Director: Vikram Bhatt
Cast: Shama Sikander, Vipul Gupta, Veer Aryan, Aradhya Taing, Parina Chopra
There was Yash Chopra, who made an entire love story around the romance of “Maya” – meaning illusion or magic, subject to its context – in Dil Toh Pagal Hai. By casting an ethereal Madhuri Dixit as the manifestation of playwright Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘homely’ desires, Chopra had opened us kids up to the purity of giddy PG-13-flavoured metaphors. Now there’s that man Vikram Bhatt, a filmmaker who, when not fulfilling the role of B-grade Hindi cinema’s self-proclaimed horror king, insists on ‘evolving’ bravely with the changing world and its sensibilities.
Not for the first time though, as has always been the case with brazenly commercial directors, the idea is somewhat right, but the execution is frightfully wrong. Not ironically, this could just be his scariest effort yet.
His ‘Maaya,’ thrust into carnal existence by a rather dated Shama Sikander, far from Indian mythological origins of Goddess Lakshmi and the kind, tilts towards its traditional Japanese connotations: true design. It is true to its blissful lack of design. His Maaya, to put it simply and subversively, is a sex-chat handle – a Mumbai-based submissive who decides to get into a risqué extramarital arrangement with a dominant she meets on a BDSM website (named ‘Skin,’ of course). The contemporary Hin-glish language web series, six interminable episodes down with presumably a few to go, is more than fifty shades too frayed.
The idea is fairly relevant, though. Many new-age millennials perhaps relate to this alienated chat-room culture – or maybe just the basic culture of escaping into a lifestyle routinely labeled as ‘the dark side’. Mental demons, physical inadequacies or, at times, plain curiosity (which will never be explored on screen, because there must be an entertaining “reason” for abnormality) result in unconventional, frowned-upon bedroom behavior.
Bhatt’s intention, as expressed through some badly acted monologues, is to ‘normalize’ alternate sexual preferences and erase popular stigma. Why call it ‘pervy’ when it’s exciting?
Bhatt’s intention, as expressed through some badly acted monologues, is to ‘normalize’ alternate sexual preferences and erase popular stigma. Why call it ‘pervy’ when it’s exciting? He wants to challenge hypocrisy by calling it out; yet, instead, he preaches kinkiness instead of presenting it. He ends up shoving the morality of threesomes and pleasurable punishment down our throats, pun intended, instead of merely having us ponder upon the validity of personal choices.
Opportunities only exist for those who choose to recognize them. Exoticizing an already-exotic choice is fine, but Bollywoodizing it is unpardonable. Not surprisingly, he does it through counterintuitive storytelling – shiny glorification, tragic backstories, lilting Arijit-ish ballads, titillation (no CBFC guidelines online, yet disclaimers exist; ah, old-school Bollywood), deviously lit angles, laughable existential conflicts, vengeful side acts and raspy ‘bold’ dialogues.
The first episode begins with Sonia, the titular protagonist, slamming her fists on a door screaming: “Rahul, I know you’re in there. Open the door!” I should have known. I was being warned, in no uncertain terms, that I, Rahul, would be the one running away from this show and locking myself in solitary confinement by the end.
As it turns out, despite visible signs, she doesn’t have asthma, like Bhatt’s breathless heroine (Ameesha Patel) seemed to have in Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage; this is his ‘language’ of panic attacks. Or in this case, nervous breakdowns accompanied by Bollywood’s old favourite condition, Retrograde Amnesia.
Read this term in a quasi-serious doctor-ish accent and you’ll know everything there is to know about a scriptwriter’s perspective on medical research. And if Sonia has any more physical or mental problems, she would do well to donate her body to science. It would’ve helped to just saddle her with an ‘urge’ to be different and follow her calling, but no, they give her a wooden loveless husband (Veer Aryan, another Ashmit Patel with a funny voice) and some very airheaded friends.
This husband is also a neurosurgeon, with a psychiatrist ex-girlfriend who overpopulates the crowded plot; at one point, he is overheard explaining to senior doctors that the human brain is ‘complicated, like a computer’. No questioning his professional credentials then.
As it also turns out, Rahul (Vipul Gupta) is the dominant chap, who is already stuck in the murky potboiler world of murder, deceit, evil politics, vengeful bitchy spouses who smoke to demonstrate instability, and rich power-drunk father-in-laws. As the story painfully (not in a nice way) unfurls its whip on us over garish 23-minute episodes, we see what brings us to this incoherent point.
It doesn’t help that the title-credits song is something on the lines of ‘take me higher, take me closer’ and every episode has at least one branded Face Wash ad interrupting our viewing experience.
Rahul is an architect stuck in a ‘vanilla’ marriage with his moneybags wife, has her father as his boss, and so turns to the internet to recapture control – quite literally. He finds Maaya on there, who he convinces to turn to him (“I’m a good guy. In fact, I’m an architect”) because she is already spouting deep facebook words like “I’m a sock without a pair that matches. I’m useless alone” or “I’m just existing, not living.”
We get it – she wants something she is too ashamed to have, but do we really need to have a bunch of 18-again mannequins looking into space? Even worse, every face converses in voices that reverberate through time, a treatment usually reserved for eternal voiceovers and flashbacks. As a result, one wonders if all of them are simply ghosts communicating in a parallel universe. After all, Bhatt’s Haunted-3D did have a ghost violating another ghost.
It doesn’t help that the title-credits song is something on the lines of ‘take me higher, take me closer’ and every episode has at least one branded Face Wash ad interrupting our viewing experience. In hindsight, these are the most cinematic parts of each episode. And no matter what any character is feeling or screaming or moaning or saying, it always ends with a tragic song leading us over the end credits, before Bhatt appears in flesh, all suave and tastefully grey (get it?), requesting us to like and share the video.
To put it bluntly, Bhatt’s stuff could well be porn skits, and he will find watchers because this is a nation full of folks in the mood to do things.
Vikram Bhatt, as is evident here and everywhere else, seems to be a director happy enough to express himself according to the whims of popular sentiment. He makes movies (‘content’ in this case), but perhaps only for those who want to see certain things, not those who care about how he does it. Filmmaking isn’t so much a skill as it is a wonky instrument to play in a village roadshow for him.
To put it bluntly, Bhatt’s stuff could well be porn skits, and he will find watchers because this is a nation full of folks in the mood to do things. He will experiment a bit, and even come up with the odd brave device, but won’t bother with the vagaries of his craft. The Lokhandwala-ness of his actors, production design and writing is of little consequence to him anymore, as long as he gets sex and zombies on our radar. The artistic part, of course, is left to our imagination – when it should in fact be the other way around. Maaya, not his last foray into the increasingly abused crevices of the World Wide Web, is an ominous and smutty clarion call, reminding us of the brand to follow.
Rahul, don’t open the door.