Curse of the comeback? Part three of five: Aishwarya Rai in “Jazbaa” (2015)

This is part three of a five part series looking at whether heroine-oriented comebacks are doomed to fail.

Last year’s “Jazbaa” saw Aishwarya Rai Bachchan return to the silver screen after five years, her preceding release being 2010’s “Guzaarish”.

Rai’s 1994 coronation as Miss World, followed by a high profile career with major hits such as “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam”, “Dhoom 2”, “Devdas” and “Jodhaa Akbar”, a large array of endorsements, a handful of English-language films suggesting she might be the first B-Town star to “crossover” (whatever that means), and annual appearances at Cannes all contributed to the creation of Aishwarya Rai the star.

The addition of a filmi surname of the highest regard, becoming Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and extending Mr. Bachchan’s film legacy into another generation created an additional level of glamour and mystique around Aishwarya.

That Rai’s return came after a five-year break was not initially intended, in fact she already signed up for Madhur Bhandarkar’s film “Heroine”, with a first look even released with her in the lead role. After she became pregnant with her daughter, her dates didn’t work and the film was released in 2012 with Kareena Kapoor in the lead instead.

The five-year break from films didn’t see Aishwarya completely away from the public eye however, and combined with the continued popularity of her films, she remained within public consciousness with a lot of hype and anticipation surrounding her return.

Given all of the above, 2015’s “Jazbaa” was an unusual choice for a “comeback” film for Aishwarya, a dark thriller not particularly similar to her biggest hits in any noticeable way, and so arguably was quite a brave and bold choice.

Despite this brave and bold choice, the film only garnered average reviews and average receipts in terms of return on investment or in comparison to the standout hits of 2015 (whether her ex- Salman Khan’s “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” or father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan’s “Piku”).

Therefore it is useful to break down what works and what doesn’t about the film, to figure out what contributed to this underwhelming response from critics and audiences.

The usual SPOILER alert – Jazbaa is a recommended watch (although an imperfect film), it has lots of interesting aspects to it, and so if you haven’t seen it, go watch and come back.

The trailer is below:

So what actually works about “Jazbaa”?:

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is re-established as a glamourous heroine, not despite, nor irrespective of, but including her real life (and reel life) motherhood as a source of glamour:

The opening scene and song of Jazbaa shows a svelte Aishwarya Rai Bachchan jogging and stretching around the city in a lycra suit as a message to all the haters who criticised her weight gain after her pregnancies (a natural and healthy phenomenon).

Rather in her return in Jazbaa, she represents the epitomy of health and fitness. She is then immediately cast in the role of a mother, shown waking her daughter for school.

On the school run, as Aishwarya’s character Anuradha discusses with her daughter the upcoming relay race, she mentions to her daughter she was also on her track team when she was at school, following on from her exercise we saw in the opening scene. Her daughter teases her:

Sanaya: Excuse me mom, this is a race. Not some case which you always win.

The image of Aishwarya Rai as “flawless” is emphasised successfully through the character she plays being portrayed similarly, specifically in her career:

Aishwarya, sorry, Anuradha of course wins the relay race. Whilst she is running her leg, this is when Sanaya disappears and it is this disappearance that drives the main thrust of the plot, when we discover she has been taken and Anuradha is forced into taking on a client under duress. Even during the call she receives from the kidnapper, he reminds us as the audience that Anuradha is such a top lawyer, in case we had forgotten.

Anuradha then heads to work, which, as has already been established, is as a top lawyer. An endearing moment when she takes off her flats to put on a pair of heals is hammered home excessively, with an unnecessary dialogue from her opposing counsel:

Prosecutor: I wish those high heels would help you win the case.

Irrespective of the high heels, Anuradha wins her case. Her client congratulates her and she corrects him by congratulating him instead. Through this we learn she takes pride in her success as a lawyer, but does not morally or ethically condone the actions of the people she is defending. She says she hopes to never meet him again when he offers his support if she ever needs it.

Irrfan Khan and Shabana Azmi were great choices to cast alongside Rai for this film, and if her own character were meatier and more complex, would have really allowed for their acting abilities to come through:

Irrfan Khan, for example, in contrast to Aishwarya Rai, is given more to do and able to show off more of his acting ability than Rai, even within the same (flawed) film, as his character Yohan is shown to make mistakes and has elements of grey to his character given the accusations of corruption against him.

In his introductory scene Yohan is compared with Rai’s father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan, famous for his ‘angry young man’ roles, and as a police officer, with Ajay Devgan’s Singham. These are iconic roles of historic and contemporary Hindi cinema.

An example of when Irrfan Khan does well as Yohan is when he and Anuradha break into the crime scene – and Yohan explains how the crime was committed.

Anuradha is able to assess the scene like an inspector, and already pieces together evidence that open the possibility that Niyaz didn’t commit the crime or that something is amiss. She builds a narrative of why the evidence against him might be there. All this seems quite sudden and lacks a little in plausibility.

Yohan later tells her to “stop trying to put Sherlock Homes out of a job”. His dark humour and wit is an enjoyable characterisation and well delivered throughout.

Anuradha then goes to a club and we have an awkwardly hemmed in video song and would have been better to leave this out or have a song more in keeping in mood with that of the film. Another awkward fit is the pseudo action scene as she confronts Benny, a confused junkie friend of Sia’s.

However, this improves when Yohan appears he apprehends Benny and threatens to arrest him for possession of narcotics, in turns into a humorous meta-commentary:

Benny: You’re not a cop anymore. I know my rights.

Yohan: Rights? Rights in INDIA?

[slaps him twice]

You watch too many Hollywood films

This is Bollywood.

He then plays good cop and offers to let him go if he spills on what happened. When this doesn’t work – he switches back to Singham-style policing. As a result, they get their intel – Benny mentions Sia changed after meeting a guy who became a bad influence.

The trial itself is probably the most compelling part of the film:

Anuradha’s case taken under duress is that of a convicted criminal who is appealing his conviction and sentencing, and who was sentenced to the death penalty in the initial trial. She is given a deadline of four days to have all charges dropped.

The case is to acquit Niyaz, the convicted murder and rapist of a 23-year-old art student called Sia. He has previous violent convictions and his DNA is all over the crime scene. We learn the inspector in charge of the case was Anuradha’s friend Yohan.

Loyalties to Anuradha are somewhat uncertain, as we as the audience understand her need to win the case, but naturally side with the victim and specifically with the victim’s mother, played by Shabana Azmi. There are a number of interesting conversations between the two of them, where perhaps the viewer may question Anuradha’s approach, if not her motives.

Throughout the trial, the questioning of witnesses and closing statements allow for discussion of issues around violence against women that are ripe topics for all kinds of forms of art and media – and most recently very successfully addressed by Rai Bachchan’s father-in-law in the movie “Pink”.

Anuradha is shown in court to be creating reasonable doubt by questioning the locksmith who couldn’t break into the apartment and the doctor who conducted the autopsy who both indicate that Sia must have known her attacker.

She follows by putting Garima on the stand, where her line of questioning is challenged.

She explains:

Anuradha: My motive was to draw the court’s attention to the fact that when girls in a broken family feel lonely they tread down the wrong path in search of love and support.

Garima: Sia wasn’t like that!

Anuradha: Then how was she Garima-ji?

Garima: My daughter was the most brilliant student of the JJ School of Arts.

Anuradha: But all the artwork in her studio is mostly incomplete.

Was there a void in her life too?

Garima: There’s a void in everyone’s life.

No one gets a complete world, Advocate Verma.

Anuradha: Can you tell us, how your daughter filled the void in her life?

Garima: Like most youngsters do these days, with their friends.

Prosecutor: Objection Your Honour.

This case is about Sia’s murder, not her personal life.

Anuradha: Your Honour, given the conditions under which Sia was murdered, her lifestyle had a big role to play in it.

Judge: Please continue.

Anuradha: Thank you, Your Honour.

[to Garima] Did your daughter have friends?

Gaurima: Who doesn’t? She had dozens of friends.

Anuradha: Boyfriends?

Gaurima: Yes.

She had male friends as well.

Anuradha: How was Sia’s relationship with her boyfriend?

Prosecutor: Objection Your Honour.

This is just an attempt to humiliate Sia.

Anuradha: I disagree Your Honour.

To find the real murderer it is important to find out who Sia’s friends were, what they did, who she hung out with, and how she partied, if she did.

This line of questioning where the relevance of a woman’s personal life choices to seeking justice after she has suffered a crime (and in this case, is not even able to either defend her choices, or face her attacker), is picked up again in scene shortly afterwards, and dealt with even more explicitly.

Anuradha: Did Sia have relationships with a lot of men?

[pause]

I’ll repeat my question.

Did Sia have relationships with a lot of men?

[pause]

Garima-ji, I hope you understand what I’m trying to get at.

Garima stands up for her daughter and outwardly criticises Anuradha’s approach and challenges the underlying judgement and shame. She reminds both the court and the audience that Sia is the victim, not the accused.

Garima:  I understand clearly what you’re trying to say.

You want to prove that my daughter was a loose woman.

On what basis?

Because she had a few male friends?

Advocate Verma, my daughter was clever, beautiful, emotional.

Men would hover around her.

So what?

Is that a crime?

Are you one of those people that think that it’s always the woman’s fault?

People who blame the girl and not the rapist after she’s been raped.

They blame her dress sense.

They blame her independent thinking.

They blame the very fact that she’s a girl.

Anuradha: Garima-ji, I’m sorry to hurt your feelings.

The following response clarifies their two positions – Garima as a traumatised mother who can’t get over her daughter’s murder, and Anuradha as a mother winning her case at any cost to protect her daughter who’s been kidnapped. There is a clear parallel between the two of them in this moment, but it questions Anuradha’s potential hypocrisy for victimising Sia further to save her own daughter.

Garima: No, Advocate Verma.

You are not sorry.

Right now you’re just a lawyer who wants to win her case at any cost.

If you had any humanity, or sympathy, then you would have understood my pain.

I dream about my daughter every night, where she says, “Mama, save me, I want to live. Help me Mama”.

Back when she was a kid, even a small hiccup would give me sleepless nights.

Imagine my condition when her scream resonates in my ears every night.

Prosecutor: Your Honour, I seriously object to this kind of questioning.

Anuradha: My questions are relevant Your Honour.

Judge: Proceed.

Anuradha: Did you know that your daughter took drugs?

Garima: Yes.

Anuradha continues by framing this information to support her case for reasonable doubt.

Anuradha: Your honour, please note, Sia was a young girl.

She lived alone.

She had a lot of male friends and she took drugs.

And that night, the lock of Sia’s apartment was impossible to pick from the outside. So obviously, Sia opened it from the inside.

And Sia’s killer who came into her apartment that night must have been one of Sia’s male friends who Sia invited over herself.

And not some petty thief who went there to steal money for his mother’s medicine.

That will be all Your Honour.

A recess is called and Garima approaches Anuradha outside of the courtroom. Rather than relate Anuradha to herself, she draws a parallel between Anuradha and Niyaz, an extreme position perhaps but it emphasises the power of shaming, and of the perverting of justice to blame the victim:

Garima: Miss Verma, what Niyaz did to my daughter was behind closed doors.

You just did that to her character in the open.

What’s the difference between you and Niyaz?

Nothing.

Aishwarya’s character is given an traumatic background within the film, leading to a conversation with Irrfan’s character that touches on issues such as gender selective abortion and boy child preference:

An interesting dialogue follows Anuradha is calmer after the meetup to drop off Sanaya’s medication. This plotline as such does a better job of ringing true (and allows Aishwarya to give a more convincing performance and flesh out her character a little more):

Anuradha: I almost lost Sanaya once before

I got pregnant.

And my husband found out it was a girl.

He said

“we can have a daughter later”

First I want a son.

Even my in-laws wanted a son.

I was so alone.

I had loved him you know.

I even stopped practicing law for his sake.

Settled down in America.

It was our child.

And he said “abort it”

Kill my daughter.

My Sanaya.

A man becomes a father after the child is born.

But a woman becomes a mother from the time the child starts developing in her womb.

A man can say “abort the child”

But not a mother

I fled from those murderers.

Away from the world that had no place for my child.

I almost lost her once, I can’t lose her again.

This interesting background is dropped however, and we learn nothing of how Anuradha went from divorced single mother returning to India after abandoning her career upon her husband’s request, to the hotshot superstar defence lawyer who the poor can’t afford and the press can’t stop profiling.

Anuradha Verma is a more engaging character at the points she is resourceful – either in her line of questioning or when she is attacked herself:

When Anuradha returns home after discovering about the involvement of the local politician Mahesh Maklai, he and his goons are waiting for her. They threaten her and tie her up, as he insists his son has “nothing to do with this case”. He then explains that Sam came home high one morning, with Sia’s body in his car.

They both assumed he had killed her in a fugue state, whereas Anuradha still insists at this point that Sam is the murderer. He explains that it doesn’t matter whether Sam is the murderer or not (where is the victim in all this you wonder) – but rather that his reputation is protected so he goes on to win the upcoming elections.

This plot point is meaty and not fully exploited, a great actor and performance for the role of Mahesh Maklai, and more time to flesh out his character to deliver this would help.

Whilst a morally grey Anuradha suddenly becoming a passionate defender of justice in the face of this new level of acceptance of immorality would be appropriate here, but neither does a flawed nor right on Anuradha seem to object much at all. “Please don’t do this” is her only refrain, but Aishwarya is also inconveniently tied up here, leaving her no option to use body language in her performance.

They plan to burn the place down with her in it – upping the stakes to the highest point so far in the film as Anuradha’s life is in immediate danger. Here she is somewhat entreatingly resourceful as she slides over to the nearest table and kicks as she is able, smashing a glass onto the ground – a piece of which she will be able to use to set herself free. She then helps the maid, checks she’s OK and switches off the gas.

The prosecutor presents his final arguments and is followed by Anuradha whose argument consists of admitting that Niyaz could be the murderer but creating reasonable doubt by presenting Sam as an alternative suspect. We haven’t seen any of this evidence actually presented in court until this point so this seems odd.

She does however, following Annalise Keating’s steps on How to Get Away with Murder (the sexy, soapy high drama ABC show without Priyanka Chopra):

The ending is relatively well executed – with Shabana Azmi standing out and most threads are tied up – and where this isn’t done neatly, it appears to be intentional:

We are shown, a final version of events where Niyaz does indeed rape and murder Sia, whilst Sam has passed out due to his drugged up state, and Niyaz puts the knife he used as the murder weapon in Sam’s hand before he escapes.

Whilst Anuradha is challenged for presenting these assumptions only at this point of the case, with no evidence, her response is to point to the lack of a murder weapon, and insist it is the prosecution’s job to prove the client guilty. Anuradha is well sold here as a competent lawyer. She points at the lack of equal justice provided to the son of a rich man with connections (Sam), and a drug dealer (Niyaz) as a genuine double standard.

At this point when we know Niyaz is the killer – our loyalties to this argument are somewhat divided. Anuradha, upon questioning by the prosecution, presents a motive for Sam – jealousy on finding Niyaz and Sia in a “compromising position” whilst he attempted to rape her. Sam arrives at the court just in time to act as a witness confirming he was there at the time of her murder.

He says he was there at the time of the murder but that she was already dead when he came to. We are shown a flashback of this happening, as well as him and his father disposing of the body.

Niyaz is granted bail (but not acquitted? Is he still charged? Is the case reopen? Is this even acceptable as a result for the kidnapper? – all unclear), and Mahesh and Sam are charged with the crimes Sam has just admitted to.

Sam appears in court as a result of Anuradha’s defending of the criminal Abbas at the beginning of the film, who Mahesh Miklai made the mistake of trusting as a hired goon to take on his dirty work of hiding Sam. Whether this criminal’s honour code is believable or not is probably questionable but adds an ambiguity that would have been better to run throughout the film more generally.

Niyaz is run over and killed on his release from prison.

Later Anuradha visits Garima to apologise for her efforts in setting Niyaz free.

She soon realises her involvement in the kidnapping, followed by an admission by Garima that she has vengefully murdered Niyaz.

Anuradha:

Why did you want Sia’s murderer acquitted?

We see Garima has paid off a goon, and we see that Niyaz is still alive but tied up. Garima walks in with an intense, vengeful look:

Garima:

You’ve no clue

About the things I had to do to get you out.

I did things to an innocent girl

Which a mother can never imagine.

You will die now.

A death you can’t even imagine.

Do you know why Ravan is burnt every year on Dusshera?

To remind everyone of Ravan’s crimes.

There’s just one punishment for physically abusing a girl

He’s burnt to death.

Niyaz: [sniffs his shirt] Petrol!

Garima: Can you imagine a death compared to which even the death penalty looks like mercy?

Niyaz screams.

Garima: This is how my daughter screamed as well.

I can still hear her screams.

She doesn’t let me sleep at night.

Echoes in my ear.

Niyaz pathetically screams “forgive me!” – as though Garima is in the mood for forgiving the rape and murder of her daughter.

Garima: Set my nerves on fire. It pierces my soul. My daughter’s scream can only be subdued by your screams Niyaz.

Garima pulls out a lighter and we see her red eyes as she watches the flames surround Niyaz. She is finding a perverse comfort in personally enacting this punishment. We see a single tear as she feels vindicated for her earlier actions as a kidnapper, as she has got the pay off she wanted so badly.

We are back to the scene with Anuradha and Garima explains how she burnt Niyaz alive.

Garima: This could be his only punishment to serve justice to my daughter

This is an interesting reference to justice in what seems like vengeance

You’re a mother too. I hope you understand.

Anuradha: No

I don’t understand.

What gave you the right to kidnap my daughter?

In order to get justice for your daughter?

Garima: Believe me, I took care of Sanaya like my Sia.

Yet I am guilty for all the trauma she went through

Even if I am sentenced to death

For giving Niyaz what he deserved

Then I will have no regrets.

Garima is then arresting for kidnapping and murder. Anuradha’s response is to enquire if they have an arrest warrant, and when she’s questioned why she’s even asking she declares that its because Garima is her client. This is a dramatic turn of events from seconds earlier when she insists she didn’t and couldn’t understand Garima’s motivations. The two finally connect through pain as mothers.

What would have made the film stronger – and more likely to succeed:

The set up to fail – “flawlessness” as an ideal for both on-screen heroine and off-screen persona is somewhat problematic, and leaves little scope for creating either a relatable character, or adding any real sense of moral ambiguity or bring out dark themes as the film appears otherwise to be trying to do:

The practically-perfect-in-every-way character played by Aishwarya, Anuradha Verma, is better compared with Mary Poppins, which, without the singing and the flying umbrella, makes for a relatively dull and largely unengaging character for her to play.

The fact she defends the worst criminals is explained by “the innocent can’t afford my fees”. That means, this is only because she is such an accomplished lawyer. She tuts and shakes her head at her friend Yohan for his suspension caused by his low level corruption, and doesn’t accept his excuse that the whole system is corrupt. She is therefore also established as a principled individual, and morally and ethically incorruptible.

Aishwarya is the perfect doting mother, perfect lawyer who never loses a case even when all the evidence is against her, is smart, kind, and of course, given this is a former Miss World, stunningly beautiful.

The mother / daughter kidnapping angle, in fact, seems intended to show Aishwarya as being a “serious” dramatic actress able to emote, present her as the super mother willing to do anything for her child (yes, Aishwarya just as much as Anuradha), and to ensure that Anuradha remains a likeable character as the audience understands this is only under the most extreme duress that she is representing such a client.

I would suggest cutting this whole aspect of the script, and recreating Anuradha as a fabulous lawyer, but bitter woman who gleefully takes on the most difficult cases to show off how good she is, and who expresses little remorse for defending the worst criminals in the process. She could have a mysterious past that could relate to a long-term missing daughter that might develop later on, but would create a credibility that she would be able to focus on the case rather than being distracted by concerns around her daughter’s whereabouts and safety.

Anuradha goes to meet Niyaz in prison for the first time – the combination of fear and disdain for him as a convicted murder and rapist is actually quite convincingly shown by Aishwarya through an understated reaction and her famously expressive eyes. We actually see some genuine vulnerability here and it allows for Aishwarya to give a more complex and interesting performance:

Niyaz states: These beautiful faces don’t win cases.

Mean lawyers like you do. Understood, old man?

Anuradha: [stands up] I will make sure you win. Trust me!

He reacts by trying to strangle her.

She then causes a scene in the middle of the road creating a traffic jam as she confronts the police who continue to follow her. She argues with them, not making much sense by saying her daughter is back safe but at the same time that the police can do nothing to apprehend the kidnapper. She then recklessly pulls the car keys out their car and throws them away before driving off.

Niyaz asks for her to return to meet him, and is shown reading clippings which identify Anuradha as one of the “highest paid lawyers”. (Thanks for the reminder, really makes her relatable to the common man or woman).

Anuradha tells Niyaz his narrative of what happened and how he is innocent, trying to craft a feasible story. She has written up the statement already and just needs him to sign it.

When Niyaz hears this – he laughs incredulously and declares: You’re good! You’re good! Very good. The newspapers are right about you.

Anuradha even has time to help her friend Yohan – she has posted his bail before he has even been arrested on the corruption charges.

At one point in the film, Niyaz compliments Anuradha on her legal approach, and jokes about Garima. Anuradha slaps him in response and says “you have no idea what a mother has to go through!”. This would be more interesting if it came without all the backstory of her character defending him only under duress, her daughter’s kidnapping and super mother status that has already been hammered down our throats.

It would potentially serve as a clue to understanding her as a more complex character, her motivations for taking on the case and as a sign of her internal struggles whilst doing so. Her next line, in case we had forgotten, is “[y]our case is being defended by a mother. Not a lawyer. Understand?”.

Overall to rework Aishwarya’s character as a morally dubious lawyer who represents “bad guys” and tries to get them off, but finds this her toughest case yet, would have been a more compelling premise.

Jazbaa is ultimately two films in one and that these two parts don’t really fit together:

Specifically those two parts consist of –

  • A drama/thriller showing from the perspective of a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped and the trauma she goes through
  • A thriller/mystery about a murder of a young woman from the perspective of the defence lawyer trying to win an appeal

We see this for example in a scene where Anuradha is rung by the kidnapper and warned that Sanaya is seriously unwell. She insists she is taken to the hospital to receive treatment. Instead the kidnapper agrees for a drop off of medications at a to be agreed point. In exchange for the medications, the kidnapper leaves a box with Sanaya’s clothes. We hear Sanaya call out in the distance as her head pops out of the car. Anuradha’s overdramatic (if perhaps believable within the plot) reaction and slow-mo running towards her as the car drives away.

Why Anuradha, if such a smart and successful lawyer, investigator and detective, as well as a supermom, and brave in the face of danger, would in this scenario focus her attention to the point of minimal distraction on getting a convicted murder released rather than figuring out who kidnapper her daughter in the first place and/or her daughter’s whereabouts is never really addressed and as such this plot doesn’t convince.

The screaming, tears and breakdown that follows don’t fit with the same characterisation of her character as a professional to a fault, poised under the most extreme pressure and leaves the taste as a result of a bizarre and unintended double role (which might have been a more interesting twist in fact!)

Only after hearing her screaming has the (detective!) Inspector Yohan realised Sanaya is not with her grandmother and even is made to look surprised when Anuradha says she has been kidnapped after all. In this scene however, Irrfan’s character comes across as believable but Aishwarya’s arc doesn’t add up.

She has just seen her daughter, alive and despite being told she was unwell (seemingly in good health), she is screaming “my Sanaya is gone” repeatedly, as though resigned to the fact her child is dead or going to die. A fighting mother as she is supposed to be portrayed would be fighting until the last second and chance, surely?

Yohan immediately puts his detective skills to work not on if Niyaz is guilty, but on who might be his benefactor and therefore have Sanaya. Anuradha focuses on the case and breaking into Sia’s computer is found by Sia’s mother. It instantly rubs off as strange that she seems to accept this quite quickly.

She remains relatively composed in a scene afterwards at the courthouse, but at least shows some signs of struggling to deal with her daughter’s kidnapping.

Interestingly, this is after we have seen Anuradha do something that can be considered morally or ethically dubious and doesn’t fit with her upstanding portrayal otherwise. This is, specifically, when Yohan introduces Anuradha to Sia’s mother Garima as the sister of a victim, and a writer “who wants to portray the pain of those who’ve suffered”.

Later at the courthouse, Garima is shown as concerned that Niyaz’s new lawyer may impact the outcome. She’s informed by the prosecutor that the defence lawyer is a woman and then spots Anuradha. She has been exposed. The tension here would have been more compelling here however if our sympathies fully lied with Gaurima rather than our heroine.

Anuradha: I had no intention of lying to you.

I was about to tell you the truth.

Garima: Tell me what?

That you met me in order to save my daughter’s murderer?

That you won my trust?

That you used me?!

Anuradha: I didn’t use anyone.

I was only doing my job.

Garima: Then why did you lie?

Maybe that pain in your eyes was fake too.

That deceived me.

Anuradha: My pain doesn’t need your certificate of authenticity, Garima-ji.

Nor does your pain need my sympathy.

Everyone has their own hell and everyone has to face it alone.

Garima: Just imagine, if your daughter had been through what my daughter did?

Would you still defend that rapist?

Fight for him?

Prosecutor: Advocate Verma, your firm defends criminals like Abbas.

I can understand that.

But this scum?

[….]

Garima: Miss. Verma, I’m not fighting for my daughter alone, but for all the daughters whose mothers are still waiting for justice.

The scenes in the hospital and all scenes with Sia’s boyfriend Sam are unfortunately melodramatic and seem yet another genre – a kitschy horror flick:

Yohan and Anuradha figure out that Sia’s ex-boyfriend was a son of rich man who became addicted to drugs, but Sam has an alibi as he was in hospital at the time of the murder. Sam is interviewed but only partially lucid, as he hallunicates and briefly even attacks Anu before self-harming. They leave and on the way back it is revealed that during the attack Sam left a note with Anuradha “I know who killed Sia” and they head straight back to the hospital.

They get back in by setting off the fire alarm (a dangerous and dubious task that would be again, more interesting if not under duress). Sam is shown as completely mentally unstable and of no use to support the case further. This diverts as such into another type of story altogether – a hammed-up, cheap horror flick with 2-D “crazy” baddies intended to shock and scare. Its unoriginal, out-of-place as does a disservice to the experienced and acclaimed actors in the film (Aishwarya, Irrfan and Shabana).

I would cut these scenes entirely – or if really needed for plot purposes, I would rewrite them and recast the actor playing Sam or give him entirely different direction.

Too much effort and time is spent on trying to demonstrate Aishwarya’s acting skills – she has already had a long and successful career, there shouldn’t be a need to so firmly re-establish this:

Was this film somehow trying to prove Aishwarya Rai can act? This seems odd given her career has seen her not just celebrated for her stunning beauty and commercial success but also that she had credibility as an actress with talent (this combination contributing to her being offered English-language and gaining a higher-profile in the West).

Niyaz’s wife Nazia is next to take to the stand. She reveals that Niyaz did in fact know Sia, as he was her drug dealer, unravelling the defence Anuradha has just created. She also testifies that he said he was going to Sia’s on the night of the murder to collect payment.

Anuradha confronts her client on why he hadn’t told her this in advance. He says that when he went to collect the money that night she was already dead. Anuradha has difficulty believing him and then he tells a story of raping and killing Sia.

Anuradha is played as horrified in her reaction – as though she had been genuinely defending an innocent client and that we are to believe that to convince her to defend an innocent client her daughter would have had to have been kidnapped. This is another point where the logic of the plot doesn’t add up and lacks plausibility, detracting from our understanding of the characters and interest in the plot’s development. But it gives Aishwarya the chance to show she can “react” as well as act.

Yohan discovers that Niya’s wife Nazia is in for a big inheritance pay-out if Niyaz receives the death penalty.

Anuradha signs for a package at the court – it is a fake “hand” as a warning of what will happen to Sanaya should she lose the case. This is not the most convincing or necessary plot point – a more subtle revelation or clue about her daughter’s whereabouts would have been more suspenseful and intriguing at this point in the story.

Anuradha and Yohan find photos of Sam at Sia’s funeral – proving he hadn’t already been admitted to hospital at the time of her murder. They also soon find out he’s been discharged, followed by the revelation he is the son of the local politician Mahesh Maklai we have seen has been keeping track of the case.

Conclusion:

Jazbaa actually has a lot going for it. A strong core cast of Aishwarya Rai, Irrfan Khan and Shabana Azmi. A relatively unique style and murky ethical territory with the lead character defending a convicted murder and rapist. Space to discuss victim blaming, violence against women, boy child preference and a number of other social issues from all angles within the context of an entertaining film.

Yet somehow Jazbaa fails to live up to expectations. It struggles as its so evident what this film could have been. To relate to other films in style and execution, it could have been a unique heroine-oriented comeback with the thrill and anti-heroinism of a “Kahaani”, the mystique and investigation of a “Talaash” and the social message courtroom drama of a “Pink”. Whilst far from a bad film, however, “Jazbaa” doesn’t stand up to these films for quality or likely longevity in impact.

An obvious fix lies in making the lead less “flawless” and peppering down the need for overdramatic scenes by removing the duress of her child being kidnapped for the reason Anuradha takes on the case.

This is well encapsulated in the end of the film, as Anuradha has won the case (kind of?).

Sanaya is returned, literally in a suitcase, and in a highly dramatized scene, as the child appears to be dead. We see first Yohan’s increasingly concerned reaction, as he can’t seem to find a pulse, followed by Anuradha’s arrival on the scene.

Anuradha’s extroverted denial of this seemingly morbid reality is poorly matched with her slow-motion running and a searing background score. Again this part of the scene just seems to be there to a) give Aishwarya a scene where she can show utter devastation (at this point in the film we’ve seen this enough times for it to lose impact), and b) all for another sudden plot twist and “feel good” moment as Sanaya turns out to be alive after all.

If any reunion scene between mother and child had come after Anuradha had given up hope of her return (and turned into a cynical lawyer defending rapists and murderers for big fees), this would have had a greater impact and allowed Aishwarya to show more of a character arc through signs of this grieving mother layered underneath a highly-competent, manipulative and successful lawyer.

It would allow for a “redemption” of sorts of her character that would make her more palatable to the audience but also serve as a statement on the inherently flawed nature of all human beings. Instead we have the practically-perfect-in-every-way, i-woke-up-like-this, utterly flawless Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the super lawyer, super heroine and of course, super mother.

The closing scene sees Anuradha visit Yohan to thank him for his help. She tells him she’s appealed his case (the bribery case we hear about in the beginning of the film), but he says he prefers his new life and has little interest in returning to life as a cop. They joke about Sanaya being with her grandmother (as this was also the excuse used when she had to hide the kidnapping). She departs with a promise to see one another again soon. They both seem lighter, with much less stress and concerns, particularly Yohan. This would have worked well as a nice prologue if they had both actually softened from their cynical positions through their experience. But as Anuradha was relatively principled throughout, and fighting for her child as the super mother she was shown to be, this doesn’t quite ring true.

There is actually an important message within this film, and one that needs special attention given just before the film ends in order to clarify this when we are shown a statement on rape in India (which unfortunately could also apply similarly in many other countries).

“There are more than 90 rape cases in India every day.

Every 22 minutes a woman gets raped

Only 1 out of every 10 cases is reported

From the ones reported barely 25% get convicted”

Jazbaa misses its opportunity to convey this message by “showing not telling”.

Verdict:

Despite its flaws, they are relatively interconnected, forseable, and if someone had the foresight, could have been fixable. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan remains a lucrative star, whilst not hugely profitable, the film didn’t do poorly, nor did Sarbjit which followed. A supporting role in Diwali-release “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” has revitalised Aishwarya Rai’s glamour quotient a fewfold and it suggests that with the right premise, script and delivery, she is far from destined to fail in her “comeback”, heroine-oriented or not. There is not enough evidence in the case of “Jazbaa” to prove a curse against heroine-oriented comebacks. “Jazbaa” is not Rai’s best performance, and she could have made a better comeback still, but all was not lost.

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Curse of the comeback? Part Two of Five: Preity Zinta in “Ishkq in Paris” (2013)

This is part two of a five part series looking at whether heroine-oriented comebacks are doomed to fail.

The second film looked at is 2013’s “Ishkq in Paris” which saw Preity Zinta, a hugely popular actress in her peak with blockbusters such as Veer Zaara, Kal Ho Na Ho, Dil Chahta Hai and Koi Mil Gaya, attempt a comeback following consecutive unsuccessful films, a shift towards non-Hindi and more arthouse projects, and then a five-year hiatus. Notably this break was not due to or corresponding with marriage and/or children (Zinta married rather this year [2016]).

Zinta’s most recent Hindi films, prior to her 2013 comeback in “Ishkq in Paris”, Jaan-E-Mann and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, were commercially unsuccessful and critically unappreciated, leaving Zinta to explore roles in other languages (including ‘The Last Lear’ and English-language film, and Punjabi and English language film “Heaven On Earth”. This put extra pressure on her return to be a hit, and the large a gap since her last successful Hindi films (2006’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and 2005’s Salaam Namaste as a lead) meant the film needed a gimmick or something instantly different to attract attention and get people buying tickets.

This didn’t happen. Rather, for “Ishkq in Paris”, which suffered a very poor box office run, there are very identifiable reasons the film was unsuccessful, not exclusively limited to the film itself.

The usual SPOILER alert – and whilst the film is not one that will stay with you forever, it was perhaps unfairly singled out as an example of what not to do. So if  you have some time to spare, check out “Ishkq in Paris”, especially if you are a fan of Zinta’s other work or of the romantic comedy generally. Trailer below:

The missteps of “Ishkq in Paris”, and how they could have been avoided:

A pure romance plot was not in-keeping with contemporary commercial films:

“Ishkq in Paris” missed the fact that sugary romance films are not as popular as they were in the 90s and early 2000s and the highest grossing films now incorporate romance but generally lead with action, comedy or drama as the main genre (e.g. Bajirao Mastani [drama], Chennai Express & PK [comedy], or Dilwale & Ek Tha Tiger [action]).

Profitable films in recent years without the Khans have also typically not been of the sugary romantic genre – this year Neerja [thriller], last year Tanu Weds Manu Returns [comedy], Queen [travel/buddy film], NH10 [thriller], Piku [drama], Ek Villian [thriller] and Pink [drama].

Increasing the comedy element of the film, a natural fit for Zinta, would have been an obvious solution, as an action or thriller element would involve entirely reworking the movie, and added drama would have lost the light and fun feeling the film attempts to leave its viewers with.

A more stereotypically youth-oriented plot unlikely to appeal to those who had grown up watching Preity Zinta:

The most successful recent films which could perhaps be categorised under this genre still had other box office pull such as Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (popular songs, buddy/travel film element, off-screen gossip around the lead pair), Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (youth market, popular songs), 2 States (youth market).

Preity Zinta fans, however, who had idolised her in films such as Kal Ho Naa Ho and Veer Zaara, even the youngest ones who would have been teens at the time, by the release of “Ishkq in Paris” would be 10 years older, having matured into adulthood likely with the responsibilities that come with that.

The Paris setting and Frenchness of the lead character meant the film lacked a desi quality needed to appeal to the Indian audience:

In Ishkq in Paris, Zinta plays a Half-French, Half-Indian character called Ishkq, who meets Akash a ‘Funjabi’ from Delhi, on a train from Rome to Paris. Arriving in Paris he asks her for a no-baggage night out in the city, to which she agrees.

The three aforementioned pure romance/romantic comedy films that were successful in recent years – 2 States, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania were all largely shot in India or promote the importance of home (note Naina wanting to remain in India despite her love for Bunny, and his return for the location wedding in Rajasthan; Kavya choses the local boy Humpty over the NRI Angad; and 2 States is set across Gujarat, Delhi, Maharashtra and the titular “two states” of Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

The film’s entire setting in Paris (although with some parts filmed allegedly in Lyon and Prague) that there was some interest specifically in shooting in Paris over any emphasis on creating audience interest. The setting lives the film ending up as a strange mix of Aditya Chopra’s upcoming film Befikre, 2014’s Queen – largely set in Paris and Amsterdam, Tamasha – with the first part seeming like an advert for Corsica’s tourist industry, Hum Tum – which involves a lot of scenes in locales in New York and Paris which simply involve Saif and Rani’s characters discussing the relationships between men and women, and perhaps the most obvious influence is the 1995 Hollywood film “Before Sunrise”, which perhaps indicates another reason why the film feels dated.

Failure to acknowledge the space the characters would really be in during their late 30s:

In the film whilst there is a small mention of Akash’s career as an agent, we know very little actually about Ishkq’s life in Paris – her career (if she has avoided long-term relationships, it would be highly possible she could have instead focused on being accomplished in her career), nor do we meet any of her friends (another possible focus of her attention). This film in another mould could have been a desi Bridget Jones’ diary – where Bridget is shown trying to advance in her career and also as having a close knit group of friends, but being “unlucky in love”.

This leaves Ishkq as an unrealistic character to be portrayed by Preity Zinta herself at this stage in her career. Zinta producing the film for Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan (a la Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania) as a modern day Simran and Raj would have had a better chance of succeeding in its current format. A version to relaunch Preity Zinta’s career needed to play down the impact of her parents (would even a Half-Indian woman who has lived her whole life in France still be living with her mother in her late 30s? Unlikely), and perhaps her learnt habits of living life as an independent woman that she might be unwilling to sacrifice. This would have made for a more believable character, script and more relatable film with a greater appeal and chance of success.

The songs were underwhelming – this meant a lack of buzz, and failure to capitalize of the Salman Khan cameo:

Akash leaves for London and we reach the interval. He stalks Ishkq on Facebook and is invited to a friend’s wedding in Paris and stalks her in Paris for real.

He asks Ishkq to do him a favour and be his +1 for the wedding. She agrees and when at the wedding claims she is there rather scouting for cute guys.

At the wedding reception Preity as Ishkq declares “I love Bollywood” in a meta moment when it is announced a major B-Town star is attending. The song breaks and it is indeed a major star – a cameo from Salman Khan no less, who unfortunately for the viewers, has not exactly established his popularity due to smooth dance moves (this is no Hrithik Roshan or Madhuri Dixit video song cameo).

A better soundtrack more generally (the use of some of Hindi film’s most popular playback singers in the likes of Shreya Ghoshal and Sunidhi Chauhan isn’t matched with catchy tunes). They also feel, like the pure romantic comedy genre itself, as not in keeping with the zeitgeist of popular tracks in 2013 when “Ishkq in Paris” was released. This is especially curious but also important as some of the tracks from Zinta’s biggest hit films have had lasting popularity and allow for repeat listens even in 2016 (including the title track to “Kal Ho Na Ho” and “Maahi Ve” from the same film, and the songs “Main Yahan Hoon” and “Tere Liye” from “Veer Zaara”. Such memorable songs in “Ishkq in Paris” would have helped create buzz for the film that would have increased the initial occupancy as the film opened.

So what did work?

Parts of the film are a fun watch – I enjoyed the “rolling of the dice” as a framing device setting up different scenes and locations, and the two of them acting out a “film within a film”:

Akash and Ishkq visit the Eiffel Tower, and after purchasing a “fun dice” from an eccentric Indian street-seller and after rolling “party”, they go to a night club for dancing and obviously the first song of the movie (which in-keeping with the point above, is unfortunately quite generic and forgettable).

They share best pick-up lines and break up lines, and then roll the dice again and land on “dinner”. At dinner they meet a psychic that predicts that Ishkq will marry within a few months and that she will meet her father very soon (the first taken lightly and the latter prediction receiving a much more serious and concerned reaction).

They roll the dice once again to try to cheer up Ishkq and land on “movie”. She remarks its too late in the night to catch a film and he wants roll again, with Akash hoping of course to land on “sex”. Iskhq shuts this down, and proposes instead making their own movie (somewhat of a meta joke given Preity produced and co-wrote the film). They act out their own romantic drama, during which Ishkq berates the improvising Akash for adding that the heroine has waited 8 years for the hero’s return.

“This is a rubbish love story” she declares, asking him if he thinks he’s Zinta’s Jaan-E-Mann co-star and friend Salman Khan. Finally, he puts on a more convincing performance, ending with a declaration of love. The Veer Zaara star remarks “[y]ou watch a lot of Yash Chopra romances”.

They spend the rest of the night discussing their fears and emotional baggage (so much for a no baggage night) and roll the dice again landing on coffee as dawn breaks.

That the relationship begins between Akash and Ishkq with a full third of the movie to go is a little less predictable:

We learn Ishkq has never been to India and of her father’s absence in her life since she was 7. They begin a relationship (somewhat less predictable than expected that this happens only two thirds of the way through the film rather than at the end).

There is a strong theme of women’s empowerment in the fact that Ishkq is not a character looking for a man to solve her problems. Rather her relationship with Akash builds on a flirty friendship into something more:

Whilst it is somewhat frustrating that the main obstacle to Ishkq and Akash’s relationship seems to be her “daddy issues” causing a fear of commitment, this short dialogue stood out in particular:

Akash: Don’t want to hear what Ishkq?

The truth that I love you?

That I want to spend my life with you?

And be the one to save you from ever being lonely?

Ishkq: Save me?

Really?

Save me?

I’m very happy the way I am!

And I can look after myself.

I don’t need a goddamn saviour, OK?

That this argument is the obstacle that causes their split is authentic and allows the audience to identify with both sides, to identify with Ishkq’s frustration with his need to “fix” her, but appreciate Akash when returns apologetic with an attempt at reconciling.

Ishkq’s mother Marie tries to help by explaining to Ishkq that in fact she and her father split amicably, and she discouraged her father from remaining in their lives. If this had been kind words from a mother attempting to do what was right for her child’s happiness, rather than the truth, this may have been a more interesting plot point. There is no indication this is the case however.

End scene as a taste of what this film could have been in another guise

A scene that is more reminiscent of Bridget Jones’ Diary and one of several snippets of what this film could have been is the scene at the end where Ishkq is running in a hoodie, jeans and a pair of Uggs to the Gare du Nord train station to catch Akash at the food court where she had highly recommended the laksa.

This is fully within the conventions of the romantic comedy genre, but adds a twist that is softly comical and in-keeping with the character. Preity Zinta has enough personality, film experience and screen presence that a fully fleshed out Ishkq could have become a great film character, but the disconnect between her characterisation as written in the script, and the casting of Preity in the role mean this never manifests.

Zinta as Producer and businesswoman

Preity Zinta has joined a growing club of heroines moving into production with “Ishkq in Paris”. Whilst this will undoubtedly lead to mixed results, Zinta contributed to supporting this trend and creating a role for herself, not relying on opportunities to emerge where there are fewer. The three Khans, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgan have all been heavily involved in film production, so it is encouraging to see other heroines also make similar moves, including Anushka Sharma in 2015 with NH10 and next year’s “Phillauri”, Priyanka Chopra supporting regional cinema with her company Purple Pebble Pictures and with Sonam Kapoor rumoured to be joining her Producer sister Rhea (who produced Sonam-starrers “Aisha” and “Khoobsurat”) in the production of the upcoming “Battle for Bittora”.

Perhaps learning from her producer experience, Zinta has now switched her focus to business ventures, notably her involvement as a co-owner of the IPL team Kings XI Punjab, where she has been celebrated for her success as a businesswoman and remains passionate cricket fan.

Conclusion:

“Ishkq in Paris” is a far from perfect film. It was, perhaps even destined to fail from the beginning, given the need for a new angle or gimmick to garner interest, after a significant spell away from Hindi films for the lead actress Preity Zinta.

Both the critical and box office battering it received, are however, unfair. Zinta does a fair job and in fact both leads are likeable and do their best with the format to engage the viewer. A seeming lack of clarity of what the film might be trying to say about relationships, however, is lost in an array of inspiration from romantic comedy films from both India and the West. It leaves the audience feeling that the film is unoriginal in concept and delivery – a likely reason why critics were particularly harsh.

It is worth considering to what extent gender factored in here. The film is produced by a woman, widely known for her independent mind and outspokenness in the industry, playing a Western character (of partial Indian descent), in a Western locale, in Western clothing. She has the guts to be the lead, literally naming the film after her character (or character after the film – its hard to tell), and casts a relative unknown actor alongside her as the male lead.

Most potently, the subject matter is romance and the genre is a light romantic comedy – considered particularly to appeal to female audiences rather than male ones. It could quite easily fit in the genre I’ve coined “lipstick cinema” – with upcoming films such as Sonakshi Sinha’s “Noor” and the Kareena Kapoor/Sonam Kapoor film “Veere Di Wedding” seemingly fitting into this genre.

It will be interesting to see what reception they receive by audiences and critics, and how they manage marketing in advance. Films which appear to directly market to women are considered as less serious, of lesser quality and are charged often even in advance of watching, as not worthy of even viewing.

Verdict: This film does suggest that heroine-oriented comebacks are held to a higher standard. “Timepass” films which engage the viewer’s attention for a couple of hours and end with a feel good conclusion are many in number, but few find themselves in front of either commercial or critical obstacles such as faced by “Ishkq in Paris”.

Whilst there are evident flaws in the premise and delivery detailed above, whether these would have truly lead to an acceptance of Zinta’s return to movies remains a question.

“Content is king” is a common phrase these days and holds true – but if there is an audience that watches the content in the first place. A disastrous first day collection set the course for “Ishkq in Paris” as a box office flop that was always going to be impossible to overcome. The film’s flaws largely lie within the context of the challenges associated with a film return when trends, style and execution have all changed in the meantime. The other main barrier deals with a catch-22 of a perceived in-authenticity for women over 35 to portray stories that suggest the youthful escapism cinema is selling to its audiences (this does not in the slightest apply to our male heroes), and a general lack of interest in stories that actually reflect the lives of women over 35.

As such “Ishkq in Paris” is the first piece of evidence to suggest perhaps there is a “curse” against heroine-oriented comebacks – sometimes there is a double standard, and sometimes the obstacles are too hard to overcome.

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Diwali 5-part special: “The Curse of the Comeback”

This Diwali “Women in Bollywood” celebrates with a five-part special, discussing the subject of heroine-oriented comebacks, that is, after actresses have taken some time away from the big screen and attempt a successful return.

As these breaks have typically, although not exclusively, coincided with developments in the personal lives of the heroines in question, the success or failure of these films have a wider implication in terms of a popular culture representation of changing societal expectations and acceptance of a woman’s continued career ambitions after marriage and childbirth, as well as opinions (changing or otherwise) on the compatibility of a maturing woman and the escapist glamour of commercial cinema.

That many of the films that witness an actress’ return to cinema after a multi-year break are heroine-oriented, this adds an extra level of relevance within the scope of this blog.

Notably, the actress Kajol’s two “comebacks” saw her star alongside  Aamir Khan in 2006’s “Fanaa”, and her long-term co-star Shah Rukh Khan in 2015’s “Dilwale”. Her roles were prominent but responsibility for the box office draw was shared with a major hero who had led a recent blockbuster hit.

This 5-part series will look rather at cases where the box office draw was left in the hands of a heroine absent from Hindi films for several years, and will discuss in each case – what worked, what didn’t and what could have been changed in terms of increasing the film’s success and positive reception.

Through these 5 films, released all in the last 10 years and showcasing a major heroine, a verdict will be reached on the premise of whether a heroine-oriented comeback is “cursed” or doomed to fail.

Curious?: