Thursday, September 10, 2009
Chameli doesn't slip easily into a category. It's probably not arthouse, embracing conventional crowd-pleasers like songs, item numbers, the tired trope of hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, and of course highly bankable Kareena Kapoor in the title role. On the other hand, it's not exactly everyday Hindi cinema fare either. For one thing, it's short: 90 minutes. For another, it has this guy:
Arguably king of the Indian indie, Rahul Bose. And finally, it has extremely natural performances, and very real-life conflicts and encounters.
Aman (Rahul) is throwing a party, probably for business reasons, at the film's opening. Rain comes pouring down, and his demeanor instantly changes from cordial to withdrawn. He takes off driving in the storm. Unfortunately for him--or maybe fortunately, considering how it turns out--Aman's car engine floods at Flora Fountain, and he finds himself stranded with no one but a hooker for company. The two meet when she offers him a match for his cigarette.
The prostitute, Chameli, has far more serious problems than a flooded engine. She owes money to a bad man, and her pimp has set up an appointment for her with a sick bastard who's been known to leave his girls in the hospital. The goons who work for the guy are after her from the beginning of the film. I love the look on Kareena's face when she hears them calling for her at her house:
You can see that despite her brave talk about being "no one's bitch," she knows that she's probably only delaying the inevitable by running and hiding. The battle between sick fear and resignation hasn't quite been won in her expression.
As the night progresses, Chameli and Aman get to know each other. Aman finds himself caring for Chameli almost against his will (and certainly against all the off-putting behavior she can exhibit to prevent such a thing). Their lives become intertwined, and are bettered in the end.
Chameli's DVD cover features a full-face shot of Kareena, with Rahul behind her and in profile. That's pretty accurate advertising for the film's dynamics as well. Chameli is a chatterbox, using words as both weapon and shield against the world's dangers and denigration. I'm so impressed with Kareena's acting: her voice, body language, and facial expressions have been stripped of filmi heroine conventions. She becomes Chameli with total conviction. Of course, I'm not alone in that; she got rave reviews for her performance from far more qualified reviewers than I.
Then again, I'm tempted to argue that Rahul has an equally challenging job as Aman. For the vast majority of the film, he's completely reacting to the action around him rather than instigating a thing. He's out of his depth, he knows it, he's in pain from past trauma, and he's not sure what to do. The man who is paid a ludicrous amount of money to talk to powerful people is left practically speechless by the events of this single night. He's as removed from the realities of poverty as most men of his station. Despite that, Rahul manages to convey grace and compassion, as well as show us Aman's growth as a character, through very little dialogue.
The production values are odd. The first half of the film is practically claustrophobic, occurring almost entirely in the shelter of the fountain. The lighting and costuming seem to signal gritty reality rather than filmi imagery. Then again, the storm's lightning is completely unconvincing and stagey, plus we have the heroine drenched in rain while twirling around with chance-met strangers who seem a dull backdrop to her colorful nature.
I love the songs, though there are only four. I find it interesting that two of them are item numbers: "Thaki Thaki," featuring Anupama Verma, and "Sajna Ve Sajna," which features Mahek Chahal. In a movie about a woman who sells sex for a living, Sudhir Mishra refuses to exploit her with the camera. However, he seems to have no problem doing so with the two women selling the illusion of sex: every shot focuses on yet another gyrating body part, and the moves in "Thaki Thaki" are provocative to say the least. One can't help but wonder if he's making us all out to be johns since we paid money for the display.
In the end, I can't decide into what category, if any, to put Chameli, but I do know this: it's worth every penny. Check it out if you haven't yet.