After "Fiza", the semi-autobiographical story of Khalid Mohammed, the writer presents his new offering - the tale of his mother - "Zubeidaa". This would definitely qualify as one of those many instances where truth is even stranger than fiction. The story of the actress who marries into royalty and dies rather prematurely is still shrouded in mystery, and though Mr. Mohammed does not attempt to shed light on the cause of her demise, he elucidates the circumstances surrounding the tragedy - leaving the audience to ponder over a life gone wrong.
The film tells the story of a film journalistīs search for the truth that is his mother. Zubeidaa (Karisma Kapoor) is born into a Muslim film family that looks down upon their daughter as an actress. Her father (Amrish Puri) can have an affair with a leading actress of the studio, but he strongly objects when he catches his daughter doing a banjaran dance number for the man that buys the studio from him. Zubeidaa is then forced into a premature marriage with her fatherīs best friendīs son. She quickly becomes pregnant, and even as she delivers - a family feud errupts and her father decides that she must get divorced.
Zubeidaa survives this trauma by finding solace in Rose, her fatherīs socialite/actress mistress. Rose takes Zubeidaa to a polo match where the young lady meets the royal prince - Victor (Manoj Bajpai). A romance quickly blossoms and Zubeidaa is forced to leave her child behind with her mother (Surekha Sikri) and move to a world of supposed freedom and royalty.
After marrying Victor, Zubeidaa meets Mandakini (Rekha), Victorīs first wife who tries to teach Zubeidaa the etiquette of a princess. Zubeidaa immediately objects to a structured life, something she thought she had left far behind. Her loneliness and jealousy grow deeper when she sees Victor favoring Mandakini. When the threat of losing his kingdom to the new Indian government arises, Victor goes on the campaign trail - and takes his Hindu wife with him over his Muslim consort. Zubeidaa decides to interrupt this endeavour and unfortunately it leads to her downfall.
The narrative style is particularly interesting in that the film constantly jumps back and forth between the past and present. At one point we see the glamour and beauty of Rose, a famous film actress, while in the very next scene we see an elderly, lonely alcoholic who passes her time talking to her cats. The flamboyant dance director (Shakti Kapoor in a great cameo) later becomes a bizarre slumdweller. The wise and beautiful Mandakini forever remains a decoration piece in her palace. And the periodicity of the old time is aided by brilliant art direction, costumes, hairstyles, and of course - perfect music (A.R. Rehman).
The greatest strength of the film is simply Karisma Kapoor. Interestingly, the real life Zubeidaa is most famous for acting in the early talkie "Alam Ara" (1931) with Karismaīs great-grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor. Karisma breathes life into the child-woman Zubeidaa in a way that I canīt imagine anyone else doing. This is not an easy character to portray. At times her performance calls for extreme restraint while at others she is allowed to display her fiery histrionics. And Karisma meets the challenge head on. If "Fiza" might win her the criticsī awards for last year, "Zubeidaa" just might do the trick this time around.
Rekha, for her part, looks gorgeous and plays her character with enough ambiguity so that we constantly wonder about Mandakiniīs intentions. Manoj Bajpaye comes off in a similar manner, more so because his character seems to be far less developed than the other leads.
The film is not without its flaws, though. Shyam Benegalīs direction is very intelligent, but at times the action moves so swiftly that we almost feel as if we are watching a documentary. The second half of the film is about emotion but the first half is mainly exposition. A big flaw in the story itself is that it presents Suleimaan, Zubeidaaīs father, as a control freak, but when she decides to leave her child and family to marry a Hindu prince, he seems to disappear from the story. Doesnīt one think that he would stop the wedding?
This all aside, Zubeida is still great cinema. This is the kind of film that stays with you long after it is over. To entertain and provoke thought simultaneously is no easy task. And though the film never answers the question as to why Zubeidaa dies - Iīm sure that each person walking out of the film will come up with a theory of his own. I know I have mine.