Mausam arrived in theaters on September 23rd after a long, difficult production process. For over a year, those of us who follow the industry news have been hearing stories of onset injuries, troubles between the two leads, delays caused by weather, and, last week, delays caused by the Indian Air Force. Not to mention the tensions that must have risen from the stormy relationship between father and son, working together for the first time. Mausam seemed to be cursed. Could actor turned first time director Pankaj Kapoor handle this sprawling film? Would the off-set drama negatively affect the on-screen drama? And what did happen to that horse?
When I’m going to see a film that has just been released, I rarely read the reviews beforehand. I don’t like to have my expectations colored by somebody else’s experience - especially when that “somebody” is a critic who viewed the film in a press screening in the middle of the day on a Wednesday and with an eye to furthering their own agenda, whether it be showing off voluminous knowledge of film technique or demonstrating superior taste by jumping on (or off) the latest bandwagon. Recently it seems that the only film that will please this small minority of viewers is one that is put together in Hollywood-style middlebrow realism, with every filmi touch covered in visible air quotes. (Think of the Disco Uncle song in Delhi Belly.) Quite a few films I really enjoyed have been slammed by critics for being melodramatic, over-the-top, or just plain stupid - three charges were leveled against the lovely Mausam.
The melodrama charge was flung at Mausam like a pejorative by more than a few reviewers, even those who gave the film fairly decent scores. But what is the melodrama they find so loathesome? Melodrama is drama that is written to evoke an emotional response from the audience. It’s not written for logic or for cleverness or for originality (although it doesn’t need to exclude those) but the main goal of a melodrama is to get the audience to feel something, collectively. And what’s wrong with that. Well, to pull a quote from a great blog post on the topic:
Twentieth century critics have taught generations of students to equate popularity with debasement, emotionality with ineffectiveness, religiosity with fakery, domesticity with triviality, and all of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority. (Jane Tompkins (1985), Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, quoted by Christine Gledhill (1987))
This nasty strain of Western critical thinking has affected more than a few reviewers looking at popular Hindi language film.
But back to Mausam.
The film opens in the Punjab. We meet the carefree village boy Hari (Shahid Kapoor) who enjoys nothing more than hanging out with his gang of friends and trying to make life interesting. He has been waiting for two things - his letter to join the Air Force and a girl to fall in love with. While the first is on hold, the second comes strolling into this life in the form of delicate Aayat (Sonam Kapoor, no relation). The two fall in love; Hari’s adorably clumsy attempts to woo Aayat elicit shy glances and an infectious giggle. Unfortunately, things don’t quite work out and the film follows the lovers as they are reunited and separated and reunited and separated through the years, from Edinburgh to Ahmedabad, torn apart by violent events and brought back together by fate.
I’ll start at the obvious place - Shahid. I’ve had no doubts about Shahid’s ability to carry a film on his own since seeing the delightful, if very silly Chance Pe Dance. Sometime in the last couple of years, Shahid has really figured out how to grab and hold the camera (let’s all just pretend the abysmal Badmaash Company never happened) and Hari is a wonderful character for us to see his charms. Hair is a dreamer who literally wants to have his head in the clouds... as a pilot. He’s not interested the mundane things around him, even when those mundane things come in the form of the reasonably cute (and excellent sweets maker) Rajjo (Aditi Sharma). Aayat is not just a new face in town, she’s been marked by tragedy and exists in the same dreamy space as Hari. They fit one another in a way the mundane Rajjo can’t figure out.
As Aayat, Sonam Kapoor is able to put her fragile looks to good purpose. Aayat is a refugee from Kashmir who, as a Muslim, is constantly on the run from communal violence. We see her praying, dancing, and daydreaming. She also lives with one foot off in the clouds, presumably in a happier place where she doesn’t have to run from crowds carrying flaming torches every few years. As Aayat, Sonam’s hollow eyes reminded me of another young survivor - Audrey Hepburn, so gaunt and hungry, who famously lived through World War by making flour out of tulip bulbs.
Aayat loves Hari’s zest for life and Hari loves Aayat’s otherworldliness. And nobody else can compete with that. This bond is the main thread that ties the film together but the leisurely pacing of the film gives the romance room to breath and lets us feel what Hari and Aayat are going through; we long for closure to the romance as much as they do.
But there is more going on than a romance in Mausam. The film is packed with memorable characters who fill village scenes with mirth (including the always welcome Manoj Pahwa) and add pathos to scenes of sadness (including Anupam Kher, who is always welcome when he’s not in comedy uncle mode). Their little dramas added so much to the film - Hari’s tubby friend Dippe getting married; Aayat’s cousin moving to the United States; Hari’s sister’s (who is this actress because she was EXCELLENT) long distance relationship; Aayat’s father’s best friend suffering a loss... they added a nice depth and gave the romantic melodrama something to be contrasted against.
The characters give us a personal stake in the tragic events swirling around Hari and Aayat and that’s what good melodrama is supposed to do. The communal violence and war depicted in Mausam isn’t the heroism and politics depicted in films like LOC Kargil nor is it the jingoism depicted in films like Border. Pakistan is the nameless enemy; communal violence is perpetrated by nameless mobs - not individual people. And of the myriad of problems that Hari and Aayat face, their religious backgrounds is pointedly not one of them.
It’s not the story or characters on their own that make Mausam such a compelling watch. Pankaj Kapoor has scaled his film for the big screen, movie theater experience. It’s a larger than life film that needs to be seen in a larger than life form - and in a format that doesn’t allow for easy distraction or fast forwarding. A lot of the smaller moments of a film like Mausam would vanish if the viewer’s attention was half on Twitter or Facebook. And the visuals are designed to be see BIG, whether it’s a rain-soaked rooftop meeting or a village fete.
As for the rest - the music was lovely. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for a while and the songs felt well placed. The costumes were beautiful, especially Sonam’s Anthropologie look* in Edinburgh. The outdoor locations added a lot to the very organic feel of the film. And the dancing was, thankfully, all Shahid. Sonam has many talents but dancing is not one of them.
All in all, I was very satisfied with my Mausam experience. The film isn’t perfect by any means. It does drag a bit during the middle of the second half, although it immediately picks back up again once the action moves to Ahmedabad and the final sequence, which begins with the Dandiya and continues to the nail-biting climax was pure bliss. Some of the filmi medicine was silly and I did wonder what happened to Uncle Macho (Anupam Kher’s character) but, all in all, it was a highly satisfying film. And I’m not too proud to admit that I had some tears trickling down my cheeks by the end.
If this is the kind of film that Pankaj Kapoor can make, I say... bring it on! I’ve seen some wonderful melodramas out of the South Indian films industries - like Madrassapattinam - but Bollywood in recent years has let it’s focus narrow and run time shorten. The sprawling, epic, emotional melodrama had all but vanished. I hope Mausam is a signal of the genre’s rebirth and not a beautiful swan song.
* I was amused at the thought that Pankaj MUST have gotten Sonam into those plain outfits early on by bribing her with divine outfits later in the film.