Neither Aishwarya nor Shabana, best thing about Jazbaa is Irrfan

The actor shines, in an otherwise thoroughly muddled film.

 |  6-minute read |   10-10-2015
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There were two moments in Sanjay Gupta's Jazbaa (though there could have been more) where, ears hurting at the hackneyed dialogue and eyes glazing over at the main action, I found myself looking instead at wall-portraits visible in the background. One scene had a picture of Alfred E Neuman, the other had Mahatma Gandhi: you wouldn't think these two people would have much in common, but they both had toothy grins and to my mind they were both laughing hard at this film.

Last week Irrfan Khan brought charisma, even a touch of star presence, to a low-key movie. But Talvar was tautly written and directed, and would have been a fine film even if Irrfan hadn't been in it or if the character he played, Ashwin, had been more dour. Jazbaa is a whole other matter. Of the main participants, Irrfan seems to be the only one who is in tune with the Sanjay Gupta style of filmmaking, the only one who seems to understand what this movie wants to be (a noisy mess that doesn't really care a fig about any of its characters). Neither Aishwarya Rai - displaying all the histrionic range of her wax statue in Tussauds - nor Shabana Azmi (who in her first scene is trying to avoid two people on a stairway, and mostly looks like she wants to escape the film as well) seem to have been let in on the joke.

Also read: Talvar shows Bollywood is afraid to handle the truth

As the wisecracking inspector Yohan, trying to help his childhood friend Anuradha Verma (Rai) whose little daughter has been kidnapped, Irrfan has so much fun here, it's a joy to behold. Leave your Lunchboxes and Qissas behind, I can imagine Gupta telling the actor, check them in at the gate aur aaja meri gaadi mein baith jaa. You'll get to wear a leather jacket and mouth the sort of dialogue you never will in most of your other films ("Teri amma ne jiske baare mein nahin bataaya, main tera woh baap hoon," Yohan says to a villain who asks him who he is), you'll smash your fist through car windows, you'll even get a spectacular action-hero moment where you point a gun at the camera while trains shoot past on either side of you. Jhakaas!

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As the wisecracking inspector Yohan, Irrfan has so much fun here. 

But the thing to note is, Irrfan goes along for the ride and does all this really well. Which is nothing to be sneezed at. After all, film history is full of instances of actors who specialised in playing psychologically realistic characters in understated films, but then floundered or superciliously went through the motions when saddled with "commercial" material that they felt was below them: it has happened with Waheeda Rehman and Balraj Sahni, with Jaya Bhaduri and Sanjeev Kumar; and I keep thinking of how godawful Naseeruddin Shah has been in films like Tahalka, where he is out-performed even by Aditya Pancholi (who at least seems to be telling himself "Well, I'm here now doing this rubbish, so may as well do it as well as it can be done"). Another type of "serious actor" cast as Yohan in Jazbaa might have made a hash of it; but Irrfan shines, and not just at a level where he is winking at the audience and playing off his usual persona - he is genuinely persuasive as a rogue cop/action hero.

This is a mind-bogglingly confused film though. That conversation Sanjay Gupta may have had with Irrfan? He would have had a very different version of it when he briefed Aishwarya about her comeback role. "Sanjay, after all this time I can't do a regular mainstream movie," she might have said, "I need to do something Meaningful." Whereupon Sanjay would have set the synapses in his brain to "Meaningful" mode and let them jive about for a bit until they spelt out phrases like Violence Against Women. That sounds good, he would have said to himself - it sounds like the sort of thing people consider important these days. All this talk about rape, etcetera, etcetera.

Also read: How Irrfan Khan can make even Honey Singh shut up

So what do we end up with? A story that is on a very superficial level about mothers and daughters, and about society's judgement of modern women, but is synthetic and manipulative in its treatment - from the anaemic banter in the early scene where Anuradha drops her daughter to school, to the platitudes the Azmi character offers to explain her daughter's lifestyle (unless I dreamt it up, there was an analogy involving coffee cups and relationships). All the half-hearted nods to social consciousness naturally lead up to end-titles with statistics about sexual violence. (Correction: those aren't end-titles exactly, because what the film really wants to do is to finish with a cutesy little scene between Anu and Yohan. And it would be a mood-buster to have the rape statistics after this scene, so why not get them out of the way earlier? Such is the randomness of it all.)

All this is without even mentioning the bizarre interior décor, which possibly owes to Gupta having been "inspired" by the Korean film Seven Days (which I haven't seen, so I can't say if Jazbaa is a frame-by-frame copy). Characters come in and out of view, there are scenes such as the one where Azmi and Rai are in the same room, talking to each other but at no point do you get a sense of the geography of the space or where they are in relation to one another, and each of them looks like they shot the scene separately. Confining characters to their own frames, never letting them be seen together in a scene, is a valid cinematic method of expressing alienation - the Spanish director Victor Erice had a memorable sequence of this sort, involving a four-member family at a dining table, in Spirit of a Beehive - but I doubt that was the intention here.

Jazbaa has many unintentionally funny things in it (consider how Anuradha is one of the best-known, most highly paid lawyers in the country - we are told this through newspaper headlines! - and then witness how she actually argues her cases), but one of the biggest intentional laughs comes during a fight scene. "I know my rights," a just-apprehended thug tells Yohan (in English). "Hindustan mein RIGHTS?!" spits back Irrfan, sounding offended by the very idea, then smacking the man hard across his face and snarling: "Yeh Hollywood nahin, Bollywood hai, bho****kay!" Prime Minister Modi and his team may consider have those lines stitched into their new jackets, but that apart, what a superb meta moment this is. All the scene needed was a cutaway to a reaction shot of Aishwarya with a single teardrop on her cheek, staring vacantly into the middle distance, followed by a cutaway to Gandhi and Alfred Neuman on the wall, giggling at each other.

Also read: Five times Irrfan Khan surprised us

Writer

Jai Arjun Singh Jai Arjun Singh @jaiarjun

Writer and critic. Blogs at Jabberwock (http://jaiarjun.blogspot.in ). Author of Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983. Edited The Popcorn Essayists.

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