[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for reviews of the SAIFF slate. You can read all of our SAIFF coverage here.]
I think I'm getting softer as I get older because I'm starting to appreciate melodramas. Not all of them, just the ones that are well-made. The better melodramas maybe have just a tinge of irony to them, but that wink to the audience isn't so blatant. These better melodramas also try to hit something more substantial than mere sensations of love and loss. Sure, they can be cliched and they might be contrived, but a good melodrama is about the way common experiences can get bent up and stretched to enhance the rhythm and oomph of an emotional chord.
To use another analogy (just as nonsensical), melodramas might be a bit like Silly Putty -- you copy an image from real life and then stretch it out. When the stretching works, the image is retained and enlarged with the proportions mostly intact. The synthetic membrane, which is not torn or broken, allows a kind of light to show through the image. I think Paanch Adhyay (Afterglow) doesn't tear even when it gets sentimental or soap opera-y, because the film understands what it is and what it's doing.
Paanch Adhyay (Afterglow)
Paanch Adhyay opens with a lines from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's an exchange between Joel and Clementine about their relationship. Even though the source isn't identified, it works in the way epigraphs should work -- it doesn't matter if you know the reference because the lines have meaning independent of the original context. The lines also work on different levels in the context of this film. There's some connective tissue between the both movies that has to do with time, relationships, and romance. It's one sort of subtle wink. (If I had to compare the two movies, Eternal Sunshine is far superior, but that's not really fair since it's one of the best movies of the 2000s. The two films, while thematically similar, are nothing alike in terms of plot and content.)
We open with a chance meeting and a seduction that's suave yet a little clumsy. Two strangers at a party: Arindam (Priyanshu Chatterjee) who modifies his drink order once he notices Ishita (Diya Mirza). There are little references to James Bond and reincarnation, but Arindam is pulled away just when he's getting somewhere. Ishita keeps popping up in his life, and he follows her as if in some trance. Arindam is a director and knows how to mold situations and people to his will, and Ishita is a teacher who seems lonelier than she ought to be.
Their story unfolds with a few songs, playing out like a charming, lushly saturated romantic comedy. The two seem destined to be together, and there's a genuine sense of attraction every time Ishita and Arindam are together. I probably would have been content had the movie remained a story about these two would-be lovers and their Begali fairy tale. But Paanch Adhyay twists the narrative in an interesting way without tearing the melodramatic membrane.
A new chapter of the story begins, and we don't know quite where we are in the story. There's Arindam again, clean shaven this time. He's working on a feature film rather than a commercial. He looks lonely and there's no sign of Ishita in his life. It's hard to tell if it's the past or the present or the future, but the charm of the film is still there. Arindam casts Ranjabati (Sampurna Lahiri) as the lead in his latest film. She's an undiscovered ingenue who doesn't have any life experience or acting experience. It's a perfect chance at love for an older man, though it sounds callow and a bit creepy -- predatory, wolfish. He's a director, though, and he gets what he wants.
One of Arindam's assistants says they're trying to cast their own black swan for the role, which explains the Natalie Portman eye make-up. The movie they're making is more like a low-rent Twilight riff, and their immortal vampire is sort of an anti-Pattinson in a funny way. There are other little movies references that creep in, like a V for Vendetta print in Arindam's home, ditto a print for In the Mood for Love. Bela Tarr gets name checked, and there's a reference to other Indian films of the past. I wish I knew more about Indian films because there's a wonderful recreation of and immersion in some older Indian movie. It's romantic and heartbreaking.
The remainder of Paanch Adhyay is about whatever happened to Arindam and Ishita and what that means when Arindam has to deal with his feelings for Ranjabati. It becomes less of a rom-com at this point and more a relationship drama mostly from Arindam's point of view. People fall in and out of love for their own complicated or selfish reasons, and we watch them try to rationalize it. There are moments of observation in the film about the nature of relationships. One character asks if relationships can age, isn't it possible for emotions to age as well? And so we get to see what time can do to emotions. There's also a little advice about love in the film which starts poetic but then becomes a limerick thanks to the last line.
There are some very broad gestures and plot shifts in Paanch Adhyay which though contrived didn't undermine the film for me. I was probably won over with its winks, and also by the fact that some characters are downright awful and unapologetically so. If love turns us into fools, falling out of love or being involved in difficult loves turns us into wretched jerks. It's only human, really. But even those big, super-melodramatic reveals are bolstered by subtler moments, like how a song playing in a scene can change the meaning of a digital picture frame in the background. The slideshow may be in focus or out of focus, but the tone gives insight into the internal life of the character.
There's a Gustav Klimt painting hanging on the wall of Arindam's apartment. I've always found a lot of Klimt's paintings melodramatic, but I sort of like them. Those little shining sections, the geometric color, the impossible curve and arc of the bodies. These are people reshaped by the trappings of melodrama in order to express that dazzling beauty, sensuality, and romance of a given moment. It's these sorts of gestures in Paanch Adhyay that make potential schmaltz seems earnest. There -- whether it's floating lights or a bridge or a picture frame -- is where the essential light shows through. It's stretchy rather than sappy; that's when moments are illuminated and magnified.
[Paanch Adhyay (Afterglow) will screen at Chelsea Clearview Cinemas on Saturday, October 27th.]