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Love is war in Pankaj Kapur's Mausam, and this thesis is most manifest in a minor character named Rajjo (played beautifully by Aditi Sharma). Rajjo loves a neighbour – in other words, a man just across the border – but her desire for a longstanding bilateral relationship is thwarted when another woman invades his heart. This woman, naturally, becomes the enemy, and in a move worthy of a Cold War double agent, Rajjo grants her asylum – at a later point – and subsequently betrays her confidence. Rajjo, meanwhile, has made her peace through a meaningless treaty, a marriage, with another man, but like a homesick NRI, her heart still beats for her neighbour, with whom she has now established an uneasy dtente. She gets to voice this film's summing-up statement when she bursts into Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh, kahan shuru kahan khatam, a song from a film whose title could well be the story of Rajjo's life: Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai. The song speaks of a strange journey, with no discernable beginning or end, and that's what this film's posters promise: a "timeless love story."
If you think I'm reading too much into Rajjo, you haven't begun to scratch the surface of this narrative, which is a strange journey indeed, with no discernable sense of beginnings and ends. Mausam gets going in a quasi-realistic mode (in the sense that we are not thrust into the outr tableaux vivants that tip us off in, say, a Bhansali movie that what we're watching cannot be evaluated with the "realistic" yardstick) and ends under the light of the full moon, with the prince evading the ogres in the forest and crossing the river of fire (the inevitable evolution of the burning coals that formed the film's first image) and freeing the white steed and walking off with the princess towards happily-ever-after, finally liberated from the decades-long curse on their coming together. What a jaw-dropping (and frankly mad) conception this is, even if the execution leaves you wringing your hands about how much more wondrous this could have been. Mausam is a film where almost as much goes wrong as right, and the fatally lightweight leads don't have it in them to convey the bitter blight of a star-crossed romance, but the highs are breathtaking and you come away thinking that this is the most that could have been made of this story in the commercial climate of this age, that this imperfect film is the most perfect this moony material could be shaped into for today's multiplexes.
At least Rajjo's war is merely metaphorical. Harry (Shahid Kapoor) and Aayat (Sonam A Kapoor), on the other hand, are wrenched apart by literal warfare. Thanks to the Forrest Gump-ian whimsies of Pankaj Kapur's narrative, their story glides through the troubles in Kashmir, Ayodhya, Kargil, Gujarat – even 9/11. What conspires to keeps the lovers apart isn't parental opposition or religion but capital-F fate, whose idly malevolent presence isn't felt in the early scenes which unfold in Mallukot, Punjab, with the same pace at which life unfolds in Mallukot, Punjab. This is the most easily digestible portion of the film, and there's a fragrance in these mustard fields that we do not find in the overproduced Yash Chopra romances. Harry and his friends play cricket and chomp on sugarcane sticks and dream, lazily, about the future. The director establishes a wonderful sense of time and place and mood, casually hinting that this is a still a world when a professor named Bashir is an unquestioned part of the community, and even the smaller characters like Harry's sister and her London-returned fianc are memorably etched.
Their wedding is when the film begins to change gears, inching near-invisibly into the fantastic and the fabulous. As Hindu fanatics demolish the Babri Masjid, these winds of tumultuous change blow into this quiet and hitherto sun-drenched village – literally. Strings of wedding lights begin to sway in unexpected gusts and a storm breaks out and the wedding pictures have to be taken in shelters away from the rain. This is when I suppose you will decide whether to stick with Mausam or not, because the rest of the film builds ever-so-gradually on this hyper-realism until, by the end, we're completely snapped free from any sane semblance of "reality" (as we narrowly define it in the movies). Even the solidly geometric construction of the first half – first, she enters his life and vanishes without a word, then he enters her life and vanishes without a word – loosens gradually into a vaporous nightmare, and we feel we've lost sense of time and are trapped in a fever dream where all we hear are hollow echoes.
If I had to guess, I'd say that Pankaj Kapur's favourite writer is Marquez and his favourite filmmaker is Ozu. Mausam is suffused with Marquez-like (and Marquez-lite) longing, that dull ache brought about by too much love, and this sentiment – again – is literalised through a song, a classic ode to yearning from an older film, Abhi na jaao chhod kar. And from Ozu we get the dispassionate style and the emphasis on the before and the after but not the during. The big moments, the dramatic moments occur off-screen. The wars play out on television and in letters, and what we see is the effect of these conflicts on the lives of people. (It's like how Ozu dwells on marriage in many of his films, but we don't see the ceremonies the narratives have been building towards, but simply the befores and the afters.) When Harry and Aayat meet after seven years, we are not allowed the cathartic wallow through a melancholic song that might have telescoped the passage of these seven years, and instead we witness their parting and subsequently their reunion, where they talk as if they last met seven minutes ago. And later, when they are separated again and when her handwritten letters don't reach him, we are not shown the natural dramatic conclusion of this contrivance, where Harry would return to his ancestral home and throw open the doors and find these piles of communication and drop to his knees in shock and sorrow. We see Aayat writing out a letter. We then see, much later, a letter in Harry's hand as he tacitly acknowledges its role in his continuing separation from the love of his life. Hindi films thrive on the during, the big moments where big things happen, and Mausam walks away from these moments with practiced disdain. (The exceptions are a mistake, as when Harry is seen piloting over Tiger Hill, even if we're not shown actual warfare with enemies whose faces reduce them to real people. There's a reason Ozu never ventured much outdoors.)
That's why I think it's wrong to market these films like regular love stories with pretty people that young audiences relate to and swoon over. These are mainstreamed art films and when audiences are promised, through promos, some sort of commercially viableVijeta – which, though considered an "art film" in its time is much more accessible thanMausam, and it's a something of a crushing life lesson to compare the fragile Supriya Pathak from there to her mordant, matronly presence here – they walk in for a romance-infused tale of valour. And instead, they get this languorous odyssey through the mists of time, crossing continents and hinged on historic events, where televisions and trains are as much characters as the people inside them. (Several key moments in Harry's life occur on trains, most memorably one in which he thinks he has forever lost Aayat. At this point, you can almost imagine him in another movie and on another train, singing, wishing, praying, like Shah Rukh Khan did, Aayat ki tarah mil jaaye kahin…)
Shahid attempts to hide his boyish looks by slapping on a moustache and by sprouting a beard and by concealing the exuberant twinkle in his eyes behind Aviator sunglasses, but like his sylphlike co-star, he just doesn't age convincingly. We sense the passage of years in the narrative but we don't see it on their faces and in their eyes. But a bigger problem is that of mood. Every time the director cuts away to a foreign location – especially Scotland, with waltzes and the ballet and Mozart concerts that limit themselves to Eine kleine Nachtmusik – we embark on yearnings of our own, to return to India. This is the geography the director is most comfortable in, and these are the people he's most comfortable with (a special nod in Manoj Pahwa's direction), and the heart sinks when the film steps outside, where the happenings become quite risible at times. Couldn't the same plot about criss-crossed lives and fates been situated in various parts of our own vast nation? But hours after walking out of Mausam, I couldn't shake the film off. It's very problematic but it's also one of a kind, and I was thankful that, save for the odd shot of the shirtless hero meant to showcase his sexed-up star appeal, the film never panders or plays safe. If you go in knowing what to expect, you might be surprised at how unexpected a Bollywood romance can get.
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