Mirza-Sahiban, like every other love story, is a great tragedy. And we know Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra loves his tragedies. The attraction is magnetic, like Mehra’s filmmaking when it is at its best. He makes his characters go through a moral and ideological exercise that invites them to a position of suffering and ultimately, death. This was evident in Rang De Basanti, its ambiguous and much discussed climax and also in Delhi 6, the much derided third act that followed events and filmmaking that were going swimmingly well. Doesn’t finishing fourth in an Olympics race you were leading for the most part count as tragedy? Now comes his take on Punjabi folklore – the romance of Mirza Sahiban – that marries one narrative arc with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s glorious folk ballads that falls somewhere between noble failure and middling. It’s engaging, at times even arresting (not always Mehra’s doing), and yet there is always a big piece missing from the jigsaw.
Mehra’s world building is quite a treat here. The past with the straightforward folk tale has no dialogues and filmed at a glacial pace. The present day story has a dichotomy of its own – there is a world of Maharaja and a Prince, running hotels now, and there is another world that Adil (Harshvardhan Kapoor) belongs to. He has a foster family in a community that looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in the past’s setting. There is a painting of Mirza-Sahiban under the acacia tree on the community’s walls. The community has women wielding hammers and kids more comfortable with horses than motorbikes. Mirzya has almost a street theatre like structure with the main narrative (consisting of both present and the past) complimented by another narrative that is completely musical. As an idea for a mainstream Hindi film, this narrative choice is quite experimental.
Mirzya shares another similarity with Rang De Basanti. The blurring of lines between the past and the present though it is hardly as seamless as it was in Mehra’s ensemble film. The music and the directorial flourishes came together beautifully in that one while here the music does its part but Mehra is still working with a one line summary of Mirza-Sahiban. The marriage here therefore misses that gravitas. It’s not that the narrative breaks down. This is still an ambitious script, if not a bold one. It’s no wonder the names involved are Gulzar and Mehra. The patriarch of a royal family in Rajasthan says something about learning the modern ways so as to survive. And here we have a centuries old folk tale told through a modern lens. Or is it the other way round? We see a juvenile commit a horrendous crime in the present day and Mehra cuts between the present day events and the people in an older setting reacting to it. I wished Mehra had done more with such a device because when you listen to Hota Hai (the operative lyrics from Gulzar being chot kahin lagti hai jaakar, zakhm kahin par hota hai), you’d never imagine it to be used the way Mehra does in the film. Some of the narrative and musical choices actually suggest a far brilliant film. Like how he cuts the beginning of Ek Nadi Thi – another seemingly light folk track – to a forest safari under the moonlight. Only the moonlit night packs in store a significant event and the superb blues guitar laden stanzas comes into play during the aftermath. A lot of the musical choices are effective but these are only the wrapping papers and what you bite into doesn’t always burst with flavors.
Such great music for a non-traditional narrative of an old school tale of love and tragedy begets only one question – is this Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra film or a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film? It’s Mehra valiantly invading Bhansali’s territory alright, only Bhansali is far more experienced and relentless in his pursuit, at least when it comes to this genre. Mehra is at odds handling a compelling romance that we know in our head but does not always translate in a similar way on screen. Bhansali is never shy of stepping into melodrama high gear but Mehra’s strengths were never there. Mehra is into painfully but beautifully drawn vignettes, more stylistic filmmaking and here he lacks the temperament to step into full melodrama. It may also have to do with the performances, especially that of Saiyami Kher. She’s beautiful to look at but there is something seriously wrong with her dialog delivery (or dubbing?). Words come out of her and die almost immediately like the quiver of arrows, belonging to Mirzya that she breaks with her bare hands. It’s problematic when these words are not everyday conversation. These are Gulzar’s in a modern retelling of a folklore! It’s a “you had one job” moment. Maybe Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy should have tuned out her words too. But take Anjali Patil as Zeenat, the hammer and tongs woman in a complicated relationship with Adil (Harshvardhan Kapoor) who makes an impact with the little screen time she has. I was far more interested in that relationship than Suchitra-Adil/Monish’s. Kapoor is good and there are hints that he can do a lot with his eyes but this film and this filmmaker may not be the best pivot to judge his talents in their entirety.
Mirzya boasts of an awful lot of could-have-beens. Mehra could have done something bold with the content too like he does with form. Our folk tales are also suggestive of our history and mindsets, and it is only fair, we not only tell them as they are but also reinvent them. The tragedy of Mirza-Sahiban could very well be the genesis of what we today refer to as honor killings and I wish Mehra had done something with that idea, with the role of Sahiban, lending her some agency as well as independence. It’s not necessary that we must give up on all these tales because they are from an archaic era with archaic ideas but it is important that when we revisit them, we do so in both their original context and their context as of today. More so if you are going for a modern retelling. I know it sounds like Mehra didn’t make the film I wished for but then that’s the problem with directors of some merit.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)