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Leitmotif of a journey

"Mr. and Mrs. Iyer" uses a love story as a backdrop to the horrors of intolerance, while also showing how love sensitises one to human values, writes GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

A film about love between unlikely candidates.

THE Indian films of 2002 made dismal watching. You are not surprised that most of the mainstream films crashed at the box office, while the so-called serious films lacked originality. Our auteur filmmakers have not been at their best. Buddhadev Dasgupta's "Tale of a Naughty Girl" reminds you of the whorehouse in Shyam Benegal's old "Mandi". Though Dasgupta's cinematic vision and lyrical sensibility are intact, this film is the sort that is tailor-made for festival circuits.

After a promising beginning with a hereditary village hangman for protagonist, "Shadowkill" (Adoor Gopalakrishnan) meanders into his fevered fantasies. The images and metaphors hang in the air. Predictability is the bane of "Titli" (Rituparno Ghosh). The feel good nostalgia is closer to the mawkish than the tender.

Neither foreign co-productions, nor films made in English have met world class. In dealing with NRI life, "Leela" is sentimental, superficial, it doesn't come to grips with issues. "American Desi" is cluttered. "Stumble" (Prakash Belawadi) hits upon a good idea (the nexus between politician, businessman and foreign fly-by-nite operators in swindling the public) but is didactic in treatment. "Freaky Chakra" (V.K.Prakash) scores in its zany visuals, music and live narrator, and fresh performances. A misanthropic martinet at 40 plus, single woman (Deepti Naval) regains bubbling youth in an affair with a young undergraduate paying guest. The film has funny moments, but the froth has nothing below to sustain it.

In Deepa Mehta's spoof on "Bollywood Hollywood", the comedy is more artificial than spontaneous. Canadian-Indian businessman Rahul Khanna gets Lisa Ray to pretend to be his "Indian" fiancée to please his mom and grandmom, but falls in love with the woman whose character does not fit into his scheme of "middle class morality". Like most films where Indians speak in English, this one too had ponderous dialogues.

The film that you want to see again is `Mr. and Mrs. Iyer". Director Aparna Sen paints a tender love story to intensify the horror of intolerance. A busload of passengers creates a mini India with diverse languages, creeds and cultures. The leitmotif of their journey from hills to the plains has the camera (handled adroitly by Goutam Ghose) studying collective and individual human behaviour — in routine interaction and in emergencies. The fine balance spotlights the individual's crisis without blurring the communitarian context.

On the journey, young Tamil brahmin Meenakshi Iyer gets help from wildlife photographer Raja Chowdhury to manage her infant son. However, her revulsion for his "sipping" — instead of "drinking" with the water bottle held away from the lips — turns to disgust when she learns that he is an "unclean" Muslim. A sudden flare of communal riots has Hindu extremists boarding the bus. That is when Meenakshi claims Raja as her husband "Mr. Iyer". Others too surprise themselves. While a Jew betrays an old Muslim couple, a young girl finds herself the lone protester against the brutality. The revelations continue through the curfew-halt in a nameless village.

Sen's narrative style combines the direct with the indirect: Sufi and Virasaiva verses, as also newspaper headlines scream forth the theme, the dentures of the Muslim victim lying unheeded on the track confirm his murder. But the permutations of feelings in the protagonists are unobtrusive. You sense them in sidelong glances and aversions of the eye, in silences and words held back.

The same shifts between the overt and the hidden suggest a subtext in the dialogues. "Mr. and Mrs. Iyer" is about love that springs between unlikely candidates. Would they have spared a thought for each other under "normal" circumstances?

Yet, sheltering in a remote forest guesthouse, their pulses race in fear, and pause in the wonderment of dawning love. The implications veer from the chilling to the lyrical. Sen etches the stages in which the bafflement at cultural alienness melts to yield togetherness. This happens through their own interactions, and observing each other in interchanges with others — as at a tea stall, when the pair are twitted by their young co-passengers and forced to cook up stories of their honeymoon.

Raja's descriptions of Kaziranga or Periyar are not slogans for a green earth. They make you realise how beauty and harmony vanish from the planet with the rape of primal forests — and communities. From one window the pair gaze rapturously at a herd of deer grazing in the thicket; from another, they see the brutal chase ending in a human kill. The camera swerves quickly from the murder to the reaction: Meenakshi retching in horror.

The old motif of the camera catalyses fresh allusions. As Raja teaches Meenakshi to look through the lens, she readjusts her perspective, widens her vision — a rite of passage through focussing. Scenes of violence are projected like slides, as Raja the eyewitness records local history, a micro version of the global.

Rite of passage through focusing the camera... Konkana Sen Sharma as Mrs. Iyer.

"Mr. and Mrs. Iyer" is not a film for ivory towers and hot houses. But the director does not underestimate the viewer. Her directness is not explicitness, whether in a torched village, or in police support for the Hindu cause.

There is a second journey, the couple on a train to Calcutta. The dangers are past — or are they? Can they shake off the feelings that grew with their role-playing? Resume their lives at the point of boarding the bus? The theme of sacrifice, a favourite in soaps and weepies, here presages a greater understanding of the self, a seminal shift in worldview.

It is easy to play strong characters. But to show vulnerabilities demands sensitivity. Konkana Sen Sharma's Meenakshi is convincing in every phase as she moves from distaste to love. She opens her heart to take the world in. Raja (Rahul Bose) opts for restraint. As a victim of hatred (and love), coiling himself taut is his best means of survival. Writer Bhisham Sahni and Surekha Sikri offer a wonderful cameo of the Muslim couple, bewildered by the loud, crass behaviour of younger passengers, recalling courtlier times. The cinematography is sharp-edged, the smoothness does not spell slickness, it adds dimensions to the emotion, and makes the narrative flow.

What you miss is tautness, and the tingling sense of teetering on the precipice, which might have been achieved with some cuts and tighter editing. The end lost its momentum in lingering over Raja's final departure. The music adds little to the ambience.

"Mr. and Mrs. Iyer" stands out, not as a better film among mediocre fare, but for painting the oblique sensuousness of romance.

And for showing how love does not make you self-centred, it sensitises you to human values.

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