July 11, 2006 – The very foundation of Mumbai was shaken by an extremist act that would forever change the lives of millions of Indians. A series of seven bomb blasts, all within the span of eleven minutes, erupted in one of Mumbai’s local trains. Yet, despite this national tragedy of enormous proportions, Mumbai has survived. Her people, as if built of unmovable brick, were not shattered. And through the blackened ashes and scarred memories, emerged a remarkable wall of unbreakable strength, unequivocal character, and the victorious flame of the human spirit.
No. MUMBAI MERI JAAN is not a film on that tragic day. It is a film on every day that follows. After producing Aamir earlier this year, Ronnie Screwala and UTV return to the genre of serious obscure cinema by once again touching on the fragile virus of extremist views and the effects it has on the lives of those around it. Marathi director Nishikant Kamat makes a soothing foray into Hindi Cinema with a work of art that encapsulates his acute vision, mastery of character narration, and brilliant style of execution – a blend that transforms Yogesh Joshi’s paper script into a sensational portrayal of six lives that were forever impacted by July 11.
I will not delve much into Joshi’s five extraordinary stories, as these emotional struggles and triumphs are the foremost tent poles of the film’s integrity and the viewer’s enjoyment. One must truly experience the presentations of these characters for themselves, as they are amongst the best ever written. Submerged in a flood of staunch realism, Joshi exposes the complex inner workings of the minds and emotions of six distinctively different characters who learn to cope through six equally different methods.
Nishikant Kamat is whole-heartedly a director who has accepted, with open arms, the artistic genre of serious filmmaking. After a hard-hitting debut in Dombivili Fast (2005), Kamat visually realizes Joshi’s script like no one else could. The directorial execution is so evident, it’s as if it never existed. That’s how natural this film is. If I were to point out each high point, then this review would, in itself, become a rough screenplay. However, one must give ultimate praise to the scene of the blasts themselves. It was spellbinding in its horror.
Kamat would not have been able to reach his highest potential as a director if he were not given a gleaming script to work from. Yogesh Joshi has attempted a novel feat – writing a story that hovers above the dim backdrops of extremist activity, yet effectively circumvents the subject of terrorism – a subject that has been hammered by filmmakers worldwide post 9/11. And as rich as the film’s treatment, approach, and style are, they don’t compare to the brilliance of the film’s six very authentic characters. These characters have been beautifully conveyed as portals to the ethos of uncountable masses who have suffered from life-shattering experiences…to come out as victors of circumstance.
As spectacular as the writing is, it’s not perfect. The single flaw that plagues this film is a script that, at times, has a few loose edges. There are minor stretches in the film where one wishes the narration to progress at a quicker rate, and where we wish the Editor played a larger role in trimming elongated scenes. Nevertheless, in the greater scheme of things, this is a very small issue that can be easily over-looked, thanks to the over-powering feelings of satisfaction and meaning one experiences at the film’s conclusion.
Now on to perhaps the film’s greatest asset: Its awe-inspiring cast. Each lead actor has had previous experience working as a serious actor; even the youngest, Soha Ali Khan. But I can announce this with no hesitation whatsoever, for the first time I’ve seen a film through which the entire cast has given arguably the best performance of his/her career. And mind you folks, this cast includes such veterans as Paresh Rawal, Kay Kay Menon, Madhavan, and Irrfan Khan.
Kay Kay Menon, as Suresh – the frustrated jobless youth – is pure gold in his expressive portrayal of the angry young man. With a tamed blend of hesitance, fervor, and disturbance, he is able to effectively convey a segment of the population that takes it upon themselves to solve all of society’s problems, with no faith in the governing authorities. One can’t help but applaud the man’s gifted abilities as a serious actor.
Irrfan Khan perhaps has been given the most difficult role, Thomas – the lower-class street coffee vendor who barely musters enough to support his wife and daughter, all the while taking society’s relentless abuse. Arguably the most abstract character Khan has had to play, he captures Thomas’s silent rage perfectly. As Thomas copes with the circumstance through vengeance, it’s commendable how Joshi’s script balances Thomas’s thirst for revenge with a saddened depiction of tearful remorse and frustration. Even after having perhaps the quietest role and the least screen time, it is Khan’s Thomas that seems to linger in your minds the longest. It is all thanks to Khan’s unmatched performance.
Madhavan, as Nikhil, the educated entrepreneur with glowing nationalistic pride and the thirst to change India for the better. Madhavan, has always been a man of few words it seems (while in character), and he continues that stage tactic in Mumbai Meri Jaan. He pours just enough enthusiasm into Nikhil before, and just the right amount of fear afterwards. Where Nikhil succeeds most on paper, is his transformation after the blasts, as he surreptitiously becomes the man he never thought he would. It is in Nikhil’s secreted fright where Madhavan reaches great heights as an actor in Mumbai Meri Jaan.
It is the baby of the group, Soha Ali Khan, who truly comes of age in her presentation of Rupali Joshi – the outgoing journalistic reporter whose life seems to be reversed post 7/11, with her fatal story becoming the center of television coverage. If her stellar portrayal of Nikhat in Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand (2007) didn’t put her name on the A list, then Rupali Joshi surely will. It is her tear-jerking sequences and innocent breakdowns that give life to Rupali as a character, since her method of dealing with the circumstance is through grief. There may be those who may provide hollow criticism and dispel her success as Rupali, with the argument that she has over-acted and her character was over exposed. No! Once again, the strings of reality wrap themselves tightly around her character, and she plays the role with gusto, passion, and love.
MUMBAI MERI JAAN is a riveting tale of monumental proportions. If you truly feel you have the sensitivity and the emotional intelligence to appreciate such a breath-taking work of art, then I urge you to watch this film. In fact, all you need is a deep pride in your country, your city, and your people to truly realize the beautiful reality of Kamat’s vision. In the age of candy-floss “entertainers” and mindless movie making, it has never felt so refreshing to see a true film of the human spirit, one that expresses spiritual freedom and the human condition in such creative and mind-opening ways.
Aakash Gandhi is Managing Editor and Senior Writer for Planet Bollywood. He also freelances for the Asian Variety Show at avstv.com.