Once upon a time there was a man called Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra who lived in the Enchanted Forest of Imagination and Splendour.
One day, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra decided to make a film on the Punjabi folktale of Mirza and Sahibaan, setting it in present-day Rajasthan.
It was a story of love, faith, hope and betrayal, rocks and hard places, Scylla and Charybdis, devils and deep seas. It was a story that lent itself to the kind of epic scale and magnificence that Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra was known for in the Forest and the many lands of Far Beyond.
And so Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra went about gathering the best team in the Forest for his film. He roped in Dadasaheb Phalke Award-winning stalwart Gulzar for the screenplay and lyrics.
And Gulzar did not let him down with the songs. He wrote with wistfulness, of a little boy mooning after a girl, of a woman torn between her family and her lover.
In the Village on the edge of the Forest there lived a Critic. She was filled with hope for Mirzya for she thought Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti released in 2006 was one of the best Hindi films of the 21st century, and though some folk in the Village said his Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in 2013 was over-wrought, she did not agree with them.
When Gulzar’s words for Ek Nadi Thi, put to tune by the formidable Shankar Ehsaan Loy, sung by the Nooran sisters and K. Mohan, rose up from the screen, a feeling of warmth enveloped the Critic. “Ek nadi thi dono kinaare / Thaam ke behti thi / Ek nadi thi… / Ek nadi thi koi kinara chhod na sakti thi” (There was a river who embraced both her banks / There was a river… / There was a river who could not leave either of her banks). A picture began to paint itself.
It was clear that Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa had poured their soul into Mirzya. The melodies, the instrumentation, the choice of voices – it was oh so beautiful.
Most beautiful of all was Daler Mehndi, whose full-bodied rendition of that evocative title track got the Critic’s pulse racing each time.
In the same Forest there lived a cinematographer called Pawel Dyllus, who bathed Mirzya’s present in burnished tones and the blazing sun, while drenching the past in a dreadful steely gray. Pawel Dyllus’ canvas was large, and every frame was a museum piece, not counting some close-ups of the lead actress Saiyami Kher in which her make-up was screaming out at the viewers – a folly indeed.
The music, the lush landscapes and shadowy interiors, Mirzya’s art design and narrative structure were designed to build up a haunting atmosphere. There was foreboding in the air. Great sorrow would befall these people – the Critic knew that, not only because everyone in the Village had read of Mirza and Sahibaan, but because she sensed it in the air of the Forest.
Mirzya was related as a fantasy fable, juxtaposing the ancient saga of Mirza and Sahibaan against the contemporary account of H.R.H. Prince Karan, his one true love Soochi – daughter of a top policeman in Rajasthan – and the stable boy Adil. There was much promise in this idea.
But Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra made a big mistake. He strayed from the Path of Golden Rules, he did not chide Gulzar for writing a screenplay with many strong pillars but no rooms, for constructing a fascinating frame with no interiors, for outlining characters that could have been interesting if only he had filled in his lines with colour and life. Perhaps that was not possible. After all, Gulzar, as the people of the Village well know, is a legend.
There were moments when the Critic thought, “Ah, this looks and sounds so good. Maybe soon the life blood will flow?” And she waited, and waited, and waited. But it did not.
No doubt Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra had aimed his film at intelligent, well-read Village dwellers. He infused it with literary references, but mostly with the words of an old English wizard called William Shakespeare. Then though, he doubted the knowledge of the Village people and felt driven to mention the names of Wizard William, Romeo and Juliet, just in case the Critic and her Village did not quite get it.
It was a film with few dialogues. In the Enchanted Forest, words are precious. Yet Mirzya squandered away its limited number of spoken lines with clunky writing. Such as when a father and a fiancé pun on the word “samaan” (property, possession, thing, stuff) to refer to the woman they love and the luggage she has brought home from her travels.
Now in the roles of Mirza and Adil, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra had cast young Harshvardhan Kapoor (son of actor Anil Kapoor, brother of Sonam Kapoor, nephew of Sridevi Kapoor and producer Boney Kapoor, cousin of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh). Harshvardhan was a debutant so sweet of countenance, with eyes of such boyish innocence, that the Critic wanted to reach out and embrace him, and whisper, “Come child, I will protect you from this film. For it does look like you could be better employed.”
Some scenes hinted at a fluid face of a million possibilities, but for some reason Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra had given him an under-written role. He had little to say, the camera rarely dwelt upon his face and in his one big moment in the film, when he filled the screen and turned around to look at a figure of treachery, he deadpanned.
Saiyami Kher fared no better playing Sahibaan, but as Soochi, she got enough space to display her smart personality and innate pizzazz. Saiyami Kher, so the Village crier said, was the granddaughter of Usha Kiran, an actress of yore, and the niece of Tanvi Azmi.
Oddly enough, the central character written with most empathy was neither of these two, but Prince Karan. And actor Anuj Choudhry stepped up to the challenge, making a mark despite the frigid film within which he found himself.
Moral of the fable: all the packaging and grandeur in the world, all those artistically writhing bodies doing a sexual dance as a backdrop to Mirza-Sahibaan and Soochi-Adil-Karan, all those pretty costumes and young actors with potential, Shankar Ehsaan Loy and Daler Mehndi, they all add up to nought if the heart of your story does not beat.
Early on in Mirzya, a character quotes a moonstruck Romeo’s monologue on Juliet: “She speaks yet says nothing.” It is an unwittingly apt description of this film. It speaks, yet says nothing.
Ah that Wizard William, he whose works in which you will find passages relevant to every given situation all these centuries later.
The Critic thought: all is not lost, for in Harshvardhan Kapoor, Saiyami Kher and Anuj Choudhry, Mirzya has presented to us, three newcomers who may give the people of the Village great pleasure in the coming years; and forgiveness ought to be offered generously to the man who made Rang De Basanti.
So the Critic embraced that thought and slept peacefully that night, remembering that in the Village and in the Forest in every tale, they always all lived happily ever after.