(2005) Shabd Reviews

Apunkschoice Review

Leena Yadav’s directorial debut Shabd defies the Bollywood stereotype by telling an unconventional tale of an author who prods his wife to have an affair with another man.

Starring Sanjay Dutt , Aishwarya Rai and Zayed Khan , Shabd is very much unlike the umpteen love triangle stories we have seen. It tells the story of a writer who is coming to terms with the failure of his previous book.

Seeking inspiration for the story of his next book, he encourages his wife to have an extra-marital affair with her college colleague. He wants to use real characters for his story. Little does he know that the stories in real life take unexpected course and have jagged ends. That is what happens to Shabd, and to its protagonist Shaukat (Dutt).

It is Sanjay Dutt who impresses in the movie with his meticulous and credible portrayal of an author, a ‘votary of the muse’ for whom nothing is important than his book. Dutt’s performance is intense and, at the same time, well controlled.

Aishwarya Rai looks beautiful and conveys the inner dilemmas of her character quite well. But her character could have been given more substance by not making her a mere subservient wife.

Zayed Khan is miscast in the role of a photography teacher who is enamored with Ash. Although Ash’s beauty is unquestionable, she looks noticeably elder to him.

All in all, Shabd makes for an interesting watch because of its bold and unusual story. The portions between Dutt and Ash are the highpoints of the movie. The cinematic presentation of the story is stylish but the songs are mediocre. And the much talked-about ‘exposure’ by Ash in the movie is decent and aesthetic.

Cinema India Review

Sometimes an interesting premise fails to carry a film to a luminous conclusion. “Shabd” has it all – a truly striking plot, great looking cast, terrific locations and mesmerising cinematography. Yet it misses the bus, stops short of delivering a genre-defying wallop in the jaded face of the box-office.

“Shabd” proves one thing for all times. Merely packaging a different plot in gloss cannot compensate for the absence of intrinsic credibility in the proceedings. Debutante Leena Yadav displays a flair for framing her shots in whispering silhouettes and hushed contours. Just what these hushed whispers are trying to say is not fully or even partially comprehensible.

The plot has just three characters. Unlike Aishwarya’s previous art house product “Raincoat” (also an intimate character study) here the incidental characters don’t fit into the narrative.

Caught between a critical snarl for his last book and a writer’s block, Shauqat (Sanjay Dutt) encourages his stunningly poised wife Antara (Aishwarya Rai) to get close to a colleague on the campus, so he’d have something to write about.

Far-fetched? Yes, for sure! The debutante director could nonetheless have infused enigmatic electricity into the unorthodox triangle, if only she had not made the film so heavy-handed and wordy. Every pause in the plot is filled with words of sighing ambiguity and every episode comes with italicised footnotes. Though relevant and insightful, the dialogues (by Sutapa Sarkar) simply flow in a suffocating spill over, so that you are never close to the three characters.

The words simply – or not so simply – come in the way. Sanjay and Aishwarya try to cross the bridge of verbosity and succeed to a point. Sanjay’s lined face and anguished demeanour lend a queasy grace to the self-absorbed and delusory world of the writer.

But it’s Aishwarya who surprises you. Never outside Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s cinema has she looked so ethereal, fragile and confident. To her role of a wife who becomes a casualty of a strange spousal mind-game, she brings a tight emotional craving to lunge towards a reality check. She’s all there…and yet lost!

There is a problem with Zayed Khan’s character and performance. Considering Yash is meant to be a lecturer in the same college as the writer’s wife and considering his presence is supposedly empowered by the writer’s imagination (or, at least so we believe since Shauqat keeps pounding on his typewriter to announce the Other Man’s manoeuvre), why does Zayed have to dress talk and behave like a camp carryover of his character in “Main Hoon Na”?

As a performer he’s fine as long as he’s funny. When he tries to be serious, he ends up being doubly funny.

Sanjay and Aishwarya carry the film towards a mellow and mature destination. Sanjay has a specially difficult role as a writer rapidly losing touch with reality. He lets his character’s pain show on screen without guilt or apology.

Beyond a point, the two principal actors fail to do anything with Leena Yadav’s tangled triangle.

“Shabd” is like an intricate jigsaw puzzle where the final picture doesn’t come together because there are vital pieces missing in the design.

Is Yash, for example, just a figment of Shauqat’s imagination? Why does Antara go along with her husband’s bizarre plans of thrusting her on to the young man? He suffers from a mental block. But what does she suffer from? A spouse scare?

In the absence of definite answers, “Shabd” ends up looking phonier than crisp currency bills packed in a game of Monopoly. Besides Sanjay and Aishwarya, the life-saver is Aseem Bajaj’s cinematography. Though a little too showy to be fully effectual, the artwork (Omung Patel) and the photography tend to lend a dazzling array of slick images to a film that is otherwise quite empty at heart.

Planet Bollywood Review

With all the attention so squarely focussed on Sanjay Leela Bhansali´s “Black,” chances are Leena Yadav´s “Shabd” will be overlooked by its intended audience of intelligent movie-goers. Much of the fault for this lies with the film´s awful promotional campaign, for selling what is essentially an off-beat character study as a sleazy thriller. That said, it´s really the audiences´ loss in this case, as Ms. Yadav´s progressive debutante effort is as subtle, articulate, and thought-provoking a film as the Indian cinema has seen in recent times.

“Shabd” is not really about marriage or extra-martial affairs, and to concentrate solely on this aspect of the film is to miss the point almost entirely. Yadav´s film is, at its core, a cautionary tale about the struggle between an artist and reality. The artist is the novelist Shaukat Vashist, portrayed with uncompromising brilliance by Sanjay Dutt, and his art is his literature. The film opens with some background information; Shaukat won the Booker Prize for a fantastic first novel, only to be universally panned for a second novel deemed too unrealistic and fanciful. Since the debacle of his sophomore effort, Shaukat has suffered a maddeningly brutal case of writer´s block.

The block is shattered when Shaukat is struck with a compelling vision of his muse. He decides he must write on the theme of all-consuming, forbidden desire. Even with this theme, Shaukat finds himself unable to come up with any sort of coherrent narrative. Frustrated, he begins to seek inspiration from his own life. At first, Shaukat goes about this task innocently enough – asking some suggestive questions of his loving wife Antara, played to perfection by Aishwarya Rai, and his household maid, and so on. But as his narrative begins to fall into place, Shaukat´s zeal grows. He begins manipulating his well-meaning wife into an intimate relationship with another man, simply for the sake of fueling his imagination. As Antara´s relationship with that man, a young photography professor Yash, spirals out of control, Shaukat´s unorthodox methods force him closer and closer to madness.

All this, because the artist refuses to yield to reality. That the reason for the failure of Shaukat´s second novel was its being too unrealistic is crucial here; as he becomes more and more involved in writing his third, the lines between fact and fiction become blurred for Shaukat Vashist and he deludes himself into thinking that he holds the same power over the real world as he does over the worlds that exist in his written works. So when Antara´s extra-martial relationship doesn´t quite play out as Shaukat expects, he´s forced to either come to grips with reality or lose his mind completely.

“Shabd” is a character study of an artist who becomes inappropriately obsessed with his craft and allows it to consume his life. Antara´s affair is symptomatic rather than causative; its intended to illustrate the toll Shaukat´s madness is taking on his dutiful wife, who´s patience and loyalty he exploits repeatedly. Most of the scenes between Antara and Yash fittingly conclude on an ambigious note because the point is not whether or not something will happen, but that something could happen, and Shaukat would stand idly by if it did.

The choice to leave those scenes cryptic and inconclusive is one of many examples of Yadav´s excellent command of the medium. Along with her crew (especially cinematographer Aseem Bajaj, who had previously done a spectacular job in Sudhir Mishra´s “Chameli,”), Yadav seamlessly weaves form and content to create a film that´s as compelling a technical feat as it is a conceptual one. The sequences that stand out are numerous. In an early scene where Antara and Shaukat debate whether or not she should indulge Yash´s romantic interest, Bajaj frames the shot from behind a doorway that perfectly centers Antara and blocks all of Shaukat except his hands – the hands that we see in extreme close-up, time and time again, as he types away at his new novel. The argument taking place isn´t between husband and wife, but between Shaukat´s obsession with his craft and his marriage.

To say that Sanjay Dutt and Aishwarya Rai, who show some amazing chemistry here, have done outstanding work in the film is an understatement. Dutt´s work here easily ranks among his best performances, and is a welcome change of pace from his underworld characterizations. Shaukat is a fully-rounded, well-developed character and Dutt flawlessly relates the writer´s entire gamut of emotions. From proud and powerful to vulnerable and tortured, Dutt is a knock-out scene for scene. Rai follows up her superlative turn in Rituparno Ghosh´s “Raincoat” with another extraordinary performance. The manner in which she expresses Antara´s frustration and confusion is astounding. Her choices as an actress here are very deliberate; she´s carefully calculated her glances, her mannerisms, and her delivery, and the result is a performance that never falls short of arresting.

Zayed Khan´s performance, on the other hand, must be tallied with the film´s list of flaws. Khan´s performance is shallow, uninspired, and repeatedly fails to convince. He seems to be trying desperately to copy Shah Rukh Khan´s style, but it doesn´t work. It doesn´t help that he´s a poorly written character and the situations surrounding his appearance in the plot lack development. In a film urging the need for realism in fiction, is it really fitting to have a romance develop over a couple of tired sardar jokes? Similarly, the songs by Vishal-Shekhar are well-composed but out of place in this dramatic piece.

The greatest shortcoming, however, is the film´s tendency to alienate audiences; the script raises far more questions than it cares to answer. Though subtlety is welcome in an industry where melodrama is the standard, it should not come in the way of neccesary plot disclosure – and in “Shabd,” it does. Scenes towards the film´s conclusion are especially frustrating as they begin to reveal some of the mysteries of the plot, only to get bogged down in heavy-handed circumlocution.

There´s quite a lot of admire about Leena Yadav´s debut effort – the daring concept, the striking visuals, the skilled filmmaking, and the accomplished acting from Dutt and Rai. But, in the end, these positives only serve to underscore the extent to which “Shabd” is a flawed and imperfect shadow of the great movie that it could have been.

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