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Upperstall Review




Hindi, Drama, 2001, Color

The film looks at Zubeidaa (Karisma Kapoor), the daughter of a movie producer (Amrish Puri) and his docile wife (Surekha Sikri-Rege). Zubeidaa, interested in dancing, has her film career nipped in the bud by her father who of course will not have his daughter acting in films. He hastily arranges her marriage to the doctor son of one of his friends but the marriage ends in a divorce when her husband refuses to take a stand against his father leaving her with her infant son. Her father's mistress, a popular dancer in films, Rose (Lillette Dubey) who lives life the way she wants to gets Zubeidaa to go out in order to get her out of her depression and introduces her to Prince Vijayendra Singh of Fatehpur (Manoj Bajpai) who takes her as his second wife. But her mother only lets her go on the condition that the grandson is left behind with them. At Fatehpur, Vijayendra's first wife Mandira Devi (Rekha) inducts Zubeidaa into the suffocating world of royal duties. Vijayendra decides to contest the elections and wins but neglects Zubeidaa in the process. Feeling insecure, she forces her way into his private plane as he is leaving for Delhi at Mandira's expense and leaves with him. The plane crashes killing them both...years later her son Riyaz (Rajit Kapoor) now a film journalist sets out to piece together Zubeidaa's life by meeting the various people who knew her and trace the missing reel of the gypsy dance she had performed in Banjaran Ladki , her only film.

The initial reaction to Shyam Benegal's Zubeidaa is one of regret. Regret because what had potential to be a really good film merely ends up as an average and at times even dull rendering of the story of a woman who dared to try to live life on her own terms. The material that Benegal had to start with had all the elements required to make an extremely engaging film - romance, passion, drama are all remniscent of his wonderful earlier bio-epic of actress Hansa Wadkar, Bhumika (1977) but the end result here is a film that is oddly flat, clinical and mostly boring.

Zubeidaa is the final film in a trilogy, the other two being Mammo and Sardari Begum (both who make a fleeting appearance in the film.) All three are based on personal stories of film critic-turned filmmaker Khalid Mohammed. Zubeidaa uses the same structure that Sardari Begum did,, that is piecing together a person's life after he/she is no more. Benegal has said what attracted him to the to the story was the search of a young man for his mother through the people who knew her and the belongings she left behind... But what was fascinating about her was that none of those who knew her could actually give a complete picture of her...she remained an enigma whose memories couldn't quite be captured so to say. But wherein the film falters is that as it goes into flashbacks the entire story is opened up for the viewer rather than sticking to a picture of Zubeidaa emerging only from that person's point of view. This takes away from the complexity that the film could have had and instead it falls into the standard Hindi film formula of telling the whole story in flashback, viewpoints be damned. Thus what could have emerged as an intriguing and multi-layered personality built bit by bit never happens and somehow you end up feeling that Zubeidaa's character still needed more fleshing out.

Shyam Benegal has called Zubeidaa his most elaborate film and admittedly the film is mounted pretty impressively with meticulous research gone into creating the right look and period. Zubeidaa also gives Shyam Benegal an opportunity to use elements of mainstream Hindi Cinema, for eg, the use of music by songs, in a credible manner. But if the filmmaker is completely out of depth in the film it is in the song picturizations. While the scenes in the film are taken with long takes with the moving camera, the songs which lend themselves to camera movements much more naturally are shot in a dull and static manner bringing the story flow to a grinding halt.

The film suffers from other inconsistensies on the script level. The first time Rose takes Zubeidaa after her divorce her father specifically orders her to be home by nightfall. She then goes to a polo match and for a party out that night. But nothing is shown as to what happened to her when she reached home. Life goes on as before as Rose continues taking Zubeidaa out. Surely an orthodox man who takes the decisions for all the members of his family would have restricted her from going out again. And he who loudly opposes Zubeidaa each time she wants to go against the grain of conventional living has nothing to say to her when she leaves for Fatehpur! Why? Is it his gulit because somewhere he had made the decisions in her life and those decisions hadn't worked out or what? But that isn't it as he clearly treats her as dead for him once she leaves so he hasn't let her go willingly. The Amrish Puri character is hence, frustratingly, nipped at half-bloom. Though admittedly the film does pick up once Zubeidaa reaches Fatehpur and her bond of sorts with the first wife Mandira works pretty well the viewer is pretty much out of the story by then to really care.

What lifts Zubeidaa several notches are the performances. Karisma Kapoor virtually lives her role. She has matured into a fine actress and gives a multi-layered finely nuanced performance of a vivacious, impulsive and daring young woman who opposed convention and dared to live life on her own terms. She also has seldom looked better. Rekha has a stunning screen presence exuding grace and comes up with an expertly adept performance leaving her stamp on the film. Among the supporting cast special mention must be made of Lillette Dubey who is utterly delightful as Rose. Surprisingly Surekha Sikri-Rege is inconsistent and even unintentionally hilarious in the scene where she turns on to Amrish Puri at the dining table asking him to forgive his daugther now that she is no more. And Manoj Bajpai is woefully out of sorts as the Rajastani prince totally lacking sophistication and flair.

Looking positively, dialogue is well worded. The technical embellishments like the Cinematography, Art Direction, Costumes and Music are efficient. While AR Rahmans's music is melodious it doesn't really belong to the period. While that is still OK for the other songs, Main Albeli should have had that feel as it depicts a film shooting of the 1940s. But as mentioned the songs are totally defeated by their lacklustre picturizations.

All in all, the one comes out of Zubeidaa ruing what could have been rather than what is...

Upperstall review by: Karan Bali aka TheThirdMan

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