Wednesday 5 October 2016

At the LFF: "Mirzya"

You can't say Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Mirzya doesn't offer value for money. This all-twirling, ever-shifting Hindi spectacular offers the passing spectator two or three films in one; if we were looking for a Western equivalent - and the bulk of its audience, we should remember, probably won't be - then it appears to hold to the same theory of interconnectivity proposed by 2012's Cloud Atlas, a film with which it shares its swoony ambition/overreach. It will take a while to get your bearings, so allow me to cut a few corners and venture that all its activity takes place around the one rocky outcrop, colloquially known as Blacksmith's Alley. Here, Mehra cuts freely between a classical narrative that finds warriors dodging arrows and fireballs, a retro childhood romance curtailed when the male contingent shoots dead the teacher who caned his beloved, and a contemporary high-society saga that draws a somehow familiar love triangle around the clientele of a latter-day polo club.

Though we're not initially certain how these strands weave together, there's a fluidity about Mehra's direction that makes for most pleasurable watching. An arrow in one timeline morphs into a dart in the next; tears turn into stars in the night sky; a horsebacked charger in the first narrative cedes the screen to the handsome polo club captain in the last. This is no happy accident. Both the screenplay and lyrics are credited to the revered poet Gulzar, and the poetry of his lyrics itself spills over into the dialogue. Art Malik's police chief is - naturally - a liberally quoting Shakespeare nut, while an exchange about hiccuping segues seamlessly into a song deploying hiccups as percussion. All this finessing will doubtless make Mirzya anathema to Hindi cinema's modernising faction, who've made great efforts these past few years to ensure their films come in on or under the two-hour mark (Mehra's is 2hrs12), with minimal songcraft and a greater emphasis on the issues facing today's India.

Mehra's aim, by contrast, looks to be to fashion a heightened version of the traditional romantic drama, adding a few traces of substance to the sap; he gives us the swooning and sighing, and a little more besides. Not least visually: no expense has been spared on accessorising these triangles, and it may be telling that the first behind-the-camera credit that appears on screen is for the production's financial advisor. This guy did his job; you can see exactly where every last rupee went. Thousands of costumed extras dance on to serve as a chorus; the camera lingers over the expensive trinkets - the rings and amulets - passed from one lover's hand to the next. "We are all links in a long chain," one character suggests, simultaneously framing the narrative strategy and justifying all the anklets and bracelets pulled from the wardrobe truck to make this chain literal and visible.

The big question is one pondered by those Western poets Lennon and McCartney: can money buy you love? The answer, in this instance, is yes, up to a point. Certainly Gulzar and Mehra are possessed of the sensibility to cultivate the kind of beauty that inspires love, even as they spot those forces that might conspire to despoil and destroy it, and understand the extreme measures we're driven to take in pursuit of it. One poor soul strives to distract himself from the pain of rejection by having a friend run a red hot poker along his spine - a touch de trop, perhaps, but we've all felt variations of that hurt. (I find alcohol usually does the trick.) Yet certain strands grab us far more than others. The warrior business, though striking, never quite comes into dramatic focus: it may not be coincidental that this strand features the least dialogue, obliging Mehra to compensate with lashings and lashings of slow-motion posethrowing, visual fireworks that fade all too quickly. 

Throughout Mirzya's second half, you feel the sap quotient rising beneath the surface sparkle: the film's real interest lies in the most conventional of its strands, the one that permits its starcrossed lovers to escape their families and ride a motorcycle through the desert, the wind mussing their hair just so - standard Bollywood operating procedure, in other words. The result is that I only liked a film one suspects we're intended to fall head-over-heels in love with - as I did fall head-over-heels for Bajirao Mastani, last December's altogether more pulsing and urgent renovation of the classical form. Still, even as the images succumb to mush, Gulzar's words continue to ring long and loud in our ears. "Togetherness is not closeness/Talking is so easy/Keeping an oath so difficult," proposes one song: wisdom, I dare say, it would be as wise for a headstrong warrior in the Thar Desert to heed as it would for anybody considering taking their first swipes on Tinder.

Mirzya screens tonight (Thu 6) and tomorrow (Fri 7) at the Embankment Cinema. 

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