November 3, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Dancing girl stays home and minds baby

For a reason that weighs all of 15 kilogrammes, we see films very rarely these days. So when we do manage to get away for one, we try to be selective, see something that's won some praise, had some interesting things said about it. (Maybe we shouldn't, but that's how it happens). In that spirit, we got away to see Chandni Bar.

"Gritty", "slice of life", "stark portrayal of reality", "depressing but true" -- these are just some of the phrases that I've seen applied to this tale of Bombay's dancing bar girls. True, it is some of all that, and for being so it rises above the more usual Hindi films that come our way. It is certainly an unusual film, one that gives you much to think about.

But for being so, it also ends up disappointing. Because it is not quite real enough. I came away with the disturbing thought that if this one gets acclaimed, the standards we apply to our films have sunk low indeed.

But first, reality. If Chandni Bar's portrayal of the lives of these beer bar girls is anywhere close to reality, it is a sordid reality indeed and it is good that a film holds it up to rub in our faces. Mistreated by men, pimped by husbands, periodically rounded up by the cops, gyrating every evening before a leering bunch of smoke-wrapped drunks -- this is no sedentary desk job at a Nariman Point high-rise that these girls hold down.

The sole uplifting feature of their lives is the camaraderie they develop with their dancing colleagues. Yet even that can bring dejection. For these girls, camaraderie also means commiseration, the only way they can unburden themselves of the miseries in their lives.

Tabu's Mumtaz is a wide-eyed, hesitant and painfully shy entrant into this world. But enter it she must. Religious riots in her UP village have driven her from her home all the way to Bombay. Once here, she is made to believe she has no choice, no other way of making a living in this big bad city.

Nobody goes hungry in Bombay, we learn with her, there's work for everyone -- but that doesn't mean it's necessarily work to suit your tastes. To a wide-eyed beauty from UP, gyrating at a beer bar may seem repulsive, but it brings in the money and that's what counts.

So she does it, though at no point in the film does she seem to be doing it anything but reluctantly. And misery dogs her every step of the way. The bar girl who first warms to her is pimped, even after a night's dancing, even while pregnant, by her own husband. Like her, every bar girl has some terrible history and Mumtaz quickly builds her own. She is raped, then forced to visit the bed of a vicious gangster; she watches him kill her rapist and then marries him [the gangster].

Two children by him, a comfortable home, and she thinks she has found happiness -- so we believe from her radiance during a visit to her friends at the bar where she no longer needs to dance.

But the troubles don't end there. Potya, the gangster-husband, is a doting enough father, but goes right on with his vicious, murderous ways that she would rather not know much about. Meanwhile, intricate dealings by powerful and shadowy men decide his life. Or death. Suddenly widowed, Mumtaz is devastated, but curiously doesn't seem particularly surprised.

Till that point, the film retains a sort of crispness and reality enough to leave you depressed, wrung out. You can believe that this is life in those innumerable corners of Bombay where The Bombay Times would be laughed at for the fantasy it is. You retain a sneaking admiration for the characters on screen: not the beautiful people, not the dregs, not people like me, but ordinary Bombay folks trying to live past this day, this week.

You live in this world by your wits and nobody else's. You're aware that the swaggering hero who can fix your immediate problem is himself a fawning supplicant who must beg favours from the thug one rung up in the ladder. And that ladder leads up to that place in the clouds where politicians, policemen and criminals are indistinguishable, where they play their cynical games with the lives of less exalted men and women and bar girls.

But from that point, Chandni Bar slips and slides through another hour of melodrama and misery. None of it adds any substance to the world it has already etched so well for us, and may even take away from that picture. And when the final calamity comes, you know two things: one, that you've expected it for many long minutes now; and two, you can finally go home.

That's one pity of Chandni Bar: that it leaves you grateful for having ended.

But there are others. The first time Tabu appears on screen, you see an insect crawling on her dress as she sits weeping at a UP railway station. The bug makes you think: here's an actress, a film that's unafraid to sacrifice glamour for reality.

But then the camera pans up to her face, and those perfectly shaped eyebrows, the perfectly tied pigtails, the general air of fussy neatness, firmly destroy that thought. This is a girl who has just escaped from a flaming riot in which she has watched her family burn to death. Could her makeup artist not have left a strand or two of her hair to float free? A stain or two to blot that lovely face?

As I mentioned earlier, Mumtaz never seems to be dancing at the bar anything but reluctantly. Whether that's because of the character Mumtaz is or because of Tabu's own inhibitions, it works well. But what makes you suspect the latter is her woodenness through most of the film.

The one time she is convincing is when she returns to the bar after her children are born: she positively glows with the joy of motherhood and the warmth she feels for her dancing girl friends. In the rest of the film, her face maintains a studied emptiness, and her sorrow and tears are never believable. Yet Tabu is one of our best actresses, and in fact is clearly superior to so many others.

The last hour really grates. Mumtaz's kids grow up far too fast, while she doesn't age even slightly from that time on the railway platform. They are unbearably virtuous, and Payal, the daughter, is played by possibly the world's worst young actress.

The son goes through a horrible experience and his smouldering desire for revenge is spot on. But as he leaves home in his silent rage, off to wreak vengeance, Mumtaz actually feels the gun in his waistband, asks him about it and tries to prevent him leaving. You'd expect to see her fighting to get at him as he stalks off, screaming to him to stop. Instead, this mother just follows sort of half-heartedly as her son strides through crowds to his moment of truth, calling "Abhay! Abhay!" because she's sort of expected to.

It's the weakest moment of the film, and the timing for the weakest moment couldn't have been worse, because it's also the end of the film.

Yet Chandni Bar has its redeeming bits and pieces too. Atul Kulkarni is superb as Potya, a fine combination of charm, ruthlessness, jealousy and a hair-trigger temper. The middle-level cops are also good, some reminding me of my own run-ins with their kind. [The constables, in contrast, are fawning duds].

Thankfully, the minor roles are not left to self-conscious twits who make you squirm as they "act". And the bar girls are no svelte ramp artistes: they are fleshy, ugly, buck-toothed and thus thoroughly convincing [Tabu excepted on all counts].

But the film is at its best when it makes you think, which it does at times. At one point, it offers an entirely believable explanation for so-called "police encounters". How close is that explanation to the truth? Should we be concerned about the police shooting dead people it then tells us were gangsters? Should the officers who do this shooting turn into Bombay Times celebrities?

All through the film, as I watched the dancing girls sway to and fro, I wondered: is this our culture? Indian culture? Why or why not? And right at the beginning, as the opening scenes unfolded, I also wondered: how many of our films tell us about riots between religions as just another thing that happens normally in India? Should we be concerned about what that very normalcy says about our country? Is it enough to say, as one character in Chandni Bar does, that riots are the work of "politicians" and they inevitably kill only the poor?

Make it an hour shorter, hammer the need to be believable into the heads of our actors and actresses, cut out the dramatics: do those things, and this could have been a remarkable film. Instead, we came home to our 15kg just slightly irritated, slightly dissatisfied, greatly disappointed. A commendable attempt has gone inexplicably, but perhaps inevitably, astray.

Which, come to think of it, is itself a slice of gritty Indian reality.

Dilip D'Souza

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