Why did Leela have an affair?
That and many unanswered questions plague Somnath Sen's film
If you thought Bollywood was the epitome of trite, formulaic cliches, you should see the new breed of NRI filmmakers trying to mix the ethos of mainstream Hindi movies with that of Hollywood.
Their brand of cinema, though still in its infancy, is already becoming predictable. What started off as a promising movement with Nagesh Kukunoor's Hyderabad Blues half a decade ago has now become a banal mass of work that refuses to move beyond the identity crises of second-generation Indians living abroad.
We have seen Bend It Like Beckham, ABCD and American Desi, all exploring the confused existence of NRIs struggling to strike a balance between their Indian values and the Western way of life they have adopted.
Somnath Sen's Leela is another one of these experiments trying to forge an uneasy alliance between East and West. The Bollywood elements in Leela include Dimple Kapadia, Vinod Khanna et al, token representation of Indian folk dances like the garba and a complete lack of logic. The American influence shows in the environment of total sexual promiscuity that seems to infect each major character in the film.
Leela Dehlvi (Dimple Kapadia), wife of philanderer poet Nashaad (Vinod Khanna), travels to America as a visiting lecturer of South Asian History. Krishna, who is more comfortable being called Kris (Amol Mhatre), is a student in her class and is being bullied by his American friends to try and lose his virginity. Kris is the product of a broken marriage and is not comfortable either with his over-protective mother Chaitalee (Deepti Naval) or his part-time father Jai (Gulshan Grover), who is now living with an American.
Nor is he happy with his American-Indian identity.
Kris gets drawn towards Leela while his friends challenge him to take her to bed. The young man accepts the bet. When he finds out that his mother is having an affair with an American behind his back, Kris leaves home in a fit of rage. His unsuccessful attempt at trying to throw himself at Leela causes much embarrassment and puts her off him as well.
Eventually, she comes around and resumes her peculiar relationship with her student, before the inevitable happens. Leela finds out that her husband (back home in India) is sleeping with another woman in their house and this 'shocking' revelation drives her to Kris's bed.
This event is supposed to be the high point of the film. The filmmaker and his characters are obviously moving towards it from the very first frame. Yet, when it happens, the whole situation lacks conviction.
Leela's conversations make it quite obvious that she is aware of her husband's promiscuous ways and has, in fact, lived with this knowledge for years. Yet she tells Chaitalee that she loves this man.
Why then does the realisation that he is cheating on her yet again shake her so badly that she decides to have an affair with a 19-year-old? Also, if Leela has developed special feelings for Kris, thereby making him a potential lover, it does not show anywhere in the film.
In most of their scenes together, she is shown narrating tales from great Indian epics and behaving like an indulgent teacher trying to comfort her disturbed student. One can understand why Kris gets drawn towards her, but her reciprocation of his feelings is totally irrational, at least the way it is depicted in the film.
When Nashaad comes to the US, Leela pushes him away and refuses to go back to India with him. She claims to have discovered herself and decides she does not need either Nashaad or Kris. She brushes off the latter because he too wants to 'claim' her as his own.
In which case, why did she have an affair with him in the first place?
Both Leela and Kris are shown to come out of the situation as much stronger individuals. Yet the entire transition looks so contrived that it leaves you totally unmoved. As does the film.
Among the few interesting elements in Leela is a beautiful ghazal picturised on Vinod Khanna and rendered exquisitely by Jagjit Singh.
The other definite plus is debutant Amol Mhatre's performance. He is completely at ease in front of the camera and has a charming screen presence. He looks every bit the confused American desi.
Dimple Kapadia, in her third role as an older woman having a relationship with a younger man (following Drishti and Dil Chahta Hai), looks very bored. Too much of the same thing, perhaps. Or maybe the fact that her character is so confusing that she herself couldn't believe in it.
Deepti Naval, on the other hand, is refreshing to watch. Hers is a far more spontaneous performance.
One cannot quite figure out what kind of audience Leela hopes to entertain. The masses are obviously out. The film is made in English, has no extravagance nor any Indian family values. The classes? Well, um, one would imagine they would go for something slightly less obvious and definitely more substantial.
The only thing that makes Leela bearable is its length. It is short. Sadly, it is not short and sweet.
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