Somewhere deep within the corroding flamboyance of filmdom, there is a tale of heartbreaking compromises and immorality tucked away from the naked, tearless eye. Madhur Bhandarkar nearly gets to the nerve centre of that world, and then pulls back just before he's really gotten there.
"Heroine" is an intriguingly unfinished film - partly in the rapidfire mood of a game show and partly like an elegiac melody played gently on an antique piano with immaculate fingers. It lacks a centre, sometimes even a focus as it tries to cram in too many incidents, episodes, scandals, controversies and plain absurdities that are an integral part of Bollywood, so much so that the first hour or so gets suffocatingly airtight.
And then you realize towards the end, that the world of the superstar Mahi Khanna traps the star, makes her a puppet of success, traps her in a web of deceit and finally throws her into a whirlwind of vaporous deceptions.
We see Mahi, shattered forlorn and bereft, trapped in a car surrounded by merciless television journalists. As the haunting background score by Salim-Sulaiman builds up to a shattering crescendo, Mahi's hands fold together in a plea of mercy. In moments our hearts bleed for Mahi.
God help those who are cursed with stardom. They first have to struggle to get there. And then they must continue to fight to cling to their place. And then, as Govind Namdeo playing Mahi's quietly faithful secretary tells her: "An actress' life-span is by its very nature limited".
Not that we haven't heard such wisdom on the show world before. The dialogues could have been far more powerful. Instead they try to shock with a casual candour that fails to ignite the scenes.
Kareena Kapoor in the best performance of her career so far, leads Mahi's character through the murky labyrinth of ambition, rivalry and self-destructive tricks of survival in the rat race. Though her character is inconsistent (suffering, we are told, from bipolar disorder or is it just the writer's vagaries?) Kareena furnishes the heroine's character with a rare vulnerability and an exceptional inner life.
In the film's rawest moments when the star's mask peels off completely, Kareena's face shows that stricken expression of naked panic and abject solitude that one last saw in the performance of Tabu in Mira Nair's "The Namesake" after her husband's sudden death.
Stardom kills you bit by bit. Kareena bravely undertakes Mahi Khanna's perilous journey from the top to the bottom of the star-ladder. This is Kareena's most fearless performance to date.
Interestingly this is the second film in three weeks where a desperate falling star resorts to the dirtiest of measures to retrieve her stardom. Raaz ki baat to yeh hai ki "Heroine" sidesteps all the cliches of the film industry even while plonking the plot pat into those predictable places.
So does Bhandarkar's film exaggerate the sham that underlines the shindig of showbiz? The answer is, yes. "Heroine" is guilty of gross excesses. There are too many unnecessary characters,specially in the first-half bustling around in clumsily staged ramp shows, awards functions and filmy parties claiming our attention.
Once Bhandarkar and his co-writers Manoj Tyagi, Nilanjan Iyenger and Anuradha Tiwary get over their look-we-know-showbiz-in-and-out fetish, the narrative finally settles down to telling us Mahi's story vis-a-vis the two men in her life, the star Aryan Khanna (Arjun Rampal) and the cricketer Angad Pal (Randeep Hooda).
Though Rampal's character reminded me of Arbaaz Khan in Bhandarkar's "Fashion", both are characters despite their uni-dimensional nature and are brought to life by two of our most interesting actors today.
At least three other stand-out performances that burnish Bhandarkar's flawed but fabulous film are those by Divya Dutt playing Mahi's ruthless business manager who occasionally surprises herself by feeling real emotions for the fast-fading actress, Ranveer Shorey as the eccentric egomaniacal arthouse filmmaker from Bengal and Shahana Goswami as Mahi's Bengali co-actor in one of the film's finest episodes when Mahi, in a defiant attempt to show she is star who can act, has a disastrous trust with realistic cinema.
In fact, Shahana and Kareena share some of the film's most special moments. Bhandarkar over-juices some of the film's sensual possibilities, under-develops some of the more engrossing characters, for example the yesteryears' star played by Helen.
The love-making scenes are done fitfully and hastily. And the dialogues (most of them sounding profound without actually meaning anything really substantial) are spoken by the actors in the tone of a radio play.
But "Heroine" still works, and works wonderfully in some places. There's an inconsistency to the storytelling that works effectively in putting the protagonist's deeply flawed and fractured character into a pulsating perspective wherein we can no longer distinguish between the fatal flaws of the main character and the action and reactions that have been written to define her flawed existence.
You come away from the film haunted by Kareena Kapoor who plays the disembodied diva with devastating honesty. Bhandarkar rips into the artifice of showbiz with vigour and tenderness. Like its heroine, the film is flawed, but also bewildering, beguiling and yes, beautiful.