A character-driven meller that's a treat for the eyes, with performances to match, "Parineeta" is high-end Bollywood near its best. Third Hindi-language version of the classic novel by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay was released last summer to critical plaudits and good B.O., and is both a fine entry-level Bollywood item as well as manna for connoisseurs.

A character-driven meller that’s a treat for the eyes, with performances to match, “Parineeta” is high-end Bollywood near its best. Third Hindi-language version of the classic novel by Bengali writer Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (“Devdas”), about two childhood neighbors whose path to matrimony is strewn with the usual round of family and business obstacles, was released last summer to critical plaudits and good B.O., and is both a fine entry-level Bollywood item as well as manna for connoisseurs. Berlin fest platforming could trigger more biz in Western markets, especially on ancillary.

Current version retains the novel’s Calcutta setting, but updates the story from 1913 to 1962, a period with which first-time helmer Pradeep Sarkar, 50, has said he’s more familiar. It also adds a retro gloss to the picture, with Elvis-mania and other Western incursions (mirrored in some of the musical numbers) running parallel with the main story’s more traditional social dynamics.

Story starts on the eve of the marriage between rich kids Shekhar Rai (Saif Ali Khan) and Gayatri Tantiya (Dia Mirza). For reasons yet unknown, Shekhar is wound up by the whole thing, and when he’s approached by childhood friend Lolita (striking newcomer Vidya Balan) on the stairs of his home, he brutally rejects her.

The main part of the story, told as a 100-odd-minute flashback, explains why. Following her parents’ death, Lolita grew up in the manse of her uncle (Achyut Potdar). She became a devoted friend to Sarkar who, rebelling against the ruthless business philosophy of his dad, Navin (Sabhyasachi Chakraborty), turned to song composing. One number, in which Sarkar doodles on the piano and Lolita improvs some lyrics, neatly sketches their closeness– which is hardly as platonic as both like to think.

Navin wants to marry Sarkar off to Gayatri, spoiled daughter of a business associate, but Sarkar is reluctant. Added complication comes when Girish (Sanjay Dutt), a wealthy businessman from London, comes to stay at Lolita’s home, drawing not only Lolita’s interest but also that of her uncle’s elder daughter, Koel (Raima Sen).

After the beautifully laid out first half, which allows characters and plot to evolve in style, the second half, running less than an hour, could well have done with an extra 20 or so minutes, taking pic to a more regular Bollywood running time. And though the climax is still emotionally powerful, it comes over as overcooked.

Khan, who’s gradually been developing away from light comedy, again shows smarts as a substantial actor. Veteran Dutt, more often cast in gangster roles, is surprisingly good as the gentler, upright Girish. Acting revelation, however, is Tamil newcomer Balan, whose devoted but dignified Lolita is the pic’s heart and soul.

Production and costume design are aces, with Nataraja Subramanian’s widescreen lensing sharp and textured in another terrif color processing job by Adlabs Films (“Black,” “Paheli”). Some costuming and musical inauthenticities — given the ’60s Calcutta setting — won’t trouble Western auds, nor the fact that dialogue is all in Hindi with just a sprinkling of Bengali phrases. Title means a betrothed (or spoken for) woman.

Parineeta

India

Production

A UTV Motion Pictures release of a Vir Chopra presentation of a Vinod Chopra Films production. Produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Executive producer, Panchali Sarkar. Co-producers, Vir Chopra, Rajkumar Hirani. Directed by Pradeep Sarkar. Screenplay, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sarkar, Rekha Nigam, Vibha Singh, from the novel by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Nataraja Subramanian; supervising editor, Chopra; editors, Hemanti Sarkar, Nitish Sharma; background music, Amar Mohile; song music, Shantanu Moitra; lyrics, Swanand Kirkire; production designer, Apocalypso Filmworks; art directors, Keshto Mandal, Tanushree Sarkar, Pradeep Sarkar; costume designer, Subarna Rai Chaudhuri; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Bishwadeep Chatterjee, Leslie Fernandes; choreographer, Howard Rosemeyer. Reviewed at Arsenal Kino 1, Berlin, Feb. 2, 2006. (In Berlin Film Festival -- Forum.) Running time: 130 MIN. (I: 76 MIN.; II: 54 MIN.).

With

Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan, Dia Mirza, Raima Sen, Sabhyasachi Chakraborty, Achyut Potdar, Rekha, Biplab Chatterjee, Surinder Kaur. (Hindi dialogue)
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