Warning: This piece contains plot spoilers
There is a school of thought that believes that the true measure of whether a movie is great cinema or merely passing fare is whether or not there is that one screenshot that captures the ultimate essence of the entire film; one that becomes the leitmotif of the film. Hindi cinema has several such moments - scenes that have become emblematic of the film as a whole, as well as signposts along the filmmaker's career. Scenes such as Waheeda Rehman sleeping on the couch in Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Nargis hunting for food in the mud in Mother India, Manisha Koirala's burqa snagging on a tree and her flinging it aside in Bombay.
And today, I saw a similar scene - when Mira threw off her odhni in Dor.
One of the smaller, lower budget movies of the year, Dor is the latest offering from Nagesh Kukonoor, Indian cinema's NRI engineer turned India-returned filmmaker. After giving us some seriously low budget films like Hyderabad Blues, Kukunoor's growing stature has given him more funding, while each successive film has shown his maturing into a talented filmmaker.
Dor, is his most mature & well crafted movie. Compared to the raw amateurishness and boisterous enthusiasm (coupled with the pretty stilted acting) of his earlier ventures, his latest cinematic venture is a brilliantly executed work in understated, subtle film making. With a low-profile but competent cast, some extremely simple but powerful landscapes, and a very tight script, Kukunoor delivers a film that is worth seeing several times.
The film traces the journey of two women, Zeenat (Gul Panag) from Himachal Pradesh, Mira (Ayesha Tankia) from Rajasthan, on their journeys of separation, loss, friendship & liberation. Both women are married to husbands whom we see leaving for Saudi Arabia at the start of the movie. When it emerges that while in the Gulf, Mira's husband has died, ostensibly at the hands of Zeenat's husband, one woman is widowed while the other is left knowing her spouse is to be executed for murder. Zeenat's only hope is to obtain a pardon from the victim's wife, and for which she undertakes the arduous journey to the desert state to track down Mira and convince her to sign the pardon.
Dor has been labelled a feminist film, in the sense that the narrative is entirely focused on the two women who are central to the plot. From the start through to the end, the male characters in the film serve only to progress the plot, but are also merely incidental to it. Kukunoor almost takes Thelma & Louise and injects into it a distinctive "Indian-ness", in terms of aesthetics, plot as well as character development. Both Zeenat & Mira face very different circumstances, both from their western counterparts as well as from each other, differing in language, religion & perspective, but each is ultimately Indian. Kukunoor fleshes out the disparities between them easily, both through narrative and cinematography - Zeenat & Mira are as different as their respective homelands of verdant Himalayan mountains and the arid Rajasthani desert, but this difference does not detract from their instant recognition of a companion soul in the other.
Kukunoor also manages to inject his story telling with a healthy dose of cross referencing to mainstream Bollywood, lending a unique intertextuality to Dor. Several references through dialogue, many of them to contemporary films like Munnabhai MBBS & Bunty aur Babli, and the use of Hindi film songs (You are my Soniya, Kajra Re) also help Kukunoor develop aspects to his characters that would have been challenging to flesh out otherwise. You can immediately recognise in Mira every small town girl that learnt the steps to famous songs, to be performed at family festivals in front of cousins and at wedding sangeets, while the Behroopiya's mouthing of filmi dialogues marks him out in five seconds as that small town performer who entertains in villages with his impersonations. Furthermore, this intertextuality is both a testimony to the over-arching influence of popular cinema in the lives of millions, as well as a fitting tribute to Bollywood. Kukunoor has done well in not going down the route of many "auteurs" who look down on their mainstream counterparts; on the contrary, he uses them intelligently to sustain the sparseness of his own narrative.
The film thus etches the characters of Zeenat & Mira as much through dialogue & situation as through visualisation and imagery. If Zeenat's overt fearlessness, but inner hesitation, is most clearly etched out as she stands cornered by two men in a doorway, silently clutching a small stone to defend herself, Mira's tender innocence is seen most clearly as she dances quietly in a dusty alley to You Are My Soniya, dressed only in the dull blue of the widow. Later, her distress at having to take a decision that affects another human's life, when she herself has been denied the freedom to make decisions about her her own life, is beautifully acted out. Kukunoor chooses to utilise all the elements of cinema at his disposal, rather than relying only on verbalising everything that is to be portrayed. Thus, we see Mira's desolation in her clutching a pink shawl retrieved from her deceased husband's belongings, while Zeenat's independence is seen in her striding confidently through mountains on her own, unaccompanied, to go visit her in-laws or work on her house, hammer in hand.
This, then is what good cinema is about. This is what we have expected from our new breed of directors but have not seen much of until now. Kukunoor is to be lauded on reaching a stage of maturity in his film making through a relatively brief filmography. From Hyderabad Blues to Dor, he has crossed a big gap and has given us one of the best movies of the year, if not decade. Dor is a tribute to the strength of the individual will to make its own decisions and bear their consequences; to the power of humanity and to the complexity of human relations. This is a definite 6 out of 5 - go watch it or you'll miss out on some of the best cinema in years. And when its out, go buy the DVD and watch it again.
A final comment on the closing sequence. Kukunoor's intextuality continues, with a tearful departure on a small train station. Zeenat is leaving, and takes with her Mira's pardon. Unlike when Mira's husband was going, this is a solitary departure, alone, without the strictures or support of family ties.
Here, we are treated to a scene of greater pathos - Mira hands the pardon to Zeenat through the grilles of the train window. With that pardon, she hands across not only her forgiveness, but her desire for revenge, and in a sense, her one and only friend. For surely a married Zeenat will leave her to her own private desolation? What we see instead is a desi version of Thelma & Louise, with Zeenat holding out her hand for Mira to catch. But in this case, because this is a Hindi movie which is to have a happy ending, we are not looking at two friends about to drive off a cliff, but at two friends who are looking into the future.
It is virtually impossible to not think of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, when Simran must beg her father to let her go with Rahul. Unlike Simran, Mira must not beg for freedom from her constraints as personified by anyone; her boundaries are made amply clear to her in her own widow's garb. Seeing in front of her a future, a life and a friendship, Mira chooses to run and board her own life.
And as she does so, she lets her dull blue widow's odhni fly away.
Images courtesy Apun Ka Choice