POWER DUO ACTION GO!
Yes, Shabana and Naseer! Naseer and Shabana! Power Action Duo of the Parallel Art New Wave Cinema of India. Like peanut butter and jelly... Like video games and Saturday morning... Like profit maximization and checking your second order conditions... They are inseparable, complementary, two pieces of Really Awesome who like to make sweet sweet awesome together. The puzzle pieces of Awesome. AWESOME.
I gush like this because, sure, in Masoom, they were good. And separately, they have also been known to be good. But I was so pleased to see that, in Sparsh (literally, touch), they are good again, but it is a new, different goodness, fresh and intelligent. It's so satisfying to see pros at work. And I am their emotional puppet!
On the surface, it just seems like yet another romantic 1980s Naseer and Shabana Vehicle. Along the roads of a posh Delhi suburb, Anirudh (Naseeruddin Shah) walks wearing enormous bellbottoms and tapping a walking stick. Why? Because it's 1980 and he's blind. He hears a beautiful voice wafting on the evening breeze: could that be Kavita (Shabana Azmi), the woman he is destined to love? He's not sure, he was looking for the doctor's office. Anyway, Anirudh and Kavita keep bumping into each other after that, and soon Anirudh invites Kavita to come volunteer at his school for the blind. Kavita agrees, they bump into each other even more, and eventually Kavita invites Anirudh for some coffee upstairs (if you know what I mean).
But all is never well in paradise, especially since Anirudh and Kavita are damaged people. Apart from the obvious disability, Anirudh is a chainsmoking hedgehog with anger and self-pity issues. Kavita is also nursing her own old wounds: three years ago her dashing, Kodak-moment husband died, and ever since then her most profound relationships have been with bonsai trees and a sitar. How will these two broken people cope with the sudden flowering of love between them? Poorly. Anirudh is even forced to exclaim, "What if it's not love at all - but some sort of twisted festival of commiseration?" Oh my God, Anirudh, are you breaking up with me?! (dramatic music plays)
Pink Floyd, cigarettes, angst. Check.
The Sound of Music reenactments.
Kavita has another secret admirer: little Paplu, the son of the school chef who wishes he could be blind too. That way, Auntie Kavita would love him as much as the other kids. Woe.
My favorite part.
This film is manipulative, surprise surprise. Thankfully, it doesn't fall back on the cliché manipulations but presents us with some colorful new ones. Sure, Anirudh is blind, but at least Kavita attempts to cope with her issues - you're not even trying. No, Kavita, reverting back to bonsai gardening is not the appropriate way to deal with a breakup, and neither is using blind children as "sacrificial victims on the alter of pity" (oh, I love the dialogue in Indian films).
Throughout the film, we get the sense that, as healing as the all-powerful Filmi Love usually is, maybe it isn't that all-powerful. But hey - you play the cards you were dealt. In the final scene, which is lovely, we get no guarantee that Anirudh and Kavita will live happily ever after exploring each others' faces (OK, that was a cliché moment) rather than just crawling back into their shells. We're left hanging, the window is closed.
Everyone seems to have gone a bit bonkers over Naseer's performance in this, and rightly so. He resists the temptation to give his character's blindness that strange aesthetic grace they sometimes acquire in film (see Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, or Wes Bentley in The Four Feathers), and instead we get the disconcerting view of a, well, blind guy. Even more impressive is how convincing he is when placed next to the child actors in the film (all of whom were really blind). The character's hesitancy and defensiveness also stand in sharp contrast to his other roles - Masoom, Naajayaz, Monsoon Wedding. On the Toshiro Mifune Scale of Disappearing Acts, we rate this at Almost Toshiro.
Shabana seems to have melted out of her frosty Ice Queen from Masoom, instead presenting Kavita as a quiet, warm woman who's fine, no really, thanks for asking. There's a wonderful ambiguity to her intentions with Anirudh: is it really love, or just that sort of pitying maternal instinct we women are prone to when presented with sick puppies? It seems even Kavita doesn't know. What is clear, though, is that as she fusses and tends to Anirudh and the blind schoolchildren, she comes out of her cave and re-joins the real world. Small huzzah.
Om Puri is not in this film enough. Especially since he looks fah-aaain, damn.
As good as this film is in terms of the performances and the emotional complexity, we at the PPCC could not help but ask: Why are we watching this movie? It was emotional pornography, we even felt a little voyeuristic. Thusly, we rate this film as Excellent For a Night of Misery. Didn't get that job you wanted? Recently dumped? Get some cookies and pop Sparsh in the DVD player; all shall be well.
Hey, reach out and sparsh someone.