Film: “Bas Ek Pal”; Cast: Urmila Matondkar, Sanjay Suri, Juhi Chawla, Rehaan Engineer and Jimmy Shergill; Director: Onir; Rating: ***Funny, this thing called life. It never fails to take you by surprise. Director Onir’s chamber piece, telescoping five intertwined lives in a lethal yet lyrical passion-play, is an original slice of art.
The voice of Onir’s reason is not incumbent on conventions of Indian cinema. Rather, this courageous filmmaker forges ahead with much the same convictions that manoeuvred his vision in that elegiac post-card from the edge of the conscience called “My Brother Nikhil”.
“Bas Ek Pal” opens and closes in a pub where the first of the many passionate encounters occur between the restless, violent and doomed characters looking for a place to rest their uncertain hearts.
When after years abroad Nikhil (Sanjay Suri) walks into the crowded place of pleasure, his life changes. He meets the mercurial Anamika (Urmila Matondkar) who teases, flirts and reduces Nikhil to a lifetime of slavery.
The passion underlining Nikhil’s undying love for Anamika also purports to underline the theme’s spectral content. But the swelling emotions don’t always make it into the frames. We often feel rather than see the acutely pained quintet of characters reaching out to one another across an immense gulf of pride and hurt.
All the characters are in one way or another linked with one another. Even the men, Nikhil and Rahul (Jimmy Shergill), share complex, ambiguous relationships.
In one notable moment of tormented confession, Nikhil tears off his shirt in front of the paraplegic Rahul and confesses he was raped in jail.
But the crime for which Nikhil went to jail is deflected to another even darker character, the spouse-beating Steve (Rehaan Engineer) whose heartbreakingly fragile wife Ira (Juhi Chawla) wants to leave him but can only be liberated in death (“Till death do us part”).
Guilt runs through the criss-cross of wounded relationships in this film of unstated recriminations.
Even the ostensibly free-willed Anamika opts for compassion (the crippled Rahul) over passion (the incarcerated Nikhil).
She silently suffers Rahul’s bitter taunts, just like Preity Zinta in Karan Johar’s “Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna”, though the relationship here is done in far darker tones.
One of the more absorbing side-shows in this drama of muted feelings is the dark undertones that are applied to every character’s conscience. None of the five protagonists is a happy person. None of them finds solace, comfort, let alone love, in his or her partner. They all seem to be driven more by desire per se than its fruition.
We often wonder what these characters would do if they actually found love! So driven are they by the search for love that they’ve forgotten where they’re heading.
The tone gets a shade darker with every sequence. In the later scenes, Nikhil becomes a stalker in Anamika’s life – he even does a kind of bizarre pantomime of a ‘b’ grade Hollywood slasher movie by describing every move of his object of desire on the phone.
The distinctly Shakespearean finale leaves three of the five protagonists dead.
We finally see Anamika and Rahul looking pensively into the great wide open. The contrast between human desire and nature is quaintly created in the end. But we never see the characters from close up. In their arching self-pity they all seem to be replicas of modern martyrs rather than those pragmatic metrocentric creatures, who treat the man-woman relationship as a means of keeping tabs on their heats and libidos rather than the conscience.
The swelling of a Shakespearean passion for Anamika in Nikhil’s soul needed to be mapped more meticulously. Tragically, the narrative is as restless as the characters. The quiet more thoughtful moments mostly emanated from Juhi.
You suspect the tranquillity around this battered character comes more from the actress than the editor (Irene Dhar Malik) who cuts across these disembodied lives with ruthless celerity.
Sachin Kumar’s camera captures the conflicts of the characters in striking silhouettes and dark contours. The hints and whispers created through the lens go a long way in detailing the inner world of the pain-lashed characters.
All five actors penetrate the heart of their characters. Urmila has never looked more tranquil in her torment, and Juhi uses her ability to portray hurt and guilt with minimum effort.
Among the male actor Sanjay’s eyes follow the course of his character’s destiny with pained transparency.
But finally we know little about them or their motivations. Conceptualised completely from the outside, the people who house Onir’s second film are driven down to damnation by their own desire. Their voyage into disillusionment has some wonderful interludes of introspection.
Check out Suri’s reunion with Urmila in the pub called Anti-Clockwork where they first met or the sequence where Jimmy tells Urmila he can’t make love to her.
To make love and to love, the physical and spiritual aspects of human passion propel the people in “Bas Ek Pal” to a rather macabre nemesis.
Starting off as an authentic take on urbane mores — the pub shootout where Rahul loses his legs and Nikhil his everything, echoes the Jessica Lal incident — the narrative gets progressively Shakespearean in tone.
The film is shot mostly in the night and towards the end, in the lashing rains, to create an aura of doom and pain.