Sonali proves her mettle
Of all the late-blooming mainstream Mumbai movie actresses who have sought to break out of the mould imposed on them by an exploitative industry, the statuesque Sonali Bendre has been the most interesting.
Nobody had ever taken her seriously as an actress and she had seemed destined to end her acting career exactly the way she had kicked off - as a pretty face worth no more than the occasional song and dance routine in a potboiler. Fortunately for the underrated lady, Amol Palekar detected a spark in her and Anaahat happened. Life cannot be the same for Sonali Bendre ever again.
A host of contemporary Mumbai actresses – Tabu, Karisma Kapoor, Raveena Tandon and Urmila Matondkar - have successfully made the transition from the maze of masala movies to the infinitely more exalted cinema of substance, but nobody has dared to go quite as far as Sonali has done.
While all the other award-seeking actresses have experimented with shades of character while staying firmly within the parameters of the popular narrative format, Sonali has ventured into two uncharted territories in one go - Marathi-language cinema and the world of auteur films.
Anaahat, staged with remarkable skill and restraint by Amol Palekar, has nothing in common with films like Chandni Bar, Zubeidaa, Daman or the upcoming Pinjar - it is shorn of all frills. It is the kind of cinema where an actor has to rely entirely on his own skills to make an impact.
Sonali faces the challenge squarely and the consequence is up on the screen. She draws upon all her talent to etch out a character that has no precedence in Indian cinema. She gets into the skin of the character with such effortless ease that it is tough to imagine the role being played any better by another actress.
An adaptation of Surendra Verma's celebrated play, Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak, Anaahat is a tenth century drama about an impotent king and his beautiful wife who are childless. In pursuance of her husband's royal duties, the all-male Senate's dictates and her station in life, the Queen steps out of the palace and seeks out a partner for just one night so that she can bear a heir for the kingdom. The experience transforms her forever - she discovers the untapped depths of her sexuality. She now demands her right to choose…
Flanked by two seasoned performers - Anant Nag as the King and Deepti Naval as his childhood friend and close confidante - Sonali delivers a high-quality but completely unselfconscious performance. As she traces the transition from a pretty, undemanding Queen to an anguished, confused wife and finally to a sensuous, sexually assertive woman, the unsung actress reveals facets of her talent that had hitherto remained concealed in the miasma of meaninglessness that is the lot of most Bollywood actresses.
Anaahat will not only be the opening film of the Indian Panorama section of the upcoming 34th International Film festival of India (October 9-19) it will also be one of two films that will represent India in the showpiece Asian Competition section of the event.
Don't be surprised, therefore, if Sonali Bendre takes centrestage when the world's eyes are fixated on the best of Indian cinema.