Cast: Ashish Bisht, Raveena Tandon, Arpita Chatterjee, Simon Frenay, Sanjay Suri, Areesz Ganddi
Midway through Onir’s Shab – which can best be described as a low-functioning (alternate) Life In A… Metro (which itself was a high-functioning Madhur Bhandarkar film called “City”) – there occurs a deliberate sequence that informs us about the film maker’s reactionary sensibilities. The young wannabe-model protagonist named Afzar (a sincere Ashish Bisht) is in the midst of typical small-boy-in-big-city turmoil. He is torn between two women – a high-society Delhi cougar (a suitably understated Raveena Tandon) and a modest Bengali café waitress named Raina (Arpita Chatterjee) – and has almost compromised on his principles by “partying” with a drunken gay fashion designer.
He runs out dramatically, down a rainy street, aching to burst into tears. At one point, he stops and screams out aloud, turning his face to the pouring sky – a quintessentially mainstream “meltdown” moment. Before the music takes over, a pavement dweller sleeping on a cart by the side interrupts Afzar’s cinematic cries. He tells him to shut up and let him sleep. Afzar walks away quietly to live another day.
This sly shoot-down of genre is in perfect sync with the kind of low-key anti-world Onir explores in most of his films. Here are characters and faces forever on the periphery of our senses and cameras – the society-labeled “pariahs” who co-exist in a sort of alternative lifestyle bubble often glamourized crassly by commercial Bollywood fare.
By normalizing their status into the realms of sexuality-tiding human relationship dramas, Onir often turns his gaze onto the careless stereotyping that makes it difficult for those like him to channel his voice through films. Shab, therefore, has a weather about it, occurring over the city’s three seasons; it flits between ambitious Afzar’s core-defining experiences and other introspective personalities (a gay café owner/chef, Raina’s gay French expat neighbour) who’re perpetually in conflict, struggling to move on from their own demons.
Which is why I find it very strange that Onir then chooses to highlight the “feelings” of some clearly personal storytelling with Mithoon’s brooding soundtrack. This sort of sound and treatment is at odds with the silent pain and progression Shab’s climate-integrated participants naturally imbibe. They don’t need a score to tell us what they’re going through. They barely need lines. This is a pity, because none of their temperaments assume caricature-ish traits, and yet the language driving them along is distinctly filmy – and all too familiar.
While everyone is broken in their own way, it’s interesting that the heterosexual characters are the ones who’re flawed by their own accord, and are offered no real closure. Redemption is an impossible curve for them. Some of the economical musical montages heighten proceedings into the brand of sensationalized headspace we don’t expect anyone but Afzar to recognize. But his time is so unevenly divided between love and ambition that it’s hard to invest in the continuity of his scattered journeys, and consequentially, his eventual destiny.
Most of the film’s primary visuals of longing symbolically occupy the artistic quiet of dark candlelit rooms, while a journeyman-ish indie guitar score serves as transitions between the occasionally hasty narratives. Things wrap up in a hurry, too; resolution is fortunately a subjective concept in this quasi-angsty section of borderline civilization.
The maker knows the type of people he shows us. He has been there. There is a certain level of authenticity about the words they speak and the hurt they feel, and the kind of urban corners they discretely occupy. It isn’t their existence that catches our attention, though. They subvert our gaze onto broader and more “generic” problems – that of greed, lust, power, stability, grief and companionship. If only someone like that no-nonsense street-dweller had interrupted Onir’s indulgent flights of fantasy and told him to buckle down, too. Shab would have truly been all about the night, then.