Friday, August 12, 2005

SHABD (Hindi; 2005)

Leena Yadav's surprising "Shabd" (2005) is probably the most unfairly overlooked Hindi film in recent times: its box office fate was bleak, the reviews churlish, its theme dubbed too bizarre for India. One might thus be excused for thinking the film merited a pass; one would be wrong: "Shabd" is one of Bollywood's more interesting offerings in recent years, and features fine performances from Sanjay Dutt and Aishwarya Rai to boot. The latter's efforts in particular should lay to rest the fallacy that she cannot act to save her life. Rather, as "Chokher Bali," "Raincoat" and now "Shabd" have shown, Ms. Rai needs the right script and the right director to shine. Indeed the skepticism of movie critics about her abilities says more about our collective unwillingness to appreciate non-dramatic artistes than about Ms. Rai's lack of acting talent. Leena Yadav has done a fantastic job with "Shabd," and viewers willing to lend themselves to the film will find that it holds their attention throughout with a taut script that only flags a bit towards the very end of the film. Boiled down to its essentials, "Shabd" is about a one-time celebrated writer, Shaukat Vasisht (Sanjay Dutt)-- whose most recent novel has failed miserably-- and his wife Antara Vasisht (played by Aishwarya Rai in a nuanced performance), and Shaukat's attempts to redeem himself by means of a new book that he has begun to write. The film is, according to Ms. Yadav, about the thin line separating reality from fiction; per Ms. Rai, the film is about the power of words. Rarely is a film characterized so accurately by those involved in it. For "Shabd" is indeed about this and more. Indeed, I would go further: "Shabd" is about the madness of words, about their disquieting power to manipulate and wound, to determine and yet to surprise their purported authors. The "author" here is of course Shaukat in a rather literal sense, but the lesson of surprise is for the audience, Shaukat himself proving quite unable to accept that he is not master in his own domain. At the heart of Shaukat's malaise when the film opens is the fact that his most recent novel has met with critical derision, and on the grounds that the book is "removed from reality"; Shaukat, review headlines declare, cannot "depict reality," indeed his novel is divorced from the "real." The subject matter of the book is never revealed, but the fall from grace of the one-time Booker prize winner rankles him, fueling a desire to get even by writing a book that will be utterly "real." This leads him to the subject of his novel, which for all its preoccupation with reality turns out to be an abstraction: "Woman." We hear Shaukat declare to himself that no-one has truly (really?) written about "woman"; "No one has ever expressed what she wants, desires," Shaukat declares with shocking naivete early on-- an absence Shaukat aims to fill. The woman in Shaukat's life is his much younger wife and former student Antara, who is ostensibly, at the film's outset, every inch the "traditional" submissive wife. In her, Shaukat thinks he has found his guinea pig, and decides to play his developing novel out in "real life" by urging, even manipulating Antara into embarking on a love affair with a hopelessly infatuated colleague of hers (Yash, played by Zayed Khan). His motives are somewhat unclear, but intriguing: at one level of course this is the most "real" story of all, a novel that will not only record Antara's experiences but that will determine them too. But Shaukat also seems to take pride in his achievement for its own sake: he writes Antara's story because he can, and after a point it is difficult to determine whether he takes more pride in his novel or in the story he is scripting for Antara. The problem for Shaukat, as "Shabd" never loses sight of, is that Antara is more than mere clay, and although initially reluctant to encourage Yash, over time begins to find the idea intriguing. Her motives are far more nuanced than Shaukat's: her relationship with Yash-- where Antara is the more adult, and also the more powerful-- is in a sense an inversion of her relationship with her husband. Yet Yash paradoxically also relieves her of the pressure of babysitting her combustible husband, enabling her to indulge a girlish side that had seemed all but buried by Mrs. Shaukat Vasisht. All the while, Ms. Rai's remarkable eyes ground Antara's character, silently imploring Shaukat to stop her before she goes too far. Antara brings to the fore the broader philosophical concern at the heart of the film (and that presumably lends it its title): once Shaukat has set his story in motion, it is no longer merely his, and becomes open to development, interpretation, and ultimately, subversion, by Antara, and unwittingly by Yash as well. "Shabd" means "word," and the truth Shaukat cannot face is that words, like people, may not be owned. Shaukat's equanimity crumbles in the face of his mounting anxiety over Antara's and Yash's relationship, though in a deft touch by the director it is never entirely clear whether the anxiety is mere jealousy or also reflects Shaukat's fear of losing control over his own novel. At one point Antara chides him for ignoring the difference between "real life" and one of his stories, but the irony escapes both of them: "real life," or at least the reality of "Shabd," is very much one of Shaukat's stories; but even stories may not be completely scripted. Once written, the words composing the story are no longer subject only to authorial will, and may be read, interpreted, and played with, by anyone. For Shaukat, the writer is God, and when Yash's story begins to get uncomfortably difficult to control he decides to write him out of his novel, and Antara's life. In a brazen and rather courageous move, Ms. Yadav conflates the real and the literal, at least in Shaukat's mind, who begins to believe that he can write Yash's death. Antara demonstrates the fallacy of Shaukat's conceit by stealing the relevant page from his manuscript and then proceeding to read out Yash's suicide note to her husband (in fact, Yash merely leaves when he finds out that Antara is married, a truth both Shaukat and Antara had kept from him). In a move worthy of Freud, the monstrous irruption of the notion that Shaukat can determine the lives of those around him, for Shaukat-the-author, a very real notion-- and precisely that "real" which must be repressed if reality, in the sense of the "normal," is to be possible-- unhinges Shaukat, who retreats into a fantasy world where his will really is omnipotent. The above notwithstanding, "fantasy" doesn't do full justice to Ms. Yadav's conception of the blurring between "real" and "unreal" in "Shabd." For Shaukat's god-like pretensions are not just flights of fancy, they are psychologically real pointers to his own self-image. And when he is confronted with what appears to be objective proof of his power-- Antara's announcement of Yash's death-- he lapses into panic. Why panic? Because the return of the repressed real cannot but derange the everyday: Shaukat's greatest triumph is haunted by an obsessive need for demonstrable proof that he has written Yash's death in advance of the actual event, by the fear that the everyday world of the critics, wife, and other people around him cannot accept what he knows to be true, cannot accept his truth without making a continuation of their reality impossible. Such proof is of course not forthcoming, as Antara has stolen the very manuscript page Shaukat needs to establish his power. Afterwards, when we next see Shaukat, we realize that he has turned his back on the world around him, preferring to inhabit a psychological reality where his will reigns supreme. The film's ironies escape each of its characters: Shaukat is totally unaware, at film's end, that his "story"-- locked up as he is in a mental institution and pining for the objective proof he thinks he needs to convince those around him of his power-- has been unwittingly scripted by Antara, whose reading of Yash's (fictional) suicide note has consequences far beyond, and exceeds any notion of, authorial intentionality, whether the author is Shaukat (who writes it) or Antara (who writes it anew by reading it out as if it were true). Antara herself leaves the audience with "shabdon ne mujhse mere shaukat ko cheen liya (words have stolen my Shaukat from me)," utterly, perhaps necessarily, unaware of her own complicity in the matter. More broadly, of course, the joke is on Shaukat: he sets out to write a novel that might answer the question of "what women want," yet wants Antara to do what he wants her to do. He taunts Antara for not wanting to "let go" of herself, yet is himself unable to "let go" of the notion that words can be owned; indeed when Antara writes her own detour of his story, he is unable to spot her ruse: the fact that she is reading out his own words does not make him suspicious, it merely confirms what he already wishes to believe. His obsession with writing a novel that will capture "reality" thus ultimately points the way to a book that cannot be written, and to a life that, becoming ever more unreal, cannot be lived.

1 comment:

shetty said...

Omigod! How did i miss this.

Fantastic revu bro