Since I saw Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s haunting Guzaarish on Saturday afternoon, I have not been able to get Ethan Mascarenhas out of my mind. (Read my initial review here.) Hrithik Roshan was superb in the role of the paraplegic man and I’m glad a lot of the press coverage of the film has focused on that. However, I am less charmed with the media (and blogosphere) reaction to a couple of other things - that it’s a [trite] “story about loving life” OR that’s it’s insulting to handicapped people because it says they should all commit suicide. Either way, they are finding it overly manipulative.
(There are also the same old charges that the film is a “copy” of some movie that most of the audience for Guzaarish - including me - has never seen. Does something being a “copy” automatically make it an invalid work? That is a question for another day.)
Before the film came out, I assumed (wrongly) that it was going to be yet another story like Mili or Kal Ho Naa Ho featuring a magical dying person who teaches everybody a valuable lesson on loving life. I’m not sure how much of my tastes you have taken from previous reviews but I am not a fan of films like that. “Learning to love life” is a lesson only the privledged classes can afford. Wallowing in ennui and searching for soul mates are the domain of the idle (See also: Wake Up Sid and Dil Chahta Hai - two films I love, before you yell at me!). And I have little patience for that kind of thing. Thankfully, and much to my surprise, this was not the territory of Guzaarish.
Ethan Mascarenhas is not a magical dying person. He is a magician and his health is failing but what impressed me most about his characterization is that he is just a person. Hrithik does a magnificent job conveying this. There are numerous scenes with Aishwarya where he lashes out at her or orders her around - scenes where Ethan seems like a big jerk. And all credit to Hrithik, he plays it exactly like Ethan is a jerk from time to time. Ethan has learned patience but it was thrust upon him and it’s not a natural - or comfortable - fit.
When the film opens, Ethan has been paralyzed for 14 years. In that time he has started a radio show (“Radio Zindagi”) and written a book on hope - he has lived the life of a good example and it hasn’t been enough. Ethan reaches out to his radio audience to ask for their support in a petition for euthanasia but the responses he gets are negative. People want Ethan to stay alive because he is a symbol of hope. It doesn’t matter how Ethan feels - the symbol can’t die. The audience wants a Magic Dying Person to make them feel better about their own petty troubles and the man gets forgotten.
If anything Guzaarish refuses to comment on the idea of loving life or living with hope and instead makes a case for being a grown-up. The world isn’t always sunshine and lollipops and sometimes it really sucks - really, really sucks - and magic or hope won’t make it better. The childish (or child-like) answer is to hope. (“Gosh, I hope things improve. Oh Lord, please help things along!”) The adult response is to accept the suckiness of life and move past it. We see this again and again in the reactions of Ethan and his friends. We see Sofia the nurse going against her Catholic beliefs say is right in theory to do what she comes to believe is right in practice. We see Ethan’s doctor and lawyer decide to go act against what they want for their friend. In the court case, the opposing lawyer even asks the good doctor if there is even a single chance - the slightest hope - for a recovery. The doctor admits that there is but that the chance is much too slight. Hope just isn’t enough.
Tied into all this suffering are the images of Jesus Christ on the cross. I’ve long been fascinated at the non-Christian world’s take on Christianity. (Perhaps setting the film in Goa was a way for SLB to take advantage of the rich Catholic tradition there.) Ethan is Christ-like but the Christ in question is the man Jesus Christ, the one we see in Jesus Christ Superstar and not the mythic and judgemental figure of other times and places. When Caiaphas asks Jesus Christ if he is the son of God in Jesus Christ Superstar, the man replies, “"That's what you say, you say that I am." And Ethan Mascarenhas is just as frustrated as his audience’s desire to see him as a symbol and not a man.
Ethan is not perfect and he’s not holy. And, importantly, he is unwilling to forgive certain sins committed against him. Judas gets no relief.
Another interesting tension with the Catholic faith was that Ethan says at one point that he doesn’t want to live a life dependent on machines. He is already on dialysis and may soon require a ventilator. These artificial means of extending life are encouraged by the Church, even as they chide him to follow God’s plan and not to take his own life. This inability to accept death as a natural part of life - the cruelty of extending a life past its due date - is laid bare.
For all that Guzaarish is a SLB film, it is as wonderfully subtle in the characterizations as it is wonderfully opulent in the visuals.
Finally, to address the criticism that the film is somehow demeaning to those who are handicapped. I would ask what is more humanizing than for a paraplegic man to be depicted as a man who knows his right mind - as a man with sexual impulses (even if he can’t act on them), as a man who can be at turns thankful that he has friends to depend on or frustrated that he must depend on them, as a man who can fall in love and who can be fallen in love with. Guzaarish exquisitely depicts Ethan as a man - not a symbol of hope, not a Magical Dying Person, and not as a case study in why we should engage in eugenics.
Guzaarish is the story of a man who wants to grasp back control of his life before it escapes him.