Melodrama as a genre in Indian cinema has gone out of vogue. Debutant director Shadaab Mirza weaves an emotional yarn about a girl’s journey from the pristine Himachal hinterland into a beer bar run by an incredibly benign South Indian man who could be one of those caring madams in the films about fallen women set in kothas.
To his credit, the director doesn’t over-romanticise the bar girl Barkhaa’s tumultuous life story, at least not initially when she is shown to be quite a tease.
The scenes showing the rich pampered lawyer’s besotted son Jatin (Taha Shah, stiff and not just in the upper-lip) frequenting the bar to dart lovelorn looks at his object of adoration are met with a disarming mix of amusement and annoyance by Barkhaa.
The scenes featuring the mismatched couple’s tragic game of seduction in the bar are effective in putting across a sense of incredulity about the cruel jokes played by destiny specially in movies about… well, the cruel jokes played by destiny.
A large part of the film’s effectiveness depends on lead actress Sara Loren, who is emotively motivated, understands the camera and the power of heightened emotions expressed on screen, and is powerfully empowered to convey a wealth of emotions through her eyes and voice.
But the film’s finest performances comes from Ashiesh Roy as the level headed unbelievably kind bar owner. Roy imparts a natural ease to his over-sweetened part in a film where everybody strains to make an impact.
Regrettably, Loren’s strong performance is saddled with bizarre coincidences and unconvincing twists and turns in the narration which plot to diminish her screen presence.
The story tends to veer dangerously close to the theatrical, specially after mid-point when the proceedings begin to veer absurdly close to the outrageous.
Yet, there is a semblance of sincerity in the way the life of bar dancer is humanised without making her look angelic.
The film refuses to glamorise and caricaturise the bar dancer the way Farah Khan did in “Happy New Year”.
At the same time, the narrative won’t tolerate a bar dancer being dubbed a prostitute.
There’s a moment of terrific awakening where Ashiesh Roy’s bar owner’s character lashes out at someone who tries to buy the heroine’s sexual favours for a night.
Eventually Barkhaa’s world begins to fall apart. The same, unfortunately is true of the film.
But in taking the life of a tawaif from out of the ornate kotha into the harsh glare of the beer bar, “Barkhaa” succeeds in portraying a cinematic journey worth undertaking.
There is also a reformist zeal in the script that B.R. Chopra would have approved of in the way the film’s hero insists on marrying a bar girl who is a mother of a little girl.
If only real life had such solutions to offer distressed women and victims of social hypocrisy.
“Barkhaa” rains down a rhapsody of drama and romance. A heart-warming at times, touching tale of an innocent girl’s journey into the world of deceit, compromise and corruption, it echoes Raj Kapoor’s “Ram Teri Ganga Maili” and Kamal Amrohi’s “Pakeezah” in the way the respectable genteel upper class is shown to exploit women of meagre means.
Sara Loren is no Meena Kumari. But she kills the part much better than Mandakini in Raj Kapoor’s fevered fable.
Breasts are left behind. This Ganga is not maili. Just maligned.