Magical in parts
Director: Sajay Leela Bhansali
Actors: Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
His hair’s smartly tousled, beard elegantly unkempt. Neither his jovial mood swings nor the occasional, charming smiles on his face give out a body below that’s entirely paralysed: numb to touch or any external stimuli.
He’s stuck in a “4 by 6 bed, in a 15 by 20 room, can’t tell whether he's passing stool or urine.” He’s a “vegetable”, as it were. It’s been 14 long years. Long enough, one could suppose, depending on how you view these things. He wants out, and argues for his own mercy killing -- for his own freedom at last, with all its intrinsic ironies.
Javier Bardem, arguably the Marlon Brando of our times, stunningly played this role in the Spanish Alejandro Amenabar’s The Sea Inside (2004) -- a film that picked up all the possibly top foreign film trophies that year (Oscar, Golden Globe, Venice).
Let’s not hear any more rubbish on this movie not being a direct inspiration. Bhansali’s Guzaarish is as much The Sea Inside as his Black was Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker (1962). A whole lot. And yet, not wholly. Saawariya, of course, was altogether another story.
Hrithik Roshan, our own ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ plays one Ethan Mascerenhas, once a crazy magician, now a lifeless quadriplegic, and at several moments a bit of a hunky Javier Bardem himself; in squared red shades, under a vast grey sky. At his age, I suppose, he’s the best we’ve got. You can tell, the actor’s desperately aiming for major awards (the sort of acclaim Amitabh Bachchan earned for himself with Black). Thankfully the effort doesn’t show. Earnestness does.
Sophia (Aishwarya) is Ethan’s young nurse of 12 years, dutiful to a fault. He occasionally ribs her for not showing him her legs. This bawdily naughty humour is entirely European by birth. Theirs is stuff unlikely, quirky romances are made of. It’s still not the core of the film. You figure this when you still notice more her gorgeous self, than her strangely deep devotion toward a half-dead man.
This is expected from a film where aesthetics overpower everything else. Ethan, the nurse, a few maids, and a young aspiring magician (Aditya Roy Kapoor) who Ethan tutors: all of them live in a magnificently kept villa in Goa, the part of India that comes closest to Spain itself.
Each shot is worth a photograph in frame. Bhansali is no doubt an aesthete. His imagination is evidently a massive indoor dream on a palette that consistency changes colour tones with every film.
This picture in darkish blue is no different, and for most parts a mix of fine choreography and grand magic, bits that are certainly a nod to Christopher Nolan’s Prestige. Given Bhansali’s love for dreams, I guess, he could also consider an adaptation of Inception, Mr Nolan’s ambitious latest work!
Ethan recalls his magic shows from back in the day. He should’ve packed stadiums. He performed instead at extended restaurants; slid up and down rays of sunlight; levitated as the flicker of the candle-light levitated with him. The images are sensational, stunning. Unfortunately, the music (composed by Bhansali himself) doesn’t add to the magic. There’s an issue if Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World is at best the only song on your lips when you step out of the theatre; everything else, eminently forgettable. But that’s a minor quibble.
The scale more than makes up for the music, and that’s because Bhansali truly delivers on the auteur’s promise. He is the last few of the movie mughals whose vision goes beyond a wank alone. His daring investors, I’m told, pretty much shut shop after his films release (Sony after Saawariya; Kumaramangalam Birla’s Applause after Black; Bharat Shah after Devdas...). He remarkably carries on. This is rare in the most Right Wing of all arts.
Yet, somehwhere the paints from his brushes take you further away from the characters. You wish to dive deeper into their internal recesses. Ethan hosts a popular radio show, where he seeks opinion on his proposed mercy killing – ‘Project Ethanasia’, he calls it, for euthanasia (the oldest inter-school debate, along with capital punishment).
Courts agree to hear the matter. Both sides are equally loaded. You want to either root for Ethan's right to life or his right to death. You never feel persuaded towards either.
Here’s a crippled, helplessly defeated man asking for a final say in his own fate. The state, family or loved ones can never be better placed to figure an individual’s suffering, or his lost hope. You want to feel a lump in your throat. The effort’s in place. You’re almost there. But the distance is still annoying. Being mesmerised by the beauty of the big screen isn’t always such a great thing. You get overwhelmed at first; leave slightly under-whelmed, eventually. That's the story of this otherwise fine film.