“Life is full of sniffles, sobs and smiles. With sniffles predominating.”
― O. Henry, ‘The Gift of the Magi’
Some stories hurt you in the best way possible – they twist your lungs till you are gasping for breath, and still you yearn for beauty in the pain. And the director, Rituparno Ghosh, surely knew something about pain, abundantly palpable in his life and his films.
Led by restrained performances by Ajay Devgn as Mannu and Aishwarya Rai as Neeru, Raincoat is a re-telling of O.Henry’s short story, ‘The Gift of the Magi’. An unemployed Mannu travels to Calcutta from his hometown in Bhagalpur to arrange for funding to finance his new business. Staying with an old school friend, who’s now a successful TV producer, Mannu feels uncomfortable ‘begging’ his former classmates for money but unfortunately lacks an alternative. On this trip, he sets out to find Neeru, his childhood sweetheart who deserted him seventeen years ago for a ‘better man’ who she believed would give her a ‘better life’. Armed only with an address and a borrowed raincoat from his friend, Mannu steps out one rainy Calcutta afternoon in search of his Neeru.
Mannu ends up in a dilapidated part of the city standing in front of an equally rundown house, and the woeful woman who answers the door is but a shadow of the vivacious young girl he once knew. He finds Neeru alone in the house — her husband is away, and the multitude of servants have time off, she insists — she’s positively giddy in her life, she insists. Taking a cue, Mannu models himself after his friend and pretends he’s a successful TV producer and is soon to marry a woman arranged by his mother. They trade memories and talk about everything and nothing. Then, while Neeru goes out to buy lunch and leaves Mannu waiting in the house, an apparent stranger, played by a delightful Annu Kapoor, steps in and strikes up a conversation with Mannu. Gradually, the final act of the film unfolds, and the terrible ravages of truth emerge, soothed only by the charity of love.
As with Ghosh’s Chokher Bali, Aishwarya Rai shuns her usual immaculate movie makeup and plays Neeru as a curious mix of child and temptress, driven by capricious moods but ultimately broken inside. Ajay Devgn is equally impressive and the scene in the opening parts of the film where he almost breaks down in the bathroom with his face covered in shaving cream will haunt you for a very long time.
Raincoat demands to stand on its own but can be said to be akin to the popular Before Trilogy – with far less walking. Something about this film feels distinctly Parisian. The estranged lovers reminisce about their youth and exchange falsehoods, attempting to recapture their past while protecting their fragile sense of ego in the ugly present. And Ghosh had always known how to set the mood. If there’s an object in the film that is as central to the narrative as the serendipitous raincoat, it is the house. The gloomy house, crowded with archaic furniture and fittings and tightly shut windows can be seen as a metaphor for the protagonists’ inner turmoil – their hearts are full, suffocated, and threatening to burst under the weight of their throttled aspirations and memories of lost love. The constant that runs throughout the film is the rain pouring outside, with interludes of Shubha Mudgal working her magic in the background. The music and the sound design by Ghosh’s frequent collaborator, Debojyoti Mishra turns the entire viewing experience into an immersive affair. The film frequently oscillates between the past and the present, juxtaposing scenes that drench you in deluge of melancholy and longing that Mannu and Neeru so desperately try to conceal from each other. The tone of the past and the present are sharply contrasted with the play of light: the flashbacks are bathed in a positively golden glow and the present, in harsh streaks of anguish.
Raincoat won’t ‘entertain’ you – it was never meant to. It speaks of a more-bitter-and-less-sweet romance with a despairing sort of beauty. If you ever plan on watching it, for maximum impact, watch it amidst a torrential mid-summer downpour, wrapped up in the safety of a warm blanket and ask your long-lost love ‘piya tora kaisa abhiman’. And after you are done, read ‘The Gift of the Magi’ on a subdued Christmas eve.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.