Every formula has a shelf life. Every stereotype can only be recycled a certain number of times. Every film can’t have the same story.
Madhur Bhandarkar should have realised that two — wait! — three films ago. A bit like Page 3, much like Corporate and a lot like Fashion, Heroine operates on a single note, tracing its protagonist’s rise, fall, rise and fall. Much like all Bhandarkar films, an overwhelming sense of deja vu pervades Heroine, giving us a film with vast possibilities, but which never really rises above its one-dimensional narrative.
Bhandarkar has always been known to make cinema that thrives on clichés and relies on stereotypes. But when he set out to make a film on the underbelly of the industry that he is a part of, one hoped that he would take a different path, baring Bollywood’s best-kept secrets and offering a peek into the shady lives behind the glossy exterior.
But unlike The Dirty Picture that took apart bit by bit the mask that hid the insecurities of a B-grade movie star on the verge of a professional and physical collapse, Heroine is just a montage of shots that keep playing on loop for the 148 minutes of its running time.
At the centre of it is Mahi Arora (Kareena Kapoor), a Bollywood star whose career is on the wane, thanks in no small measure to her own eccentricities. The product of a broken home, Mahi’s emotional graph is on a perpetual seesaw. On the one hand, she is insecure and vulnerable to the point of being mentally unstable and on the other, she can be self-obsessed and manipulative, turning things around to her advantage. There is the insinuation of a disturbed childhood and the hint of bipolar disorder.
But while Mahi goes through an emotional upheaval, losing out on projects to fresher faces, being dumped by her married co-star Aryan (Arjun Rampal) and seeing her socialite mother (Lillete Dubey) flitting in and out of relationships with some of the most powerful men in town, Bhandarkar fails to build solid ground for her perpetually unhinged state. Through the film, you don’t really know what she’s lamenting the demise of — a career going downhill or the lack of a stable relationship in her life or more.
With its protagonist largely uni-dimensional, it doesn’t help that Heroine whips out every cliché in the Bhandarkar book. The gay designer pal, the plain Jane best friend, the smarmy co-stars ever ready to bring each other down, the bitchy trophy wives engaging in sniggering asides at film dos, the mercurial independent filmmaker working on a shoe-string budget, the journalist on the lookout for a scoop or the go-getter image manager sniffing a controversy to milk, Heroine bursts at the seams with everything that you have already seen in a Bhandarkar film.
But for someone who has always pandered to gay stereotypes — Heroine included — Bhandarkar surprises with a bisexual track between Mahi and co-star Promita (Shahana Goswami), only to do it disservice by simply glossing over it.
There are also bits and snatches of everything that you must have read in a film glossy at some point. The Khan superstar with a wife who pulls the strings, a single actress looking to adopt a child, a party scene in which the protagonist empties a glass of alcohol on the head of a bitchy co-star (yes, someone in Bolly land did that not so long ago!) and even an MMS scandal pulled off for self-publicity. At one point, Mahi tells boyfriend Angad (Randeep Hooda): “Ek businessman ke saath IPL team khareed loongi”.
A subject as powerful as this would have benefited from some powerful lines, but the dialogues are trite, bordering on the corny. From “Iss industry mein zip aur zubaan dono sambhaal ke kholne chahiye’ to “Bollywood mein manipulate karlo ya khud manipulate ho jao”.
Despite its clichés, Heroine remains watchable for the first hour. However, post-interval, it’s all downhill, with Mahi’s slo-mo decline making for an exhausting and agonisingly long watch, culminating in an abrupt ending that doesn’t justify the protagonist’s struggles for the two hours preceding it.
The side players do well. Arjun Rampal looks gaunt but plays out his role of a man with a mercurial girlfriend quite well. Randeep Hooda shines in his limited screen time, showing us why he is slowly becoming medium-budget Bolly’s go-to man. In her cameo, Helen is a rare graceful presence in Heroine.
But where Farah Khan scored, getting almost the entire Bolly A-list for a song in Om Shanti Om, Bhandarkar’s PR skills can only go as far as a Sanjay Suri or a Mugdha Godse.
If Heroine manages to stay afloat, it is for Kareena. You can see why Bhandarkar first went to the light-eyed Kapoor beti for Mahi and later retraced his steps to her after hitting the Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (baby) bump. Letting her eyes do all the talking, Kareena breathes life into her role, giving a face and voice to the trials and tribulations of her character. Watch out for the scene at the beginning where she trudges into a police station, broken and humiliated, after being dumped by the man she loved.
To top that, she looks like a dream, slipping into one Manish Malhotra costume after another, with Halkat jawaani proving a sight for sore eyes.
Yes, Kareena the heroine shines, even if Heroine the film doesn’t.