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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Malaal, Review: Tragic love saga, with cause for introspection, and some regret

Malaal, Review: Tragic love saga, with cause for introspection, and some regret

Sanjay Leela Bhansali, producer-director of many a box-office mojo-maker and purveyor of a certain kind of stylised cinema, picks a 2004 Tamil film and sets it in 1998, the year of Titanic, and his own Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. If you can take a hint, three in this case, you will know that this is going to be a romantic tale of a disparate couple, with a tragic ending.

That he casts two debutants and asks another director, known for a couple of films each in Marathi and Hindi, to wield the megaphone, suggests that he would rather let a native Marathi-speaker handle a subject set in a Mumbai shanty, and that he did not want to put his own neck on the line. While Malaal (Regret, interesting title) has its moments, it is more a case of wasted opportunities. And some introspection and regret is in order.

Shiva lives in a chawl (shanty/slum), populated by Marathi-speaking Maharashtrians. He is a college dropout, a good-for-nothing lumpen, and whiles away his time eating, drinking and smoking. One day, he beats up a local cricket match umpire black and blue because he did not signal a wide ball, when there was no doubt that it was wide. No wonder his father constantly abuses him and beats him too.

His mother runs the home by making and selling chaklis (flat, round, spiralled savoury), but his father beats her too, daily. Picked by a wily politician as a prospect for carrying out ethnic cleansing drives against north Indians who migrate to Mumbai, Shiva decides to drive out any such persons who cross his path. One day, he wrecks the car of a man who demanded compensation from a guest outside the politician’s meeting venue, for breaking his headlight. That man happens to be Aditya, who will soon cause him untold misery.

Into Shiva’s chawl, and his life, comes Aastha, a rich man’s daughter, whose father was cleaned out at the stock exchange. They are forced to rent a room in the chawl from one Bhosle. When he learns that their surname is Tripathi, Shiva wants to drive them away, but is impressed when he confronts Aastha, who reminds him that she was born in Mumbai and answers him in fluent Marathi. Aastha develops a crush on Shiva and, soon afterwards, Shiva begins to like her too. She has another admirer in the chawl, but he proves no match for Shiva’s derring-do and muscle-power.

That, however, is not the real problem. Aastha’s parents have decided to get her married to her childhood friend and the son of her father’s millionaire friend, Aditya. The same Aditya! Aastha is in a sheer dilemma, and demands from Shiva that he reform himself first, give up fighting, smoking and drinking, appear for his exam and take up a job, even if it is a lowly position. In due course, Shiva does all of the above. Even as he keeps hoping that Aastha will now soon be his, her parents get her engaged. Now is time for the guessing game: Aastha marries Aditya/Aastha marries Shiva/Aditya dies/Shiva dies/Aastha dies/they both die. Hint: This is not a spoiler, but one of the six options is correct. Most likely, most of you will guess wrong.

Screenplay by   director Mangesh Hadawale, Sanjeev and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, develops the story by Selvaraghavan, who is given a first, solo title. In the initial few scenes, the story lacks direction. It takes its own time to establish the chawl as a character, and the lead characters, Shiva and Aastha. Meanwhile, it moves at a tangent and misleads you into believing that the northern migrants v/s Mumbai’s Marathi folk is the thrust of the story, which premise it abandons without as much as ‘by your leave’. When it does get into the (once upon a time) rich girl and poor boy love story syndrome, one of Shiva’s friends, recounting the fate of Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic, says “This time, you will surely die.” It is never explained what the “this time” was all about. Was Shiva a womaniser? Did he have several failed affairs behind him?

Suddenly, the universe of the film becomes Shiva and Aastha. Everything that happens in the film after Aastha shows some signs of reciprocation is centred on the couple. Others, even if they are present when the two meet, either leave in a huff or are told to leave them alone, which they are glad to do. Yes, there are some scenes involving the two families, and Aditya’s family, but it seems that the world outside does not exist. It is true that a film should have focus, but a little bit of distancing never did any harm to a script. Moreover, there is no humour or comic relief at all, and no character actor with enough footage to provide a foil, so some distancing would have helped.

To be fair, there are four breaks from the routine. In one, Shiva rides atop a taxi, as if there are no traffic rules in Mumbai, and, upon reaching his destination, asks the driver to serenade Aastha in a northern dialect. In another, Shiva appears for some exam (it is unclear which one), and is wrongly accused of copying from a piece of paper, which was hurriedly discarded by the boy on the next seat. Next comes a scene at the police station, where Aastha bails him out by breaking open her piggy bank. Lastly, Shiva interacts briefly with a senior Stock Broker, who has been persuaded by Aastha to offer him a job, albeit an unflattering one. None of these scenes have the kind of impact that one would have expected from them.

Shiva (a venerated Hindu god) is a name that has been beaten to death, so why name your lead actor that? And Aastha (faith)? How predictably symbolic can you get? Shiva’s character wears an almost permanent blank look, even while he is drinking or smoking. Okay, so he has had a life that left him looking like a sleep-walker. And yet, he breaks into song and dance on at least three numbers, in one case, after snatching the microphone from an off-key singer. It takes a crazy infatuation with Aastha and a quotidian of reproaches to reform him, reinforcing the oft quoted dictum that women like men with bad habits and flaws, so that they can reform them. And reform him she does.

While Shiva’s characterisation leaves a lot to be desired, Aastha’s character shows few signs of being ‘faith’ful. At the end of it all, she comes across as a confused girl, who first stands up to Shiva, then develops the hint of a soft corner, then a real soft corner, then love, and then mad love, all the while knowing that she is betrothed to Aditya and that she will not go against the wishes of her parents. She does redeem herself towards the end, in a least expected sort of way, but you do wonder about her IQ (intelligence quotient) level.

This being a tale of a besotted lover and ‘a victim of circumstances’, unable to reciprocate, beloved, it ought to have tugged at the heart much more often than it does (only twice in my case). Shiva is such a negative personality that his prowess at arithmetic is hardly reason enough to make the audience like him. Being mad about a girl, and willing to turn a new leaf for her sake, is also anything but new and not reason enough to start liking a goon. Hadawale fails to generate empathy, and it is now too late to regret. Maybe introspection and debriefing are called for.

Some of the seven song tracks are melodious and poetically rich. There are too many credits to list here, though. ‘Katthai katthai’ (meaning dark brown, a reference to Shiva’s eyes) goes one number, a new concept in film songs, the norm being blue or black eyes. ‘Aai shappat’ and ‘Aila re’ are rooted in native Marathi, with the de rigueur Lord Ganesh (Ganapati) celebration incorporated, the intention being pandering to popular ‘demand’. The festival is a major event in most Maharashtrian households. I confess my ignorance about the meaning of two of the other song titles, ‘Udhal ho’ and ‘Nadh khula’.

Meezaan Jaffery, whose first name means weighing balance, is a third generation actor from the house of Jagdeep. Javed Jaffery, Meezaan’s father, is Jagdeep’s son. Jagdeep had to move from lead roles in the late fifties and early sixties to comedy and character roles, post mid–sixties. He is regarded as among the greatest Indian comedians of the 20th century. Javed tried his hand at both villain and lead roles, before exhibiting amazing dancing talent and terrific comic timing in dozens of films and on TV.

Meezaan, who is trained in martial arts and played basketball, was considering music or sports as a career, not films, till he caught the eye of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He is nothing like his father or grand-father, beginning with his looks: a large face, long hair around it, and a beard-moustache. He hardly smiles in this film, but when he does, it is winsome. Dance comes naturally to him, feet moving at will. Not much of upper body movement is seen, though we do see him lifting his shirt in one scene, exposing a muscular torso. Coming to comedy, there is none of it in the film, so we cannot judge. Though he looks more than the age suggested by the milieu, overall, there is a freshness in his persona that holds promise.

Sharmin is Sanjay’s niece, his sister Bela’s daughter. Bela is an editor. Sharmin’s paternal grandfather, Mohan Segal, was a veteran film director, active from the 50s to the 80s. Not in the glam-sham mould, she looks demure and speaks with a hoarse, throaty voice, an area that she should work on. An ill-defined and ambivalent role was perhaps not the best way to launch this New York trained actress, but she is not bad. Her dialogue delivery, though, is a bit studied, the kind one would associate with a pre-shooting workshop trained actress. Names of the supporting cast were untraceable, except for Sameer Dharmadhikari as the politician, Ankush Bisht as Dev, Komal Chhabria as Nirmala and Badri Chavan as Shiva's buddy. These actors filled the bill.

Chawl, college, food stalls, dance bar, stock exchange, police station, rocky beaches, Ragul Dharuman’s cinematography            captures the locales in effective tones and frames. Editing by Rajesh Pandey needed to be much sharper, for the 136-minute film really drags in the second half. An epilogue follows the tragedy, which turns out to be a trope, and predictable too.

Rating: ** ½



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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