Parinda, 1942: A Love Story, Kareeb, Mission Kashmir, Munnabhai MBBS.
Each of these above-mentioned films are from producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Not all are box-office winners, but each bears a stamp of quality, class, and refinement. Parineeta is Chopra´s latest release and is no exception. The film offers beautiful performances, a moving love story, an aesthetic presentation, and excellent music. The film triumphs on almost every level and emerges not only as one of the best films of 2005, but also as Chopra´s finest production to date. Chopra also offers us a woman who I feel may be the most promising upcoming actors of her generation, Vidya Balan, who stuns with a pitch-perfect, sensitive, and subtly nuanced performance. Her performance is not that of a debutante, but rather of a powerful actor.
The film itself has a simple story to tell. Lolita (Vidya Balan) is the orphaned lower-middle class neighbor of wealthy Shekhar (Saif Ali Khan) in 1960s Calcutta. Lolita and Shekhar are childhood friends and lovers attempting to overcome an all-too-obvious class chasm. She lives with her uncle, who owes an exorbitant amount of debt to Shekhar´s father. Shekhar´s father is a cold and calculating businessman who has plans to seize Lolita´s family´s haveli due to this outstanding debt and turn it into a five-star hotel. Shekhar himself loathes his father's profession and is oblivious to his father's scheme. He prefers to spend his time composing music and courting Lolita. When Lolita comes to learn of Shekhar´s father's nefarious scheme, she urges her uncle to seek help from a wealthy benefactor Girish (Sanjay Dutt). Girish secretly loves Lolita, and his entry into the lives of these neighbors causes an enormous misunderstanding between Lolita and Shekhar, who jealously accuses his childhood sweetheart of whoring herself out for Girish´s charity. Thus, the lovers are separated and Shekhar eventually follows in the footsteps of his father, becoming the same cold and calculating businessman he once professed to hate and accepting the marriage proposal of Gayatri (Diya Mirza), a beautiful yet ultimately vapid and superficial woman from a wealthy family.
The performances in the film are all consistently excellent. Vidya Balan´s portrayal of Lolita is of such a high standard that she puts the industry's current favorites like Aishwarya Rai, Rani Mukherjee (Yes, even Rani´s overdone performance in Black), and Priety Zinta to shame. Though not strikingly beautiful, she is unconventionally pretty and her sweet simplicity reminds of Ashwini Bhave in Parampara and Yugpurush. At times she also reminded me of Manisha Koirala in 1942: A Love Story. I'm predicting that Balan will eventually shoot to the top of the A-List and will go on to become not just a film star, but an actress of the caliber of Meena Kumari, Nargis, etc. There´s no flaw in her performance, really nothing to improve upon -- be it diction, emotiveness, body language, and screen presence. Her performance is perfect.
Saif Ali Khan further consolidates his position as an actor of substance and delivers a solid performance, balancing intense love for this woman with intense jealousy of Girish. Khan straddles the line between proud anger and self-loathing with enormous skill. A lesser actor would have played the character of Shekhar as either an over-possessive neurotic or an immature and arrogant child. Shahrukh Khan, for example, in Devdas overplayed his character's self-righteousness and pride and delivered an overdone, one-note performance. Saif handles the character with sensitivity and, as a result, helps the viewer understand Shekhar´s motives in some parts and dislike him in others. When Gayatri compliments Shekhar on his business acumen, applauding a musician for having such a practical skill, Shekhar replies, "No, I´m not a musician, just a businessman," Saif delivers the line in a way which demonstrates both Shekhar´s understanding of who he has become and his utter hatred of himself for transforming into such a cold and bitter person.
Finally, Sanjay Dutt plays Lolita´s benefactor Girish with warmth and compassion. Dutt plays Girish as a simple man with straightforward thoughts and emotions, a character who we instantly fall in love with. He supports Balan and Khan wonderfully and is a scene stealer, especially in his introductory scene when he first meets Lolita. This year Sanjay Dutt has demonstrated his versatility as an actor, first with his masterful performance in Leena Bajaj´s underrated Shabd and now with his excellent turn in Parineeta. All three lead performances are award-worthy.
Diya Mirza has a small yet impressive supporting role in the film as Gayatri, Shekhar´s fiancé. She looks stunningly beautiful in her period gowns and dresses and radiates charm in her scenes with Saif, especially her introductory scene at Gayatri´s birthday party. Rekha surprises in her cameo as a lounge singer with her fun cabaret number "Kaisi Paheli Zindagani," looking young in a form-fitting maroon sari and dancing with grace.
Shantanu Moitra´s music fits the film very well, adding to the rich ambiance and setting of the story. The songs are aesthetically picturized, especially "Piyu Bole", "Soona Man Ka Aangan", and Rekha´s above-mentioned song. Technically, the film is beautifully shot. Everything looks sumptuous - the elegant mansions, the beautiful clothes, the hills of Darjeeling and Kolkata´s busy streets. The Bengali culture adds a classy sheen to the movie and debutante director Pradeep Sarkar shows immense promise by understating his film´s beautiful love story with soft lighting, rich color arrangements, and well-framed scenes. The montage involving Shekhar´s jealous visions of Girish and Lolita making love on their wedding night and his frenzied piano playing is just one example of the artistic depth and poignance of Sarkar´s direction.
The only flaw in the film is that the post-interval proceedings film seem extremely rushed. The characters and events unfold slowly and with such precision in the first half that the post-interval and climax make the movie seem rushed and uneven. Had Sarkar taken his time in the latter portions of the story, the film would have had even more of an impact. As it is, Parineeta rises above this flaw and emerges a film that resonates with maturity and emotional poignance. A must-see.