Bengali helmer Rituparno Ghosh’s first Hindi movie “Raincoat” is a chamber-sized gem. Melancholic, rainy afternoon drama, almost entirely set in a single house, features meaty roles for two of Indian cinema’s biggest stars, Aishwarya Rai and Ajay Devgan, in very different guises from their usual Bollywood ones. Though pic is unlikely to score big locally when it goes out in August against more commercial heavy-hitters like “Swades” and “The Rising,” “Raincoat” could build a solid rep at fests, with some pickups by specialized webs and niche distribs.
The hooded-eyed Devgan, better known as a villain in movies like “Company” and “Khakee,” plays Manoj, who travels to Calcutta from his hometown in neighboring Bihar state in search of funds to start a small business. Staying with an old friend who’s now a successful TV producer, Manoj feels embarrassed about “begging” former classmates for money, though he does manage to raise some coin. However, he also has another, equally important reason for the trip.
Manoj still remembers the girl who dumped him 17 years ago and went to live in Calcutta. Armed only with an address, which turns out to be in a rundown area in the south of the city, and a raincoat, loaned by his friend as protection against the monsoon rains, Manoj sets out to find Niru (Rai).
The woman who answers the door seems a shadow of the vital young girl he once knew. Looking tired and older than her years, Niru is alone in the musty, dark old house — her husband is away and the servants have time off, she says — but she proudly proclaims she’s happy in her life. Modeling himself on his friend, Manoj pretends he’s a successful TV producer and is soon to marry a woman arranged by his mother.
Both parties exchange memories and falsehoods, trying to recapture the bond that once existed between them, while maintaining face in the present, awkward circumstances. Then, while Niru goes out to get some food for lunch, a stranger gets into the house and strikes up a conversation with Manoj. Gradually, his own identity, plus the truth about Manoj and Niru’s circumstances, starts to emerge, leading to a moving final act. A neat coda closes the story.
As in Ghosh’s previous pic, “Chokher Bali: A Passion Play” (2003), Rai reveals herself as a considerable actress given the right script and direction, far from the comic-romantic roles in most of her Bollywood productions. Shunning her usual immaculate makeup and duds, and looking more like a broken, malfunctioning doll, she makes Niru a mixture of child and temptress/charmer, driven by capricious moods and clearly unhappy inside.
It’s the showier of the two perfs, but Devgan, in ultra low-key mode, is equally impressive, especially in the latter stages as his great love for the woman he once knew reveals itself in an act of charity.
The atmospheric house, full of dark furniture and fittings, is occasionally contrasted with brighter, more colorful flashbacks to the two protags’ youth 17 years earlier. As the day wears on and the light changes, the only constant factor is the rain pouring down outside. Pic has no standard musical numbers, though an early soundtrack song accompanying Manoj’s train journey to Calcutta reps the sense of melancholy and longing that both protags are so desperate to conceal from each other. Other tech credits are fine.