A handsome entry in the Indian drama movie niche between pure Bollywood and indie art cinema, “Chandni Bar” confidently re-tells a favorite theme — the tragedy of characters doomed never to break free of their social caste. In this variation, the heroine is forced to work as a dancer in a beer bar where patrons fling bills at dancers strutting to pop tunes. Much less flamboyant and more realistic in sensibility than Bollywood films, pic’s accessibility to Western viewers should enhance its desirability to specialty distrib partners.
Spanning 15 years to the present, saga vividly begins with Mumtaz (Tabu, in a passionately developed performance) in Sitapur in 1985 during mass riots that sent a large population toward the cities. Having lost her parents in the havoc, Mumtaz travels to Bombay (now known as Mumbai) with her useless uncle (Suhas Palsikar), where family relative Iqbal (Rajpal Yadav) sets them up.
Needing a job, Mumtaz reluctantly takes a slot at Chandni Bar, run with a firm but not heavy hand by a man named Anna (Abhay Bharghav). For a country girl of Islamic upbringing, this business of dancing provocatively for male strangers is shameful, but she comes to accept her position as “the fresh merchandise,” enjoyably tutored in the finer points of beer bar performance by fellow dancer Deepa (Annanya Khare). Though she revels in her work, Deepa — married to a thuggish taxi driver husband — warns the naive Mumtaz that “it’s a man’s world, and when men know you’re alone, they rip you apart like vultures.”
This ends up being the movie’s motto, as virtually all the men in “Chandni Bar” are beasts, exploiters, crooks or fools: Even Mumtaz’s uncle turns on her in a drunken rage and molests her in one of the meller’s more garish moments.
The polemical sexual politics is more nuanced, though, when it comes to the character of local gang leader Potya (Atul Kulkarni), who is drawn to Mumtaz’s dancing. When he learns the uncle molested Mumtaz, Potya kills him. Potya proves to be a good provider, however, when he and Mumtaz start a family.Director Madhur Bhandarkar’s keeps his camera and the action hurtling along, interspersing sustained sequences with time-compressing montages that allow the movie to jump through the years as Mumtaz’s son Abhay (Vishal Thakal) and daughter Payal (Minakshi Sahani) grow up. Potya’s frequent arrests by the corrupt cops lead to vicious torture and, ultimately, execution in a remote forest.
Final 35 minutes, set in 2000, tell a tale unto itself, as widow Mumtaz finds her requests for support rejected by Potya’s former colleagues, while her dreams of better, educated lives for Abhay and Payal are tragically aborted. Studious and obedient, Abhay has a Zola-like downfall as he is drawn into a group of crooked boys that proceeds to a grim sequence marbled with imprisonment, rape and murder.
Tabu shimmers in a true star vehicle, subtly building each step on Mumtaz’s journey with shades of growing maturity that shift into jadedness, followed in pic’s final third by powerful maternal instincts. She is surrounded by a robust supporting cast, notably Kulkarni, in a role balancing brutality and decency, and Khare as an Eve Arden type wisely befriending the heroine.
Rajeev Ravi’s lensing, Yashwant Patil’s and Prasanna Karkhanis’ design and Ashley Rebello’s costumes fashion a strong visual dynamic between the bar’s colorful but tacky ambience inside, and the grinding harshness of the Mumbai streets outside.