PLEASE NOTE: This movie contains mature subject matter, strong language and several scenes of sexuality. Planet Bollywood does not recommend it for viewing by young children.
Engaging, educational and realistic, but ultimately depressing; there is no other way to describe this risky product conceptualized by one-time Ramgopal Varma assistant, Madhur Bhandarkar. After debuting last year with the inane action drama, Trishakti, the novice director redeems himself by proving he can engage us with a thought-provoking yarn.
It is 1985, and a young Mumtaz (Tabu) has just endured the trauma of losing her parents in religious clashes. Her village has been reduced to rubble, so her lone surviving relative, Mamu Irfan, decides the twosome must go to Bombay to start anew. However, when they arrive, the surrogate parent realizes finding a job in the metropolis is a difficult task. Iqbal (Rajpal Yadav), a distant relative already settled in the city, informs them however that Mumtaz can address the problem by taking a position at Chandni Bar, a local adult bar, where women dance and titillate the male patrons. Much to her chagrin and reluctance, Mumtaz is coerced into the profession, and soon finds Irfan Mamu lazed, dependant on her earnings and a drug addict. Resigning herself to the unhappy state of life, she finds her only solace in the daily interaction with her co-workers, trash-talking but good-hearted women, who’s own circumstances are often more pitiable.
The vicious circle of victimization nearly breaks when Potiya (Atul Kulkarni), a corrupt politician’s henchman and frequent bar visitor, is enamoured by the recluse Mumtaz. But a hasty marriage and a couple of kids later, Mumtaz is forced to return to the life of a bar girl in order to make a better future for her kids. Try as she might to isolate them from the trials and tribulations faced in her own existence, fate has other plans. And so, it decides to deal her one final, sweeping round of traumatic blows.
The casting of Tabu in the central role was a most intelligent decision. Like all great performances, we do not realize that it is an actress playing the role of Mumtaz. For two and a half hours of my life, I saw only Mumtaz on the screen. No Tabu in sight. Claiming to have conducted considerable research in bars, the film’s team appears to have most authentically reproduced the seedy environment on celluloid. Mercifully, there is no gloss or glamorization of the pub like in typical commercial ventures, but there is also little disrespect shown to the women who work there either. The crude style of clothing, historically accurate film posters and music, cheesy and unexciting dance steps, all the way right down to the heartfelt (if foul-mouthed) conversations, each aspect of the movie is replicated with authenticity. So the supporting female cast takes advantage of their surroundings (and their well-written roles) to bring their characters to life.
The men in the movie, however, are not so lucky. Atul Kulkarni, delivers a menacingly good Potiya, and Rajpal Yadav is competent (though soon to be slotted in these good guy/bad guy roles), but one could care less about their characters when Mumtaz or the Chandni Bar girls are on screen. Their performances, dialogues and mannerisms are all delivered with so much more conviction. For such a small budget, technical credits, particularly the editing is quite good. The film’s cinematography does great service to the film, as it frequently uses hand-held motion shots, but I found it jarring when Rajeev Ravi’s camera lens places key characters at the bottom of the screen and chopped off part of their bodies and facial gestures.
And in case you were wondering, the lack of a proper film soundtrack with new songs was unnoticeable. First, Raju Singh’s background score was effective and powerful in complementing the narrative. And second, the bar sequences were better served with the authentic old Bollywood songs used as opposed to having any of the girls break out spontaneously and immaturely into some alien tune unrelated to that day and age.
A dark and brutally honest tale, there is little respite to the tragedies witnessed by Mumtaz. We presume the Chandni Bar hardships and situations are not alien to many real women in her situation. Bhandarkar offers neither his lead character nor the audience hope for the future, which is quite a bold decision. And frankly, it is preferable to be honest and pessimistic, rather than fake and vapid the way Rajkumar Santoshi ended his deplorable female farce, Lajja.
For a woman who tries so hard to live morally and ethically given the difficult circumstances of her existence, we keep hoping there is an ultimate Divine Justice to be metted out to Mumtaz. It never comes. Some may argue that cinema should not be this unfair. Others, like myself, will appreciate the director remaining true to the subject matter. But even we cannot escape the inevitable sadness the film evokes in our hearts.