With the shallow characterizations (a very poor mock of the complexities of the characters that Tennessee Williams' created in The Glass Menagerie), its lack of strong narrative storytelling its slow pace and plateau-like graph see Fiza devoid of simply any high points, and the discerning Indian filmgoer waiting with bated breath for some remarkable event to happen, is left in the same state well after the projector is finally out of film.
The film is set in 1999 as Fiza (Karisma Kapoor) living alone with her mother Nishatbi (Jaya Bachchan) decides to track down her brother Amaan (Hrithik Roshan) who has been missing since the Mumbai riots of 1992 - 93. What was, as mentioned, a most promising story loses its bearings as it tries to be, we repeat a 'commercial Hindi Film with a purpose.' Unfortunately the definition of a commercial Hindi film today is one that has its share of comedy, emotion, drama, action, songs and dance a majority of which actually stand out as separate 'items' and dilute the film's story thus making it lose its purpose rather than add to it. And this precisely is what has happened to Fiza. A purposeful film is one that sticks to the requirements of its story-line. Fiza suffers as it tries to cater to its popular elements.
The commercial elements of a Bollywood pot-boiler can be very, very difficult for a filmmaker to believe in and ironically the very filmmakers that Khalid has blasted in using these elements, appear to believe in them far more than Khalid. Consequently they have a far better understanding of how to use these elements and are much more truer to their art, mediocre though it may be. Even a filmmaker like Govind Nihalani struggled with his songs when he made Thakshak and Khalid too is no exception. Every 'commercial element' in Fiza actually makes one cringe with embarrassment be it the songs or dramatic scenes. (The romantic song between Bikram Saluja and Karisma and the song in a disco are big NO-NOS) or dramatic scenes like Karisma in the bar with the cop or plain simple guest appearances which done correctly can help lift the film several notches. A really good example of this was Andaaz (1971) where the Rajesh Khanna guest appearance to the strains of Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana played a big part in the film's popularity or the Sunny Deol last 30-40 minute cameo in Raj Santhoshi's Damini which helped raise the film several notches. But Manoj Bajpai's cameo is nothing but a waste of a brilliant actor and does nothing for the film, nor does Sushmita Sen's gypsy song. As for Johnny Lever, it almost seems that a camera was placed in front of him and he was asked to narrate his favorite party joke. The patriotic undertones in the film fail to inspire. And although personal, this is an important issue. Even a not-so-serious/fun-loving film like Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (that critics so well lambasted) certainly got one's adrenalin rushing for a couple of 30-second scenes, Fiza comparably tries harder with its dramatic one-liners that is unsuccessful to incite even the littlest emotions. The use of the strains of Sare Jahan se Achcha after Karisma has her confrontations with the crooked politicians leave you totally unmoved. Compare this with the use of the very same strains in Deewaar (1975) where we hear them in the background as the mother and her two children live under the bridge, having no home thus making a strong and hard-hitting social statement. And the scene of Hrithik Roshan training (meant to show off his muscles and dancing ability rather than actual training!) leaves you totally gob-smacked.
Coming to the main storyline, Khalid cuts straight to 1999 after that fateful night in 1992 -93 when Amaan ran away and came back. Thus when Jaya Bachchan and Karisma talk about the living hell they have gone through during this period not knowing if he is alive or dead is simply told to the viewer through their dialogues rather than showing it to them visually. This takes away a lot from the film as the viewer is not allowed to share in the trauma of the main characters and thus he is that much detached and less sympathetic to their problems.
The mistakes in Fiza are far too many from the glaring to the not so glaring but still far more than what you grant a filmmaker making his first film. Contrived situations at the script level are glaring; they are innumerable and everywhere, almost to the point where it feels that Khalid is abusing his poetic license. Got pen, must create situations! Khalid takes great pains to establish Karisma as a graduate in 1999, from Jaya Bachchan announcing it at the Police Station to Karisma posing for her graduation photograph. Which means Fiza is a young headstrong girl of 21 (provided she has flunked at school or college) and was about 15 in 1992 - 93. Amaan being her younger brother was about 13 - 14 then. Yet Hrithik and Karisma play these roles even in the scenes of 1992 - 93! Scenes are clumsily constructed with the easiest solutions taken to forward the plot. When Amaan returns home and meets Shenaz who has married in his absence at the doctors, the husband is called in to see the dcotor so that these two can talk alone. And then after the scene is over, he conveniently comes out saying she is pregnant! Surely the woman would have to be told that! Or what about Karisma's clothes? How come she wears her ultra-hip Levi's and sweatshirts in the deserts of Rajasthan and not anywhere else (like in the rather cosmopolitan Mumbai) where she is dressed in the most conservative of clothes even after she brings Amaan back?
Fiza also suffers from a staginess that is difficult to fathom - Every scene appears staged for the camera rather than naturally performed and this is really odd since Khalid has a strong upbringing of cinema, the actors too are film actors and the cameraman himself is a film director. So the scenes with the actors coming standing in front of the camera and performaing as if they are on stage makes the film look even tackier.
One is certain that Khalid, being the respected critic he is, would surely want his own venture to be song/dance-free, nineties style (we have all read him, oh how he detests those cheesy shots at winning the crowd and getting the catcalls). But of course, we all understand the pressures of the common Indian psyche, where is the fun without a little jiggle of the hips, a little exaggeration of reality… but surely, surely Mr. Mohamed, did the same pressure get you to the extent where in you had to include the Thar gypsy spectacle and the discotheque farce? The two sequences actually did manage to shake the otherwise plateau-like graph of the movie, making it hit rock bottom.
Coming now to the postitive aspects of the film (yes there are some!) - the two central performances of Hrithik Roshan and Karisma Kapoor. Karisma particularly has grasped her character perfectly, followed its graph to its logical end and has come up with a finely modulated performance. Hrithik more than confirms that he is both an actor and a star in the making. Jaya Bachchan however is inconsistent and actually appears to be out of sync with the times. Having overplayed her role though having her odd moments, it is a self-conscious Guddi turns 50 sort of performance. An actress like Surekha Sikri would have done wonders with a role like this. The music by Anu Malik particularly Aajaa Mahia and the title song is a plus but defeated by the picturizations and the background score by Ranjit Barot which is far, far overdone. The much hyped cinematography of Sivan, described as "inspired" and "divine", and the saving grace of the film is however none of the above and at best, is mechanical. While no doubt it is good (much better than the average Hindi film), it must be remembered that cinematography often works on formulae; one knows what will be effective (dramatic!) in certain established situations and since this film establishes nothing fresh or new, it is fair to say that Sivan's work with the camera is uninspired and far from divine. The shot taking particularly the moving camera shots in the Piya Haji Ali number appear to be all cameramen's shots rather than the director's visualization. With the right director like Mani Ratnam, Santhosh has excelled himself in films like Roja.
But the main point of the film is now clear and this is it: Leading Indian critics have finally proved themselves to be giddy headed and therefore meaningless. Now that Fiza has been applauded by the fraternity that so dearingly calls Khalid as "one of (our) kind," the matter of serious films reviews should be carelessly chucked out of the window. If anyone can commend this film, then one starts wondering if the issues of the pseudo-alliances portrayed in the film have any bearing in reality. So tell me, what is the point of the film? What could it have been? Certainly not a run-of-the-mill story, no, give Khalid credit for that. One cannot recall any brother getting shot on his own insistence by his sister. No, it couldn't be that. It couldn't be promoting violence: Kill the politician. Use the gun, Jihad is good… so the public service message angle is out too. Hmm…
Cinema is an extremely powerful tool of communication and there are but few filmmakers in Indian who have been able to use it correctly and with a purpose. Perhaps expecting the same for Fiza was justified based on the reputation and respect that Khalid Mohamed has but sadly in trying to make no mistake, Khalid Mohamed has made the biggest mistake of them all.