Directed by: Vishal Bhardwaj
Starring: Priyanka Chopra, Naseeruddin Shah, Irrfan Khan, John Abraham, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Annu Kapoor and Aleksandr Dyachenko
WARNING: Contains major plot spoilers – if you have not seen the film, you may wish to read my review AFTER seeing the film.
It is quite scary how much power the cinema schedulers have over my free time. The timings for a screening of the latest release can either work like a dream with a morning show that is quiet and empty that allows me to do other things with my day or a really annoying time in the middle of the afternoon or evening that means I have to plan everything around it. I know what you are thinking – I don’t have to see the film in its opening weekend but therein lies the problem with being a die hard Hindi film fan; every time I think about waiting to see the film till later, the inner Bollywood geek kicks in and reminds me of all the good films I have ended up missing this way.
So, inspite of having had a day off work (not for the film – I am have not reached that higher plane of worship yet) I was hoping to catch Saat Khoon Maaf in a morning show only to find there was only one evening show which as expected, was packed to the rafters and was but two decibels away from riot police being brought in to control the cinema (and all this in Central London too, where one would hope inconsiderate types would be priced out or simply not bother to leave their local to see a film in “central”). So, it was another test – would Saat Khoon Maaf be able to tame this rowdy bunch into submission?
Saat Khoon Maaf follows the story of Susanna (Chopra), who marries seven times and kills each of her husbands. The film begins with Susanna apparently killing herself and her remains coming to Arun (Vivaan Shah, son of Naseeruddin) a doctor, who has a personal connection to Susanna – she is responsible for bringing him out of a life of poverty and paying for his education. Telling Susanna’s life story to his wife (Konkona Sen Sharma in a cameo here), we learn about Susanna’s marriages and why each one ended with murder…
SKM is going to divide audiences into two camps – there are those that are going to get this film and totally love it and then there will be others who cannot understand why things are not explained and don’t connect to it. Fortunately, I fall under the former category – SKM worked on every level for me. Carefully crafted with detailed layers, SKM is a rich mosaic of a film that brings together lots of different elements and puts them together into one seamless composition. The music is brilliant and really forms the soul of the film. Bhardwaj executes his idea with such finesse, confidence and quiet determination that makes the audience work for information and really get involved in Susanna’s life. I love how the film touches on so many topics but never lets it drag the film down – so we have religion, women’s rights, morality, sexual politics and intrigue as main themes whilst Susanna’s journey also includes a look at different types of relationships – abusive (Irrfan), damaging (Shah), exploitative (Kapoor), controlling (Mukesh), religious (Jesus), duplicitous (Dyachenko) and blind love (Abraham). On top of this, we have a commentary running through the film on Susanna via Arun and his wife as well as Susanna herself – why does Susanna keep choosing the wrong men? Is she really looking for her father in all these relationships or something deeper?
Furthermore, SKM is a black comedy and is not afraid to embrace its dark side with aplomb – though there are some moments of comic relief, when SKM goes to a dark place, it takes the viewer there too and doesn’t hold back, creating a femme fatale and a character who at first, seems rather tame but later on, becomes a figure to be feared in her own right. The only thing I would have liked to have seen would be a little more of why Susanna is the way she is but having said that, I am happy that the film keeps an element of mystery and will no doubt reveal more information on repeat viewings. Technically, the film is fantastic, with some very interesting point of view shots and a style that pays lip service to the era it is representing whilst keeping a continuous thread to keep SKM as a whole – in fact, I thought the film captured each time period rather well. The editing is brisk and the writing is concise, with no character or storyline outstaying its welcome and every actor and element being utilised fully. I also loved the cheeky interval message (“Only four more to go…“) which got a round of applause in the cinema I was in and almost missed the ending after the end credits which I wished I had known about in advance.
Styling wise, the film is fantastic. Priyanka embodies each look and each era with aplomb, not only changing style but also physically too and refreshingly, showing a woman ageing naturally rather than in a filmi way. I loved the equestrian look with jodhpurs, alice bands and riding boots as well as the red dress worn when Susanna performs the tango. Then we have the rock era with skinny jeans, printed teas, a perm and bright earrings followed by gorgeous ethnic wear in Kashmir (I loved the blue suit with the frill dupatta worn in the boat) to an embellished saris and long dresses to floral and paisley prints and ending with a turquoise batwing kaftan teamed with jeans. Then we also have a high fashion look at the races with trusty oversized shades complimenting a red dress and Chanel/Versace style jacket. The men also all have distinctive looks – Neil is full on military, John is a rock god, Irrfan is ethnic wear, Aleksandr the tourist, Annu the nehru collared civil servant whilst Naseeruddin wears linens and mandarin style shirts. As I always say, the sign of a good film is styling that is in sync with the story and though none of the clothes are drool worthy, they are all wearable and believable costumes.
In terms of performance, Priyanka will get her own paragraph in a moment, but first up is the male actors who have put their egos aside and play their characters faithfully inspite of role lengths and the absence of a lead role. Neil is very good as the disabled military man who can barely contain his jealousy and is as cruel and spiteful to Susanna as he is to everyone around him (the fight with Goonga of two men with very different disabilities is edge of seat stuff). John really surprised me as he could phone in the druggie act but as the burnt out rock star, he clearly was flexing acting muscle in the absence of actual muscles and did very well. Irrfan is scary, evil and brilliant as the sadistic poet who brutalizes Susanna and shocks the audience – a well rounded performance makes him believable and provokes a reaction from the viewer. Aleksandr gives a good account of himself, doing well with his Hindi lines and fooling Susanna and the audience. Annu is fantastic as the leery inspector who makes one’s skin crawl and Naseeruddin is having lots of fun as the Bengali spirtual doctor who has a deeper and darker agenda than anyone would have guessed. Vivaan is excellent as Arun as is Konkona in her cameo (once again, ego checked in at the door and actually acting – we approve!). Usha Uthup and Shashi Malviya are excellent in their supporting roles and have fun, especially with Aleksandr’s character where they get the chance to shine.
And now, onto Ms Chopra. After Anjaana Anjaani, I had no doubt that PC would totally surpass her performance in that film and her other films with this and she did not let me down. Showing that daring and full commitment to the film any actress worth her salt should do, Priyanka gets firmly out of her comfort zone and emerges with a powerhouse performance whose impact cannot be denied. Priyanka brings Susanna to life, making her complex, vulnerable, strong, determined and confused all the same time. The many nuances she invokes are beautifully executed and I loved the risk taking – from ageing up and the nude scene to the horrible marital rape scene that stunned the viewer into silence, Priyanka goes all out for this role. There is only one other heroine who could have done this role and that is Vidya Balan but I don’t think she would have been able to do the sultry and seductive as well as Priyanka does. Priyanka totally makes this role her own, sharing a fantastic chemistry with all the other actors and carrying the film on her shoulders with a wonderful confidence and drive that makes what is quite complicated subject matter easy and engaging to watch. Quite simply, if anyone was in any doubt as to why Priyanka is in contention for the being leader of the pack, Saat Khoon Maaf should make for a convincing argument in her favour. This is a role of a lifetime and indeed, my favourite Priyanka performance since Kaminey and I really hope she continues in this vein and do something different and challenging as she has done here and even try to better her performance here.
So, SKM won’t be to everyone’s taste and some will inevitably fail to see what the fuss is about but as a fan of Bhardwaj and Chopra, this film was made for me – not only did it make the audience settle down but the ending, which threw me (I thought Susanna would end up killing Arun too) but was a brave decision and one that shows a total commitment to fulfilling the creative potential the film offers. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the ending and was pleased that it left the viewer with yet another point of discussion long after viewing SKM. I felt the subject and the presentation of a female character with such an unusual story was very well explored and each facet carefully thought out and well placed but always retaining a degree of spontaneity and integrity.
I remember when Omkara was released in 2006, a Western reviewer praised the film and wrote in his review something along the lines of “Bhardwaj reminds one of a time when the Bombay film industry was ruled by classy directors“. For me, Bhardwaj does that with SKM, making a film that will appeal to people who like to bring their brains to the cinema but also making it accessible to those who wouldn’t normally watch a film with such a dark agenda. I would heartily recommend a trip to the cinema to see this and to catch it on DVD or telecast too, as it is a good film and a worthy addition not only to the 2011 hall of fame (currently occupied by No One Killed Jessica and Dhobi Ghat) but also a film that I can’t wait to show to show to my friends who don’t watch Hindi films. Perhaps the ultimate compliment is that despite the awkward scheduling of the film disrupting my day, after seeing the film, I can say it was totally worth making the effort. Highly recommended!