Snared in dancing belle’s Chakravyuh

Shashi Baliga
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Sameera Reddy in Chakravyuh
Sameera Reddy in Chakravyuh

A well-made, politically-informed movie rudely interrupted by raucous singing-dancing.

That does it. If I see one more rustic item number sung raucously and danced indecorously, I swear I’m going to walk out of the movie hall. Okay, make that walk out to get myself a large (over-priced) tub of popcorn, that I will try to sprinkle over the audience, much in the manner of the salivating men who throw money at the semi-clad dancer in the said item number.

If that sounds bizarre, or like I’ve lost it, that’s exactly my point. Why on earth would I want to distract a bunch of people who’ve paid good money to see a film, and are immersed in it?

The pouting, cleavage-thrusting, mirror-worked belle has been a staple of films set in villages named Rampur or similar — from Helen going ‘Mehbooba, mehbooba’ in Sholay to Padma Khanna, that old favourite for rustic numbers, to Shilpa Shetty in ‘UP Bihar lootne’. But it was Vishal Bharadwaj, in cahoots with Gulzar, who gave us ‘Beedi jalaile le’ and set off a tsunami of item numbers with dehati accents. ‘Munni badnaam hui’ made it worse, and now, it’s gone out of control.

The standard excuse-cum-argument is, of course, that the song will help bring in front-benchers (such an elitist term, but let me not lose focus) and viewers in small towns and villages. The answer to that is yes and no, because those item numbers are played as much at chi-chi parties and nightclubs in Mumbai and Delhi as in Jhumri Telaiya.

Besides, the point is that ‘Munni badnaam hui’ works in a film like Dabangg, not merely because of the physical location, but more importantly, the movie’s ethos and mindset. Dabangg was a laugh; a long, over-stylised comic adventure that worked. A Munni singing the praises of Zandu Balm is perfectly in sync with the mood of the film.

But Chakravyuh? There we were, thinking that after long, here was a layered, politically-informed film that was glossy in parts but went bravely into the heartland. The movie, which deals with the Maoist insurgency across large swathes of India, tried to play fair between two warring sides — even if its heart was clearly with the red tribe. It had its faults, but was such a welcome relief from the standard romcom or tacky comedy that we were ready to forgive some of its sins.

When Sameera Reddy came swinging in, lip-syncing to ‘Kunda khol’, however, the item number broke the narrative so rudely, and was so out of place in thematic terms, that an uneasy silence seemed to envelop the multiplex audience. We waited; when was this annoying intrusion going to get over?

Perhaps the song would appeal to people in small towns or villages, but the question is, how many of them were going to see this film? Despite its dust-covered packaging, Chakravyuh is a multiplex film all the way, presenting the comfortable middle-class and upper classes an armchair journey into the red corridor.

Till that item number destroyed Prakash Jha’s carefully constructed, politically aware stance, we were ready to overlook Arjun Rampal’s impeccably cut and tailored uniforms, Esha Gupta’s khakis that clung to her curves, and other such cosmetic inconsistencies. But ‘Kunda khol’ was the tipping point. So much for thematic integrity, intellectual honesty, and all that.

It’s not the first time Jha has done this. Even in a movie as well crafted as Gangaajal, he had a small-time actress named Dilnawaz Shaikh cavorting in a skimpy costume to a song called ‘Alhad mast jawani’. The actress is now called Maanyata, and is married to actor Sanjay Dutt. Sanjay reportedly wants that item number deleted from the film since Gangaajal, like many of Jha’s other earlier movies, is now scheduled for a re-release after a technical revamp.

But Jha is adamant that he won’t cut out that song.

So it’s unlikely he’s regretting the inclusion of ‘Kunda khol’ in Chakravyuh. Such a pity, because Chakravyuh was terrific in parts, and overall, far better than the usual intellectually numbing Hindi film. Like the one I’d seen just the week before — Student Of The Year.

But wait a minute. That wasn’t the most thought-provoking film I’d seen this year, but here’s a grudging confession — it didn’t set my teeth on edge either. Like everyone else in the hall, I knew what Karan Johar was going to offer me and I was primed for it. I enjoyed seeing all those beautiful young people strolling around Never Never Land; spotting the brands in the girl’s über-chic wardrobe; laughing over the cheesy, hunky shots of the actors in swimming trunks, and checking out their dance moves. There were a few emotional touches and a dash of gentle humour.

Karan Johar didn’t disappoint — he delivered what I expected of him. I certainly thought Student Of The Year was a far more honest film by his standards than My Name is Khan, in which he was trying to act all grownup and display a world view that was newly acquired.

Student Of The Year’s strength was that it did not purport or aim to be anything but the candy-flavoured glossy it was. Its stars (and director) had the kind of honesty and conviction that a Sridevi or Madhuri poured into the most inane roles and scenes or the most outrageously silly dances (can anything ever beat Sridevi’s dedication in Himmatwala’s pot-and-feather-duster classic, ‘Nainon mein sapna’?)

Unlike Smita Patil or Shabana Azmi who did commercial films so uncomfortably and awkwardly that you wanted to drape them in a cotton saree and tell them to apologise to Shyam Benegal, actresses like Hema Malini, Madhuri Dixit, and Sridevi were unapologetic about the kitsch and melodrama they were purveying. That was why they rung true, in spite of the totally unrealistic kind of cinema they were part of.

It’s why Rohit Shetty’s films work. And why that exasperating item number in Chakravyuh didn’t. As it stands at the beginning of this week, Chakravyuh hasn’t exactly broken box-office records or, perhaps, even met expectations. No, I’m not blaming that item number.

(This article was published on November 1, 2012)
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