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Manorama: A well-executed thriller
Raja Sen

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September 21, 2007 12:04 IST

If great theatre can be timeless -- the Bard is freshly recycled on stage or screen somewhere in the world every single week -- the same must hold true for great cinema.

Following the thought that a fantastic screenplay is open to as much reinterpretation as a play, debutant director Navdeep Singh takes the tribute route by basing his first film on Roman Polanski's 1974 classic, Chinatown.

Small-town Rajasthan is no Los Angeles, and Abhay Deol is no Jack Nicholson. And yet Manorama Six Feet Under stands out as a dusty recreation of a superb film, crafted with earthy ingenuity.

For those who haven't seen Chinatown, this Hindi version is a strong, well-executed, tight thriller.

Deol's character, Satyaveer Singh, is built in distinct contrast to Nicholson's unforgettable JJ Gittes, a tough yet cultured and well-off investigator, while SV, when we first meet him, is a junior engineer just fired for having accepted a bribe. He's guilty -- the fee lies parked outside his house, on two modest wheels -- and a failed novelist.

His one attempt at a novel -- Manorama, the pulpiest of fiction with a lurid cover making the beautiful Hindi word 'upanyas' sound shameful -- sold just 200 copies. It is then that he sits and wonders what to do with his bitter, sarcastic wife (Gul Panag) and annoyingly energetic son when the door knocks and the femme fatale enters.

Only this isn't the stuff of Philip Marlowe. A soberly-clad Sarika [Images] breezes in and introduces herself as the Minister's wife, and says she needs SV to spy on her husband. Why me, the unemployed writer justifiably asks.

'Because in a town this small, we don't have private detectives. You're the closest we have,' she explains,' a writer who writes about detectives.'

And so it is that SV, tempted by unexpected adventure and a well-timed stack of banknotes, decides to go hide in the bushes and take a few pictures. As the noir genre demands, one thing twistily leads to another...

It's tremendously hard to discuss this film without constantly paralleling it with Chinatown. It's all there: the double-crossing, the false identity, the nose-break (though I wish Singh had himself jumped onto screen to slash it, just like Polanski's cameo) and the resultant bandage, the incest, the blackmail and surprisingly enough even the water issues, the original film being set around the California Water Wars.

Abhay is a candid, extremely credible actor. As is often with intelligent actors, he knows how to be natural without pushing for histrionics, and works the understated character perfectly.

Raima Sen [Images] is a strong actress, in an interesting role. Panag too is steadily finding her feet in the world of low-key cinema, played straight and fine. Vinay Pathak is solid as a liquor-friendly cop, but one laments his lack of screentime. Little needs to be said about Kulbhushan Kharbanda, the veteran still effortlessly able to toss an ice-cube at your spine.

The film is shot neatly -- goldfishes flit past eyes, nondescript checked-shirts blend into the sandy background -- with much grounded, rustic charm, and the pacing is good. The film, balanced on the edge of 'slow,' never quite loses the grip. And the end works.

Forget originality Jake, this is Chinatown. This is a noir tribute where fans of the original will have seen it all before, yet sit through this freshly-developed retelling with a smirk on their faces, the kind of smirk that understands why a Chivas and soda could work with daal-baati churma.

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