“Looking for love in all the wrong places” could be the catchphrase for “7 Sins Forgiven,” a delightfully wicked and deliciously subversive romp tracking a woman through seven husbands and seven untimely deaths. Vishal Bhardwaj’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed “Kaminey” is another kettle of fish, light on action sequences and driven largely by sharply defined characters whose peccadilloes make for a very enjoyable ride. Initial opening at home, coinciding with the Berlin screening, has been unimpressive, with some pundits suggesting the pic’s dark subject might make locals wary; international fest auds shouldn’t be similarly circumspect.
Reactions could be split along gender lines, as some male moviegoers may object to the female protag’s escape from moral censure. More equitable viewers will revel in the pleasures offered by precisely this kind of liberating, Bunuel-esque upsetting of norms. While “7 Sins” is unlikely to be a crossover hit in the mold of “Lagaan,” it should attract Bollywood-curious ticket-buyers, provided careful marketing and critical approval pave the way.
The story is partly told through the lovestruck eyes of Arun Kumar (Vivaan Shah, debuting son of Naseeruddin Shah), an orphan who comes under the protection of Susanna Anna-Marie Johannes (Priyanka Chopra, in the role of a lifetime) soon after Susanna inherits her father’s horse-breeding property in Pondicherry. Arun (played as a kid by Ayush Tandon) forms a triumvirate of protectors around Susanna along with butler Ghalib (Harish Khanna, perfectly cast) and servant Maggie (Usha Uthup).
Susanna’s search for love and companionship leads to marriage with the dashing but cruel Maj. Edwin Rodrigues (Neil Nitin Mukesh, “New York”). His “untimely” death during a panther hunt propels her into the arms of a rock star, born Jamshed Singh Rathod but rechristened Jimmy Stetson (John Abraham). Infidelity and heroin addiction shorten his life considerably and make Susanna question her Christian religion and faith in men.
Along comes Musafir (Irrfan Khan), a gentle Kashmiri poet whose romantic mien disguises a sadistic streak — Bhardwaj makes these scenes powerfully disturbing. Sweet-talking husband No. 4, Russian Nikolai Vronsky (Aleksandr Dyachenko) brings Susanna back into the Christian fold, though she doesn’t forget her devotion to a Hindu cobra shrine.
Susanna’s black-widow rep makes Inspector Keemat Lal (Annu Kapoor) suspicious, yet he’s smitten by Susanna’s charms. Mycologist Modhusudhon Tarafdar (Naseeruddin Shah) helps Susanna get over her depression, but he’s not quite what he appears to be. As for the seventh husband, suffice to say that anyone revealing his identity should be prosecuted.
Unlike male-focused successive-murder sagas like “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” in which motivations stem from mercenary or social impulses, “7 Sins” filters Susanna’s misalliances through the prism of her search for love. Or at least, that’s how Arun views his goddess’ story, though Bhardwaj mischievously questions that interpretation by the pic’s end. Susanna is a Scarlett O’Hara type with more than a touch of the noir femme fatale about her, and Chopra delights in the role, building and deepening the character as she moves from one husband to another.
In keeping with his reputation for working with Bollywood conventions while playing with style, Bhardwaj incorporates expected elements (musical numbers, attractive, far-flung locales, unconvincing aging makeup) but isn’t trapped by the form. He can use a traditionally classic song like “Bekeraan” and follow it with “Darling,” a deliriously infectious mash-up of the Russian standby “Kalinka” with a Bollywood overlay. More fundamentally, with Matthew Robbins, he’s crafted an intelligent script around a female hero who’s as sympathetic as she is morally ambiguous.
Thesping is uniformly strong. Abraham’s spoof of a David Lee Roth-style rocker is a hoot, yet he also handles the drug addiction scenes with sensitivity, and Khan, as usual, is especially good, balancing the character’s gentility with a frightening elemental brutality.
Widescreen visuals are richly lensed and edited with clarity, so Susanna’s steady progress through husbands never feels like a plodding sequence of events. Samir Chanda’s art direction is another standout.