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Raincoat - Playacting in love: Review

Rituparno Ghosh's maiden Hindi film, "Raincoat", is not quite about memories as it is about deception in love. Manoj walks into Neerja's Kolkata home on a rainy afternoon in a raincoat to meet one who was once his lover in Bhagalpur. A little later into the movie, Neerja walks out in that raincoat to buy some food for him. The film's title emerges from these two acts, although one could not quite understand how the raincoat forms the centrality of the theme. Admittedly, it contains a certain key that helps Neerja to see through Manoj's little yarn of lies, provoked partly by Neerja's own tale of makebelieve and the man's misunderstanding of the woman's wealth and comfort. So, one presumes that this is the inspiration for the title.

For a little over two hours, Ghosh keeps his audience engrossed in a movie that is essentially a chamber piece, and one which weaves a narrative with just two characters in most of the frames. This has been achieved, one would suppose, through some unlikely dialogues hardly ever heard in common Bollywood fare.

But, a greater grip over viewer attention has been attained through some good acting styles. "Raincoat" can easily be Aishwarya Rai's  career best performance, and as Neerja, the former beauty queen appears to have shed her inhibitions about looking unglamorous. In fact, most of time, Rai looks quite plain (and about time we not remember her as Binodini in Ghosh's earlier work in Bengali, "Choker Bali", where Rai's failure to look her part as an early 19th century widow partly destroyed the very essence of the film). What is more, she seems to have made an earnest effort to emote, using less of her body and limbs and more of her face, and eyes in particular.

Aishwarya Rai and Ajay Devagan

The second half of "Raincoat" highlights Ghosh's sensitivity, and, yes, courage as well to give us a work in Hindi without the idiocy of garish colours and the boring rituals of song and dance. The movie journeys from the coasts of the present into the deep bowels of nostalgia to ferret out moments of great expectancy and articulate narrative patterns. It is a character study of two derelict lives playacting for one another'’s benefit. The plot and its unfolding are extremely Chekovian. Not just this, one could even notice a touch of Ray in "Raincoat" in the scene where Neerja begins to shut the windows. Does this not echo one from the master's "Charulata".

Yet, Ghosh is perfectly capable of spoiling a great moment: when Neerja weeps in Manoj's arms, he quips that this is what happens when one watches too much of soap. A poignant occasion is wasted, and Rai loses a wonderful opportunity to metamorphose her role into something remarkably memorable.

Ajay Devagan as Manoj is well Devagan himself as we have seen him in an umpteen number of parts earlier, although Ghosh draws the actor out of a certain woodness that he is known for. It is through him that Ghosh's work begins to resemble a typical Shakespearean tragic comedy, where the film's characters put up a show of grandiose existence, while in reality both lead wretched lives. Even in the end when the raincoat helps establish a modicum of truth, no effort is made by either Manoj or Neerja to drop the facade they have created ostensibly to make each other happy.

Abhik Mukherjee's camera helps to keep this bleakness alive by capitalising on shadows rather than on light, implying the sadly extinguished world of Neerja. Annu Kapoor who is just brilliant as the cameo landlord appears as a single source of light to chase away misconceptions. Even when they melt away, Neerja tries to hide behind them, keeping alive the illusions that in the first place estranged her from Manoj at Bhagalpur.

Ghosh's "Raincoat" coming after a string of rather mediocre movies deserves to be commended, and all the more so because of the director's bold move to shift from his familiar Bengali lingo. One suspects  Ghosh makes up for this by setting his story in Kolkata, even though it has been largely shot indoors.Yet, a certain refreshing Bengali simplicity runs through the frames enriching the visual appeal of "Raincoat".

Yes, there are times when it sags, and one begins to feel that Ghosh has run out of ideas, but even then "Raincoat" has the power to engross us. Recommended with minor reservations.

(This review appeared in The Hindu dated December 31 2004)

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