Arjun Rampal takes another step towards stardom in a stylish but dramatically uneven film by the great cameraman Ashok Mehta.
Vikram Saigal (Arjun Rampal), an idealistic lawyer, is disgusted with the System and the way it helps only the rich. He wants to start a service that will help the poor get legal representation, and his girlfriend Ritika Sanyal (Manisha Koirala) is with him wholeheartedly. Not having the funds for such an enterprise, he sets off on a path that will make his life very messy, what with plans for a bank robbery, implication in a murder, and courtroom drama galore.
A little while into `Moksha`, you see the hero`s face in a close-up. He`s just gotten wet in the rain. It`s a black-and-white shot and the camera lingers so lovingly on his face that you can see even the single drop of water at the end of his tousled hair. You think what a beautiful photograph this would have been in a fashion glossy. You also wonder at how little this image contributes to the narrative and sticks out like a sore thumb, lasting longer than it has any right to.
This is how much of the film is. A collection of devastatingly beautiful images in search of a narrative that will sustain such beauty. It`s not that cinema cannot function as just imagery, without words. But there has to be some coherence, with either the words or the images supplying subsequent bits of information to give you a seamless picture.
The screenplay alternates between two narrative styles, the self-consciously arty and the prosaic. In the former category, you have Vikram`s family scenes that are played out like those commercials in which everyone emotes a bit too much with the sound of a jingle in the background. There`s a deliberate pause at all times, as if director Ashok Mehta wants us to not just take in the dramatics but also admire the admittedly great job he`s done doubling as cinematographer.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have realistically filmed scenes like the flashback which explains why Vikram hates practicing law, with blessedly down-to-earth folks like Farida Jalal and Saurabh Shukla. These scenes are a welcome splash of reality even if nothing`s really new. At least, they seem honest.
This split personality of the screenplay affects the performances. Arjun Rampal is getting better with every release, even if he tends to gesticulate too much in his emotional scenes. He brilliantly brings out the dark side of Vikram in a sequence that has him accost a rich acquaintance for money. But mostly, the character of Vikram comes off as a dilettante. Ritika hits the nail on the head when she accuses him of always looking for the easy way out. You seldom sense a raw hunger in him as he spends much of his time doing rich-kid things like riding or admiring paintings in a museum.
Manisha is good in her serious scenes, but her cute act with Arjun at the beginning and later with her Nani (a very spry and fun Sushma Seth) is really grating. Plus, she gives a scary demonstration of playing a piano. With his booming voice, Suresh Oberoi is very convincing as Vikram`s father. And several character actors -- Danny Denzongpa, Paresh Rawal, Naseeruddin Shah, Sulabha Deshpande -- strut across the screen in cameos.
Mercifully, the tunes by Rajesh Roshan are used sparingly, with the `Seep mein moti` number wonderfully realized. The background score by Sulaiman and Salim Merchant also does a great job of informing the mood of scenes.
As cinematographer, Ashok Mehta pulls out the stops. Like `Hey Ram`, this film uses a sepulchral black-and-white tone for its present sequences while the past is shown in colour. And what breathtaking colour that turns out to be, whether in a striking underwater sequence or in shots of a field with yellow flowers and golden-brown stalks in the background.
As director, though, Mehta doesn`t impress as much. He does pull off some deft touches and you can really see that he`s trying for something different. A painting of two lost souls in a desert begins the Vikram-Ritika love story and also represents the trajectory of their life. Another nicely executed idea is a surreal dream sequence, with blood and flying currency notes, which gets replicated as reality by the end.
But there are too many picture postcard breaks describing Vikram`s condition in the film, when a couple of sequences, like when a preoccupied Vikram drives away in his jeep forgetting his dog behind, would have sufficed. There are also some unwelcome overwrought elements -- dialogue like `is keechad bhare mahoul mein kam se kam ek kamal to khila` or the sequence of Suresh Oberoi killing his own horse because it was in pain -- that seem more at home in some screaming sixties` melodrama.
There`s an irony somewhere in a crusading lawyer getting involved in a bank robbery, but the film isn`t interested in it. Similarly, the notion that reality means different things to different people is bandied about a couple of times but isn`t taken anywhere.
Where`s the time, when you have to fit in scenes of the hero splashing his face with water and then, as in a shampoo commercial, shaking his hair in slow motion?
Watching `Moksha` is like flipping through a glamour magazine. Everything is lit just so and art-directed just so. If you are in the mood for a visual treat, there`s nothing around that comes close to it. But if it`s a taut film you`re after, that`s a different story altogether.
This review was written by Baradwaj Rangan. If you have any comments on this review, post a message on our message boards or write to: email@example.com