One extra star goes to this poor ghost film only for Esha Deol's startling presence and sterling account of a woman whom love turns into a roaming spirit.
So let's raise a toast to the ghost. As the devilishly impish 'Darling', Esha flies high with her performance that has a kite-like velocity to it.
Esha has never pulled so many strings from her histrionic kitty. She brings depth, despair, pathos and humour into her rather hazily-written role.
Esha comes across hazily for more than one reason. Like in 'Aag', Ram Gopal Varma gets together with his over-experimental director of photography Amit Roy to shoot 'Darling' in a bluish lens-tinted light that covers the ghostly goings-on in a pall of gloom.
But Esha brightens up even the dullest frame. Not since Arjun Sablok's 'Na Tum Jano Na Hum' have we seen her seek such sensitive alcoves in her personality. Taking long, restless romps between frightful bouts of misadventures in cafes and cinema halls, Varma still manages to give Esha the camera space to convey the restless anguish of a woman scorned.
Restless, edgy and melancholic, Esha's eyes penetrate with unblinking pathos into Fardeen Khan's guilt-laden conscience. She whacks him on his shoulders and thighs, teases and torments him and turns her tortured personality into a treatise on jilted love.
It's hard to feel any sympathy for Fardeen's husbandly betrayals, especially since the actor is unable to come to grips with the more emotional moments.
When he whines, cringes and sobs in front of his wife, it's Esha silhouetted in the background, often with her head buried in her face, who catches your attention.
Esha apart, it's perhaps time for Varma to stop filling up the background of his frames with the same set of character actors, like Zakir Husain who plays the annoying hero's sidekick-friend.
As for Upayendra Limaye as the investigating officer, he does a cross between Chiranjeevi in 'Pratibandh' and Shakti Kapoor in 'Insaaf'.
It's also time the characters stopped looking so scruffy and casual in Varma's scheme of things.
And poor Esha! She wears a white kaftan throughout. The wardrobe lady never had it easier.
The first half has its bouts of genuine humour, especially in the casual way Fardeen frolics and flirts as though Sanjeev Kumar in 'Pato Patni Aur Woh' was his role model.
Varma has a keen eye for domestic details, such as the breakfast babble or the bedroom backchat. But Fardeen bonding with his little son is nil.
The film also gets a surprising quotient of romantic overtures hitherto unknown in Varma's dark, dry and dispassionate domain.
Watch Esha's pleading anguished eyes when at the end she tells her errant lover, 'Would you have married me if you were single?'
Love never stood a ghost of a chance in Ramu's cinema.
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