Hamari Adhuri Kahani **Dir: Mohit Suri. With: Emraan Hashmi, Vidya Balan, Raj Kumar Yadav. 129 mins. Cert: 12A.
Western viewers tend to regard blockbuster season as an exclusively English-language phenomenon, which isn’t the case in this globalised moment. The 21st Century Fox fanfare blares out before this new Hindi release; next week, the Disney-backed sequel ABCD2 bounces onto our screens. Anyone anticipating a degree of homogenisation in such multiplex-bound ventures will likely be confounded by director Mohit Suri’s new throwback: this is straight-faced hothouse melodrama, very much Bollywood trad, pitched at a level Hollywood rarely pursues even in Nicholas Sparks flicks. It may provoke a similar sniggering from the cheap seats.
Such films can yield their own swooning pleasures: in irony-saturated 2015, it reassures the soul to know the movies – and Hindi movies especially – are still keen to sell us the image of a woman in a flowing sari running at full pelt through sand dunes, and without packaging it in winking quotation marks. Yet Suri’s also testing the modern audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief, and the material he’s working with here – unfolding the happenstance-heavy mystery of a woman at the mercy of the men around her – proves barely fit for this purpose, or any other besides.
The woman, Vasudha (Vidya Balan), is not long for this world: the film’s barely five minutes old when she stumbles off a bus to expire on a dirtroad. A two-hour flashback sketches an under-corroborated history of her personal relations – first with a brutish hubby (Raj Kumar Yadav) suspected of terrorist activity; then with Aarav (Emraan Hashmi), multimillionaire owner of the hotel she drudges within. This Prince Charming whisks her to Dubai – that fairytale kingdom renowned for throwing open its doors and arms to the fairer sex – to point out the stars in the desert sky. This courtship is, of course, doomed.
Some of its floridity is inbuilt. Vasudha’s job involves filling Aarav’s suite with lilies and orchids; later, after she’s channelled Foreigner in imploring him to teach her what love is, the pair are encircled by a sudden flurry of cherry blossoms – you’d call it freak, were it not part of an overall strategy intended to associate the heroine with such rare, delicate and perishable blooms. For Aarav, Vasudha’s presence prompts memories – and therefore a flashback within a flashback – of his own mother, a hard-scrabbling saloon singer. This revelation should at least grab the attention of amateur psychologists; whether the film can retain it is another matter.
Melodrama needs to be watertight to earn our tears: the last notable Hindi example, 2013’s shimmering O. Henry adaptation Lootera, had to seal itself inside a period milieu to have the effect that it did. By contrast, there are too many breaches in Suri’s narrative logic: given that the main flashback encompasses Skype and selfies – not to mention prominent promotional placements for various Middle East-associated brands – are we to assume that the wraparound story takes place in India, thirty years hence? If so, why does everything look identical to the present day?
Elsewhere, the parallel between Vasudha and Aarav’s mother only holds if we see the former doing everything possible for her boy; once she’s been removed to Dubai, however, her kid vanishes for reasons never satisfactorily explained. The frantic second half, in which hubby returns to civilisation a wanted man, and – by way of cosmic reordering – Aarav sets out for a warzone, is almost all sweeping gestures, unmoored from credible motivation; you can’t discern whether it’s the film’s sincerity that has taken a dip, or the filmmakers’ intelligence.
If the Fox execs did exert any influence, it might have been in the altogether romantic portrait of tycoon Aarav as a brooding de Winter type, prepared to walk through minefields to do right by his beloved. (James Murdoch: the gauntlet has been set down.) Either way, Vasudha’s suffering provides a thankless role for Balan, obliged to assume a perpetually crestfallen look while succumbing to her fate. Mother-fixated company man or wild-eyed fundamentalist killer? Perhaps there are women in this world who face comparably rotten life choices, but they – and the rest of us – deserve better elaborated escapism than this.
Hamari Adhuri Kahani is now playing in cinemas nationwide.