August 19, 2011
Ram Gopal Varma
Mahie Gill, Deepak Dobriyal, Ajay Gehi, Zakir Hussain
All’s not lost. Ram Gopal Varma may yet be found. Not RGV of the Sholay remake infamy, nor he who has churned out more mediocrity in the past decade than we ever dreamt he was capable of, nor he who posts offensive comments on Twitter in what seems like a desperate bid for attention. No, the Varma that peeped through Not A Love Story is the one who gave us Shiva, Rangeela, Satya and Company. With all its flaws, Not A Love Story still had touches of that man.
The film, as you know, is “inspired” by the Neeraj Grover murder case. A quick recap of the facts. Maria Susairaj, an aspiring actress in Mumbai, gets involved with television executive Neeraj Grover who agrees to help her with her career. One morning, her boyfriend Emile Jerome Matthew arrives at her Mumbai flat and finds her with Grover. The two men get into a fight in which Matthew stabs and kills Grover. Then with the help of Susairaj, he cuts the body into several pieces and disposes of it.
Never mind Ramu’s sudden pre-release panic that led him to claim that Not A Love Story is only “inspired” by this real-life killing. The truth is that the facts of the case I’ve outlined above are the same as the basic storyline of this film. Mahie Gill plays actress Anusha Chawla who is desperate to make it in Bollywood. Her obsessive boyfriend back home, Robin Fernandes (Deepak Dobriyal) can’t understand why she won’t just give up after so many disappointments, and return to him. Anusha meets Ashish Bhatnagar (Ajay Gehi) through whom she is on the verge of getting her first break. Though there is no direct demand for sexual favours, Bhatnagar ends up in bed with her. When Robin unexpectedly lands up in the flat one morning and sees red at the sight of a naked Ashish, Anusha panics and lies that she’s been raped. What follows is mayhem, murder and a sensational cover-up.
Since the Neeraj Grover case has been widely reported in the press, I could tell you the rest of the story of this film and it would still not spoil the experience for you. Because it’s not the actual story but the way Ramu tells it that makes Not A Love Story an unexpectedly interesting film.
What I really really like about this film is its completely non-judgmental tone towards the two main players in the case, Anusha and Robin, although their prototypes Susairaj and Matthew have been crucified by sections of the Indian media and public who played judge, jury and executioner even before a judicial verdict was pronounced. Was Anusha an evil woman who deliberately framed Ashish to redeem herself in her boyfriend’s eyes? Or did she just lie without thinking in a moment of panic, the way many human beings do, causing circumstances to spiral out of control in a way she couldn’t possibly have predicted? Did Anusha sleep with Ashish because she felt sorry for him, or because she felt the pressure to please him to save her career, or out of sheer gratitude? At no point is Anusha painted as an evil scheming witch who would do anything and everything to fulfill her ambitions … though blaming a career-minded woman might have been the populist thing to do.
Equally interesting and courageous is the way Ramu has, in a sense, belled the cat without being harsh on Neeraj Grover who has been painted in popular opinion as a hapless victim of Susairaj and Matthew’s machinations, while the whiff of the casting couch in this case has been largely glossed over. Ashish from the film could not possibly have been so naïve as to not detect Anusha’s desperation for a break. But Ramu leaves it to us, the audience, to decide whether he was callously tapping into that desperation or he was also genuinely attracted to her?
The matter of factness of the narrative is the USP of Not A Love Story. It’s worthy of a special mention because Indian film makers tend to avoid making films on recent history and current events, and audiences seem averse to such efforts too. Well, if a real-life crime fresh in public memory is to be transferred to celluloid, then I guess this is the best tone to adopt.
The lead trio of Not A Love Story acquit themselves very well though Dobriyal deserves to be singled out for a nuanced performance. What does this film in though is the eccentricity that leads the director to use highly distracting and hard-to-watch camera angles and movements. At first, when his lens kept focusing on Anusha’s various body parts, I thought perhaps this was meant as a comment on the exploitative nature of the glamour industry that would be gradually revealed to us through the film. But when the focus then shifted – quite untitillatingly – sometimes to her knee, sometimes to another character’s shoulder, then it came across as mere idiosyncracy. It was not offensive or pretentious as much as ridiculously unnecessary, because elsewhere in the film Ramu actually managed to convey a sense of gloom, doom and foreboding in Anusha’s life through the same camera. The mood is further built up with the repeated playing of the title song from Rangeela, Ramu’s far more positive earlier take on the struggle to enter Bollywood.
Not A Love Story is not as graphically violent as you might expect – in fact, it’s far from being sensationalist in that respect. It was, however, hard to hold on to my concentration when I could feel a migraine coming on because of the pointlessly jerky camera. If, unlike me, you are not prone to headaches, do try to catch this unusual, experimental Hindi film that will remind you in part of the Ramu we all once loved.
Rating (out of five): **1/2
Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_A_Love_Story