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Saturday, March 17, 2012

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(Published in The New Sunday Express, on 18 March, 2012)

Cast: Victor Banerjee, Roopa Ganguli, Arundhati Nag, Nedumudi Venu, Zeenat Aman, Soha Ali Khan, Suchitra Pillai, Ankur Khanna, Shayan Munshi, Kiera Chaplin, Karthik Kumar

Director: Rajshree Ojha

Three years before she directed shopping-partying-dating orgy Aisha, Rajshree Ojha made an intense, moody film that has seen light of day thanks to PVR Cinemas’ Director’s Rare initiative for independent cinema. Chaurahen (Crossroads), fortunately, doesn’t have to do with teenage angst, as the title may lead one to believe. There are three strands in the story, each of which deals with the idea of coming to terms with loss.

In Kolkata, Dr. Bose (Victor Banerjee) and his wife (Roopa Ganguli) play a middle-aged couple in a childless marriage, which could be wrecked by the young Frenchwoman (Kiera Chaplin) who’s befriended Dr. Bose. (Ever since he was cuckolded in Ghare Baire, Banerjee seems to have been avenging himself against his screen wives.) In Kochi, retired Army man Mr. Nair (Nedumudi Venu) and his wife (Arundhati Nag) are overcoming the loss of their soldier son Keshy (Shayan Munshi), in the looming absence of their two other children (Suchitra Pillai and Karthik Kumar). In Mumbai, writer Farooq Vacha (Ankur Khanna) has converted his house to a memorial for his parents.

The movie feels like the work of a film student. It has a slick opening, and intelligent cinematography by Tobias Datum. But the assumption that a multiplex audience won’t “get” stuff without explanation works to its detriment. For instance, the effect of the heavy silences is dampened when three characters speak of “the silences”.

In the process, things that actually need explaining are forgotten. When did Keshy die? In Kargil? How long has it been, exactly? There are times when it appears to have been a few weeks (the parents consign his ashes to the river), and others when years seem to have passed (the brother goes swimming, heads out to drink with a friend and discusses the Viennese orchestra with his father). What happened to the Bose couple’s daughter? And why does Soha Ali Khan put on a horrendously fake British accent (really, who says ‘Nepp-ahl’ and then accuse her boyfriend of acting like a tourist)? And when is this set (no one uses mobile phones)?

Based on the short stories of Nirmal Verma, the film has a solid foundation. But it’s let down by some of its dialogues, the odd miscasting, and clumsy execution at times. A line about a girl being “like a flower, waiting to be relished, adored, plucked” will make you cringe. The soft down on Ankur Khanna’s face makes him look too young to be a writer – or Soha Ali Khan’s boyfriend. That said, he’s the only one of the younger lot who has truly grasped his character. But the family friend in Kochi looks more Arab than Malayali, and seems to struggle with Malayali phrases too.

Some of the lines are evocative. I especially liked this, spoken naturally by Khanna: “The worse her memory got, the more concerned she was about mine”. But several of the other actors – including Zeenat – tend to recite their lines, rather than think them. In the case of the Kochi family, there are too many instances when they’re cheerful and suddenly get morose. So delicate a switch requires fine acting, and Nedumudi Venu is the only one who delivers. Brilliant stage actress as she is, Arundhati Nag doesn’t handle the emotional transition too well here. However, there is one touching scene, where Mr. Nair gives his son the jacket he’s been wearing. “I already have one, Achan,” the son says. “It’s okay, have one extra also,” the father smiles, welling up.

Roopa Ganguli and Victor Banerjee are wonderful, saying far more with their expressions than their dialogues during uncomfortable exchanges. There’s one particularly beautiful scene where she tells him that among the books he has disposed of was one he had gifted her when she gave birth to their daughter, inscribed ‘To the mother of my child’.

There are a few marks of the amateur filmmaker. One is the music – the constant play of Rabindra Sangeet in the Bose household and Carnatic music in the Nair household gets cloying. Especially because I don’t know of any Nair family that wakes up to the Suprabatham. At other times, mournful music  gives us the cue to feel sad. There is considerable stereotyping. The end appears contrived, as if Ojha felt compelled to use a cinematic device.

And some scenes could have done with a fuller explanation. Here’s one: How would you react if your brother were to tell you he’s gay? Maybe you’d grab his cigarette. Maybe you’d ask if your mother knows. But, would you grin, hug him and wish him luck without any more questions? Wouldn’t you want to know when he knew he was gay? And whether he’s ever dated girls? Who is the lover, what does he do?

The Verdict: There’s promise in the film, and I’d like to see what Rajshree Ojha could do with this genre in a few years.

NOTE: Chaurahen is being shown at select PVR screens. In Chennai, it’s playing at Ampa Skywalk.


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