Heroine : Movie Review

4 stars out of 5 (Excellent)

Director : Madhur Bhandarkar

Hindi (English subtitiles available) , 2012

I haven’t seen all of Madhur Bhandarkar’s films but you don’t have to taste the whole jar of wicked caviar to know what it’s about. The director’s debut - Chandni Bar - which I bunked college to see more than ten years ago on a Mysore summer’s afternoon, turned out to be a scorcher that narrates with naked gumption the story of a woman trapped in a vortex of malignant circumstances. ’Page 3’ picturized the depraved jungle that coos over and bays under the facade of Bombay. In India, you may very well have to be a criminal before you become a saint in politics, and 'Satta’ spotlighting Raveena Tandon with beauty, heart-’n’-guts, defiantly journeys through that theme amongst others.

It was by parting these curtains of credentials that I settled into my vicarious theatre-throne to watch what Bhandarkar would cook and roast this time. His central visual ingredient was auspiciously appealing - Kareena Kapoor in full fire-’n’-ice form, going by the trailers....

A BMW rolls into view and ejects a woman out. The fact that she may be a heroine is soon hinted when her own chauffeur-driven BMW coasts to a stop beside her and she climbs into it, plotting vegeance. We catch Mahi Arora (Kareena Kapoor) just when her career is going into a nosedive..A small-town girl, who has emerged from a broken home, she joins the Bombay film industry. She may not be an actress with solidly natural acting chops but she still goes on to become a Star. But Mahi does not cultivate the poise and the cunningness to remain skating on thin ice, and soon the surface cracks to give way to a flailing career and a rocky personal life. She is into her third major relationship ,and this time with a big star Aryan Khanna (played intermittently over the span of the entire story with moving nuance by Arjun Rampal). He does love Mahi but he is also reeling under the impact of a particularly ruthless divorce settlement, and the prospect of a career which he thinks might not be as exciting if he marries Mahi at that juncture.

Mahi still makes enough big bucks with endorsements and film offers, but high-profile films are giving her the slip as rivals and newer entrants grab the limelight. As grief and heart-break crescendoes, she ropes in a shamelessly driven PR agent to revitalize her flagging career....But the Ups continue to alternate madly with the Downs...

Bhandarkar maintains the bonus of adding interesting characters. A prominent cricketer (enacted with a judicious mix of cavalier confidence and sincerity by Randeep Hooda), and a reigning film star who ducks away from the fangs of his wife whilst being a egomaniacal sex-seeker (slyly played by Sanjay Suri) enrich the gallery of specimens in this demi-monde. It is a welcome relief to see a character like Mahi's mother (Lilette Dubey, stalwart as always) who perseveres in talking sense into her daughter.

For much of the film I was engrossed by the assiduously edited, smoothly told story which changes track with frequent finesse to eventually reveal the train-wreck that Mahi becomes. She shows sufficient sensitivity to provide shelter in her own trailer van to an elderly artiste who’s being short-changed by the industry. She is fiery enough to publicly chastise a reporter for selling out to a star, and also deliver a scathing rebuttal at a press interview. But that audacity is also slashed by a crooked streak that isn't above digging up and subtly broadcasting dirt on her co-stars. But when it comes to love, she lacks that sense of rolling with the punches, and the patience that is necessary to temper a relationship. Pic's screenplay has the sense to sprinkle some good-natured humour to leaven its intense flow. Production design ensures the requisite luxury and gloss in which this filmic demi-monde floats.

The media is pilloried without exception (the director could have used some balance here), and there are distinct shots of hordes of paparazzi who swoop onto Mahi and drown her in a swirling sea of mikes and cameras. Bhandarkar has always wanted to tell us that homosexuality is a discreet but inseparable part of cosmopolitan life, which is why that aspect makes an appearance in this film too, albeit in a very fleeting indirect way that again raises the hackles of his detractors (his gay characters are often saddled with a crushing stigma rather than easy confidence, and that is why Bhandarkar is guilty of doing a major disservice to gays). More audacious is the decision to suggest an act of lesbian coupling bang at the center of the story. No wonder Kareena said that this is her boldest role yet. Ranvir Shorey essays a superb role as a casually professorial Bengali auteur who cracks the whip and does not even care for the producer when it comes to safe-guarding the sanctity of the film’s material. His final scene with Kareena is moving in terms of its implacable sentiment.

The opening title song packs all the glamour, satin, beautiful moves and sex appeal that is needed to jump-start a project like ’Heroine’. Kareena also jazzes it up in "Halkat Jawaani" whose punch-packed beats are also powered by Kareena’s effervescent oomph - however the song’s composition stops short of generating real Dhamaal. Saaiyaan is the best song of the film in its terms of lilting tunes while ’Khwaahishein’ is effective both in its upbeat and soft notes, whilst framing vistas of the good life further enirched by romance. The background music is vigorous but inconsistent in maintaining quality and style. Ensuring excellent music has never been Bhandarkar’s forte. Nor has subtlety been his virtue. At least in two separate scenes, he gets too preachy and very melodramatic - resulting in grievous injury to the material’s tone and tenor.

Kareena delivers a bravura performance. She is visually different from most Indian actresses in that her face, in its sculpted contours and full cosmetic glamour, is a dazzling mix of Desi and European features. Here, she heighens that aesthetic sizzle with wrenching emotional depth. I don’t have much memories of her character - Mahi Arora - showing pure happiness in this film. Her beautiful face is dominated by dysphoria. Pain and frustration are writ large on her features, tears form her real make-up. She makes heaps of mistakes, guns and works for success like a fiend, sobs and pleads like a dying person begging for life, hopes like a child and also unwittingly sports the maturity of the latter. She wants to be an eternal heroine, but her mind is the villain.

Both Page 3 and Satta ended on a note of sobriety , coming to rest on the ashes of skullduggery. ’Heroine’s arc too is laid to peace in similar fashion, but it does not earn its composure in an equally convincing manner. Yes, there are enough snapshots given before-hand about Mahi’s persona to suggest that she can end up the way she did, but about 10 to 15 minutes of bridging narrative seems to have been chopped off. Structurally, both this film and "Kahani" have excellent narratives for three-quarters of their run-time but while the latter film then dipped and swerved before soaring off into the heavens like a phoenix that was never dead, this one ultimately rests its head without doing that last leg of soul-redeeming work.

If you want to watch this film, prepare to run the risk of being eventually disappointed, but before that, also expect to be wowed by a good deal of highly accomplished story-telling. Few directors in the Hindi film industry can peddle truth and garnish it with compelling gravitas ,like how Bhandarkar can. He directs Kareena with such focus that her performance here embodies that naked heart of fulfilled talent that beats at the core of commercial cinema and salvages its carcass. Even his major mistakes can be forgiven in the context of the larger victories he pulls off. Heroine's screenplay does not end with a smash-hit but by the final stages it has already elbowed and eased its way into the gallery of top 'insider' films. This film will make actresses, both struggling and winning, at least momentarily forget the glamour-bulbs and see whether they can catch a part of their own reflection.




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