Former scripter Honey Irani makes an interesting helming debut with “Armaan,” a lightly paced medical relationships drama set amid the denizens of an old-style country hospital in Chandipur, north India. Headlined by veteran Amitabh Bachchan, but largely driven by fresh playing from the other three leads, pic moves at a brisk pace and isn’t overburdened by too much extreme emotion or the usual formulae. Bollywood watchers should keep an eye out for this well-scripted item, which opened amid much hype May 16.
Pic is something of a family affair, as Irani here co-writes with her ex-husband, Javed Akhtar, who also penned the lyrics of the four featured songs. For the record, Irani is also the mother of Farhan Akhtar, whose lively “Dil chahta hai” was among the more notable Bollywood productions of recent years.
Befitting her past work as a scripter for mega-producer Yash Chopra, Irani still works comfortably within the mainstream here. But there’s a lightness of touch to the movie that’s notable, with no dawdling and a surprising lack of gooey sentiment considering its subject matter. She still has to develop an overall visual style, but the pic isn’t weighed down by heavy production values.
Bachchan, sporting a leonine head of white hair to match his goatee, plays Dr. Siddharth Sinha, philanthropic founder of a small hospital that now needs upgrading. His closest associate is his adopted son, Akash (Anil Kapoor), who, after some initial misunderstandings, falls for a smart new anesthetist, Neha Mathur (Gracy Singh, from “Lagaan”).
At a party one day, Akash is skewered by the bubbly and forthright Soniya Kapoor (Preity Zinta, with curious Cher hairdo), an NRI from London who’s the adored daughter of tycoon Gulshan Kapoor (Randhir Kapoor). Terminally spoiled Soniya decides to have Akash for her own, and, when Siddharth dies of a heart attack and Akash discovers the hospital will be forced to close unless he can find some major cash pronto, Soniya forces him to marry her by promising her dad will supply the needed funding.
Post-intermission, pic takes on a darker edge as Soniya, who’s still absurdly jealous of Akash and Neha’s evident love for each other, turns into a bitch-on-wheels, determined to destroy the nice young anesthetist. Amid the usual complications, including the death of Neha’s mom due to Soniya’s scheming, the plot strands finally come together for a light emotional punch at the end.
Anil Kapoor, an all-purpose actor with a variable track record, is good as the conflicted Akash, and pairs well with the classy Singh, who brings a quiet dignity to her role of the bruised lover. Most colorful perf, however, is from Zinta who, though playing an archetypal bad sort, manages to make the self-obsessed Soniya an almost sympathetic character through the sheer vivaciousness of her part-child, part-vamp playing.
Device of bringing back Bachchan post-intermission, as the voice of Akash’s conscience, smacks of unnecessary pandering to the Big B’s fan base. And newcomer Aamir Bashir’s role as a low-key rival suitor for Neha’s affections is weakly developed.
Musical numbers are pretty standard but tuneful, with no big ensemble dances. A highlight is an early musical duet, sans lyrics, between violin-playing Siddharth and saxophonist Akash that sums up the pic’s offhand approach to the usual Bollywood formulae.
Production values are unflashy, with natural production design and direct sound recording. Color processing on print caught was variable — generally rich and resonant (especially in the moodier second half) but often drained looking in exteriors. Original title literally means “Heart’s Desire.”