Whereas the first NRI films were refreshing change of pace for many Indian film-goers in that they added new depth to the image of Indians living abroad, they were still severely deficient as films. More often than not, their production values were laughable, the films appeared tacky and cheap, and the stories they told were one-dimensional. WhatÂ´s worse, overtime, NRI filmmakers fell in to the same trap as most of their counterparts in India; repetition. Almost every single film that comes out of this genre is about a confused desi living abroad, trying to make sense of their simultaneous Indian-western identity. Almost all of them tend to take a very "risquĂ©" look at sexuality and almost all of them contain some trite moral at the end of the film.
Lemon Tree FilmsÂ´ Leela, written and directed by Somnath Sen manages to overcome the cheap look of most NRI films but is still limited by a contrived script. Sen seems to have overlooked the element of "motive" in the script. Granted real people may take spontaneous and irrational steps in life, it still helps in a film to clue audiences in to why characters do certain things. Actions should at least gel with what we expect a character to do based on their development in the film. No such luck here; LeelaÂ´s world is filled with unpredictable and capricious characters.
Leela (Dimple Kapadia) decides to take a break from life and come to the USA after her motherÂ´s death. A professor back in India, she decides she will be a visiting professor for a South Asian studies course in an American suburban university.
Krishna (Amol Mhatre) who prefers to be called Kris (exactly like in the earlier NRI film, American Desi - because this clichĂ©d name change speaks depths about the NRI experience, of course) is a second generation Indian youth at the college where Leela is now a professor. He comes from a broken family. His mother Chaitali (Deepti Naval) is having an affair and his father Jai (Gulshan Grover) is living with an American woman.
Leela warms up to Kris and they instantly strike up a comfortable relationship as friends. KrisÂ´s American friends then convince him that he should try to sleep with Leela. Presumably because he feels that this would bring a level of comfort and control in his life, Kris goes ahead with his plan ("Presumably" because no real reason is provided by the film).
Meanwhile, KrisÂ´s mom ChaitaliÂ´s secret affair is revealed. He grows furious at the news of her affair and his emotions cause him to get domineering around Leela. Leela is annoyed and their relationship nearly comes to end.
Enter Naushad (Vinod Khanna), LeelaÂ´s husband from India. Leela gets wind that her husband, who she has forgiven for adultery one too many times in the past, is sleeping with another woman in India. She is heart broken at this and in her confused state of mind, she runs straight into KrisÂ´s arms and his bed.
What follows is a climax and conclusion that is just as confused and convoluted as the build up. Naushad comes to America to fetch his wife, Kris develops a complex of wanting to control Leela, and Leela wants nothing to do with men who want to "claim" her as their prize.
Why does Kris act so incredibly infuriated when his momÂ´s affair is revealed? Why would Leela choose to suddenly have an affair herself if her husband had cheated on her earlier as well? Especially after she makes it clear to KrisÂ´s mom how much she loves him despite his shortcomings as a husband? And why have an affair with teenage Kris who she wasnÂ´t exactly on good terms with? In the end, Somnath Sen claims, his characters come out of the ordeals in the film as stronger characters. But it never shows in the film. How are they stronger characters? What exactly have they learned? An intelligent script could have left these questions unanswered and have audiences reach their own conclusions. Sadly, this is not one of those scripts.
If you can excuse the loop-hole heavy plot, there is quite a bit to enjoy in Leela. Foremost, Somnath Sen has really written some brilliant dialogues in the film. If you thought the Anecdotes in Agni Varsha were meaningful, you should witness some of the stories Leela tells in this film. Taken from mostly Hindu and Buddhist sources, they are very thought provoking and work exceptionally well within the context of the events on screen.
Then there is the brilliant score and music by Jagjit Singh and Gulzar. The music in the film is haunting and beautiful. In fact, it serves to create more ambience than most of Somnath SenÂ´s shots in the film. SenÂ´s film is stylish and makes great use of color, but his sense of style falls apart in some of the more dramatic areas of the film.
Performances are another major plus. Dimple Kapadia is superb as Leela. Despite the fact that she has just done a role very similar to this one (older woman, younger man in Dil Chahta Hai) she manages to bring enough new material and freshness to the role to make her portrayal of Leela stand out. Her mannerisms are dead-on and her dialogue delivery is completely natural. Her conviction almost makes some of the awkward decisions made by her character in the plot seem somewhat logical. Pity this fantastic performance is let down by a lacking script.
Amol Mhatre is likewise remarkable. Even in a role that is built around formulaic clichĂ©s, he manages to bring a level of deepness to the role that is very impressive. His Krishna is constantly working beneath the surface, reflecting on his actions and growing as a character. He strikes the right balance between drama and charm to his character despite a loose script.
Deepti Naval lends exceptional support. Usually limited to melodramatic mother roles in Bollywood films (most recently in Shakti), she is very strong in a completely different role here. Her eyes and diction express acceptance of the fact that her character is inherently flawed but they also tenaciously guard her dignity. She is extremely comfortable in her role, crying when broken and roaring like a lioness when challenged. In her superlative turn as Chaitali, Naval even manages to upstage Kapadia in one or two scenes in the film; and these scenes are really the ones that make the film worth watching.
Vinod Khanna is the major disappointment here. He misinterprets stagnation and hesitance in his character and as Naushad he is just plain "tired." He goes through his role with a confusing undercurrent of lethargy and sluggishness. His antics are especially awkward considering he is supposed to be a shair (poet) in the film.
Leela is a hard to review because on one hand there is a clichĂ©d story with a very superficial plot, but on the other hand we have a stylish, somewhat different film with tour de force performances. Should one bother to watch this film? The story is becoming oft repeated (Dil Chahta Hai, Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai, even Ek Chhotisi Love Story) and the "confused NRI" hangover is apparent in a number of the earlier scenes. But the sincerity and confidence of the lead players in the film is strong enough to warrant a viewing. Worthwhile, but disappointing in that it couldÂ´ve been much more.