The happy part about commuting to the tail end of Mumbai to catch an afternoon show is being allowed to watch it undisturbed. So when I turned up hot and sweaty in a cool, dim Malad theatre to watch Dance Like A Man, I was glad there was just me, a couple of chirpy grandpas and grandmas forsaking their siesta, and a gaggle of chirrupy Mallu aunties -- to see Shobana chechi, you know (say that in God's own accent for effect).
They must have had their fill. Were it not for Shobana's presence, they would have nodded off.
Shobana plays Ratna, a Bharata Natyam danseuse with lofty dreams who has ended up a few rungs short. For most of her life she has tried too hard. An ambitious and plucky Kannadiga, she married Jairaj Parekh (Arif Zakaria) for the love of dance. Her husband once celebrated her, encouraged her art and kept in step with her dreams.
To his authoritarian but benevolent father Amritlal Parekh (Mohan Agashe) the ghunghroo-donning Jairaj is not man enough. His obsession with dance, a woman's business, embarrasses him. He wishes he would earn a livelihood, but Jairaj is content to join his wife in her dance lessons.
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When they are past their prime, Ratna turns her attention to her daughter Lata (Anoushka Shankar). She becomes her dream deferred. Lata's arangetram, her maiden Bharata Natyam recital, is Ratna's life mission. She wants the event to launch her daughter into the portals of fame and grandeur that she had to forfeit. But there is also a dark, guilty secret that gnaws at her.
Lata, who is the glue that holds her parents together, has just brought home her boyfriend Vishal (Samir Soni), who can't tell mudra from rasa, to meet her parents. Just then, a crisis breaks. Thus begins the film.
Pamela Rooks' Dance Like A Man is based on playwright Mahesh Dattani's script and shot entirely in his hometown Bangalore. It should make a Bangalorean like me nostalgic, if only it had avoided clichés like the Vidhana Soudha for location -- the film opens with one -- and the Lal Bagh glasshouse for romance (I can tell you about places to romance in Bangalore, with birds and bees and peanut vendors in full attendance).
While the script has its moments, the accents are
Shaky performances and rather inane casting foul the narrative. Shobana, for the most part, holds her ground. She is immensely watchable and expressive up close, and fluid and graceful in the dance sequences. As a harried, menopausal mom with bouts of nerves she is convincing but her character often runs out of energy. Her connection with Anoushka is warm but her youthfulness tends to betray her; she seems big sisterly rather than motherly.
Arif Zakaria must be commended for dancing in step with Shobana in the choreographed sequences, but otherwise he disappoints. His face is nearly immobile and he is wooden and staid, traits he could have used creatively in fleshing out his character. He interacts weakly with his co-stars, Anoushka in particular. His makeup sits weakly on him and he says his lines like dialogue delivered for the stage. On film, they look over-improvised and clunky.
Anoushka Shankar is nearly invisible. Although the film centres on her arangetram, she seems distant and barely involved, merely visiting the frames fleetingly. Her character suffers no stress and as a result does not evolve. As a dancer she is unsubtle and ungainly.
Samir Soni tries too hard to be sweet and uncomplicated but ends up flat and colourless. In the film, both Ratna and Jairaj describe him as 'strange' but he does nothing extraordinary to live up to it. He and Anoushka share a clumsy chemistry and look very awkward while romancing. Their kisses, in particular, could have been avoided -- both kiss like first-time teenagers with free vouchers for a lip-locking course.
Mohan Agashe delivers his performance with the virtuosity of a seasoned hand. He inhabits the frame well. Though his close-ups are meaningful his role is poorly sketched. It relies on flimsily structured dialogue. For instance, his signature of power, his big black chauffeur-driven Mercedes, could have been used to greater effect. There is more tell than show, and it shows.
More attention could also have been paid to the minor characters -- the cook, the ayah and the driver are all invisible.
For one who has won awards for her previous films (Miss Beatty's Children and Train To Pakistan), Rooks shows little virtuosity in storytelling. The cinematography is lacklustre and the editing slack. A tribute to Bharata Natyam is befitting of a much larger canvas, and Dance Like A Man sadly lacks it.
The sound design is thoughtful, restrained and pertinent. Ganesh-Kumaresh's violins are a fitting accompaniment to the dance sequences and the choreography, though marred occasionally by unimaginative lighting, is competent.
An Indian film in English set in India always enters the proscenium with inherent disadvantages. It must be colloquial yet rise above regional slang. There is no standard in spoken English that encompasses the pidgin spoken around the country. It has to be urban, yet steer clear of being too urbane. Few films of this genre are comfortable in their skin. Not many recognise that there is English with Mumbaiyya, Madrasi, Malayali, Bengali or Bihari inflections, and fewer have exploited the cultural variety of such subtleties.
Dance Like A Man can be lauded for trying, though it could have done much better to rise above the bookishness that often hampers the script.
That said, Dance Like A Man deserves more than the 15-strong audience that watched it with me today. Don't be irked by this review. Before you scribble your comments banishing me to hell, watch the film. And then, only then, bring out your knives. I'm game for a joust.
Cast: Shobana, Arif Zakaria, Anoushka Shankar, Mohan Agashe, Samir Soni
Director: Pamela Rooks