Strongly scripted off-Bollywood entertainment whose decidedly feminist perspective gives this antique-flavored drama a contemporary feel, "String" narrates the personal tragedies of two very different young Indian women, each holding the key to the other's happiness.

Strongly scripted off-Bollywood entertainment whose decidedly feminist perspective gives this antique-flavored drama a contemporary feel, “String” narrates the personal tragedies of two very different young Indian women, each holding the key to the other’s happiness. Prolific writer-director Nagesh Kukunoor (“3 Walls,” “Iqbal”), who continues to march to his own drummer, has always found receptive local audiences, though fests may find his direction too sentimental and manipulative. His savvy for creating emotional highs, plus rising star Ayesha Takia’s standout turn as a teen widow, could spur some crossover potential.

In addition to encouraging women to “follow their desires,” pic earns points for its low-key, matter-of-fact juxtaposition of Hindu and Muslim cultures without making a fuss about it.

Tomboyish Zeenat (Gul Kirit Panag), living on her own in the breathtaking mountains of Himachal Pradesh, is courted by bright-eyed Aamir (Rushad Rana) and marries him in short order. Meanwhile, down in the scenic deserts of Rajasthan, young bride Meera (Takia) is very much in love with her husband Shankar (Anirudh Jathkar). Unlike the free-spirited Muslim Zeenat, she is a traditional Hindu wife, living in the ancient, debt-ridden house of her father-in-law.

Short on money, both young husbands leave for Saudi Arabia to find work, promising to return home soon. Sometime later, their wives receive word that Aamir has pushed his roommate Shankar out of a window in a scuffle and killed him. He will be hanged under Saudi law, unless Shankar’s widow pardons her husband’s murderer.

Without knowing where Shankar’s family lives, Zeenat sets off for Rajasthan with only a photo of Shankar and Aamir to go on. She is first tricked by, and then teams up with, a young itinerant thief and actor called Beeroopiya (Shreyas Talpade in a clownish Johnny Depp-like role) who lightens up the story a lot.

Meera’s destiny is immediately bleaker. Stripped of her wedding jewelry, she is relegated to the status of a servant in her father-in-law’s house. When his wealthy tenant (played by director Kukunoor) offers to buy her as a temporary concubine, her fate appears sealed.

Happily the script, based on a story by T. A. Rasak, steers away from the standard Indian weepie formula when the two women find each other and become friends. Zeenat shows Meera that widowhood isn’t the end of the world, and the drama leads to an emotionally unabashed, but quite affecting, upbeat ending.

Takia has extraordinary resonance in a quiet, realistic performance that goes deep into the complex character of Meera, continuing to show new facets of herself in a climactic confrontation scene when she reveals her true feelings to Zeenat. As her bold counterpart, Panag presents a strong female role model easy for Westerners to identify with.

Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee’s eye for the pictorial image brings the screen to life with colorful scenery. Pacing has some rough edges, turning perilously slow as Zeenat and Meera get acquainted, while Aamir’s life hangs in the balance.

String

India

Production

A Sahara One Motion Picture production. Produced, directed, written by Nagesh Kukunoor.

Crew

Camera (color), Sudeep Chatterjee; editor, Sanjeeb Datta; music, Salim Sulaiman; production designer, Munish Sapal. Reviewed at Dubai Film Festival (Cinema From the Subcontinent), Dec. 13, 2006. Running time: 124 MIN.

With

Zeenat - Gul Kirit Panag Meera - Ayesha Takia Beeroopiya - Shreyas Talpade
With: Pratisksha Lonkar, Girish Karnad, Rushad Rana, Anirudh Jathkar. (Hindi dialogue)
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