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Hrithik in Wonderland

In his new film Certified Copy, the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami tosses up a question that is critical to “a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film”. Is a copy as good as the original? Is it just our perception — that it’s a copy — which stops the Monalisa postcard from becoming as valuable as the Monalisa hanging at Louvre?

Bhansali has been grappling with this question all his life. He adapted/remade Devdas. He turned Maitreyee Devi’s Na Hanyate into Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. He copied The Miracle Worker as Black. He adapted Dostoevsky’s White Nights into Saawariya.

Here we are dealing with a man who is regarded — and he insists on being referred to — as Bollywood’s greatest working auteur. The joke in Mumbai is that making a movie with Bhansali is like buying a Rolls Royce — “you don’t ask the price”.

And come to think of it, our Spirit of Ecstasy has hardly made an original! But some of those certified copies have been loved and lauded, allowing Bhansali to make one celluloid guzaarish after another. Correction: one celluloid replica after another.

Guzaarish is a motion picture that is inspired by/ copied from so many films that you feel you are watching a show reel of a DVD library. The Sea Inside, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Prestige, Million Dollar Baby, Whose Life is it Anyway?... this is one list that can never be exhaustive. Even a part of the background score is reworked from the Requiem for a Dream theme.

When was the last time you watched a film which doesn’t have a “Story” credit line? Did the story appear out of thin air like most of Ethan Mascarenhas’s unscientific and unexplained magic tricks? Or are you saying Sir Bhansali, that there is no story in the first place?

It does come across as one strange story for sure. Here’s a man who’s been quadriplegic — he doesn’t feel anything neck down — for 14 years. He has his own radio show where he keeps talking about how “life is beautiful” and sings What a wonderful world and even gives survivor speeches to other quadriplegics. And then, one fine day, he wants to die.

Why? He suddenly can’t suffer anymore! So, he demands icchhamrityu. Euthanasia becomes Ethanasia as he seeks votes, through Radio Zindagi, to support this mercy killing even as he files the death petition in court.

It is this fundamental contradiction, of a man recommending life but willing to die, that muddles the mechanics of the movie. The trouble perhaps of being inspired by one source too many. And when all this happens in Bhansali’s oppressively opulent Wonderland (Ethan’s room in Goa looks just like Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s Vivekananda Park store), the thought gets even more threadbare.

There are very strong religious tones and overtones. There’s, of course, the 14-year vanvaas, as a nod to Ram. Besides the fun scene with the Father, the cross sign can be seen in many important shots in some corner of the frame. Then there’s the scene where Ethan does some magic and yards and yards of cloth keep flowing from under the bed sheet. Draupadi’s vastraharan, anyone?

But most importantly, Bhansali makes Hrithik look like an image of Jesus. The hair, the beard, the cheekbones... everything’s contoured on those lines. And in the telling scene where Ethan makes his “simple si seedhi si guzaarish” to die, he is bound to an upright blood circulation table, completing the picture of crucifixion.

But Guzaarish needed more Passion of Christ. We needed to feel the pain to drown in the sea of despair inside him. Something Bhansali achieved with Black. Here the opera moves to the tedious court hearings, which make the movie feel long, even at two hours. A little bit more fun — the mock moaning scene is an instant hit — also wouldn’t have harmed.

The vent-from-a-bad-marriage Gothic witch look — very, very Bellatrix Lestrange in this Potter weekend — doesn’t help what is one of Aishwarya Rai’s best performances. She brings in a quiet dignity and a perceptive stare to Sofia, making her selfless support stand out that much more.

But Guzaarish is a Hrithik Roshan film, which salvages, to some extent, the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. In motion, his on-stage moves are real magic. In suspended animation, he is able to channelise every emotion in the book through his eyes. And what eyes! They can charm you and choke you in ways you can’t even imagine. If you hang around till the last scene, do keep those hankies handy.

The soundtrack by first-time composer Bhansali is all soul. In fact, the songs and their picturisation mark the wow moments of the movie. Whether it’s Hrithik’s balloon-caressing glide or Ash’s flights of flamenco in Udi, dare you bat an eyelid.

Besides shutting down Sony Pictures India, Saawariya did a whole lot of damage to the image of the director. Guzaarish is no redemption. Far from it, really. But Hrithik and Aishwarya, individually and together, ensure that there will be more of what should be called “a Sanjay Leela Bhansali copy”.

Copy that.

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