“The Talented Mr. Slumdog Millionaire” might have made a more informative if less catchy title for “Zubaan,” an uneven but engrossing drama about a young Punjabi bumpkin whose big-city ambitions lead him down many a dark alley en route to the more upbeat land of self-discovery. A rags-to-riches fable, a part-time song-and-dance musical and a juicy portrait of one royally screwed-up family, Mozez Singh’s feature directing debut retains a vivid sense of craftsmanship even when its unabashedly derivative narrative elements refuse to cohere. Though its morally complex antihero never fully comes into focus, this is a well-acted, broadly accessible entertainment that could achieve modest international arthouse exposure, with some limited crossover potential, following its opening-night premiere at the Busan Film Festival.
The opening sequence of a young boy named Dilsher (Harmehroz Singh) wandering through a Sikh temple — where he’s greeted in song by a man whose identity will emerge in due course — sets a mood of dreamlike euphoria for a picture that will quickly settle into a more downbeat groove. A runty kid who lives with his impoverished family in the dusty village of Gurdaspur, Dilsher is mercilessly bullied by the other boys for his pronounced stutter, and quickly learns a thing or two about defending himself. He also receives some life-altering advice from a tough-minded adult onlooker named Gurcharand Sikand (Manish Chaudhari), who teaches him that the only person he’ll ever be able to rely on in life is himself.
Dilsher has fully absorbed the implications of that cruel lesson when we catch up with him in Delhi several years later (now played by Vicky Kaushal), craftily orchestrating a long-overdue reunion with Gurcharand, an extravagantly wealthy tycoon who oversees a sprawling multinational empire. Shrewdly intervening in a clash between company executives and striking construction workers, Dilsher soon talks his way into Gurcharand’s good graces, his stutter largely receding as he emphasizes their humble roots in the same village (the big boss is known as “the Lion of Gurdaspur”), and makes clear that he, too, longs to be a self-made man someday. Before long, Dilsher has landed a job at the company’s Dubai headquarters and taken up residence in his boss’s magnificent estate, to the chagrin and bewilderment of Gurcharand’s son and heir, Surya (Raaghav Chanana).
Of course, worming his way into this privileged position will require one or two minor compromises — like lying about his relationship with his uncle (Rajeev Gaur Singh), who has his own troubled past with Gurcharand, and beating a higher-ranking employee (Kunal Sharma) so savagely that he winds up in a hospital. Before long, too, Dilsher has made an enemy of Surya, a capable and willing businessman who has only ever received insults and silent contempt from his father. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that Gurcharand tolerates and encourages the outsider’s presence mainly (and perhaps only) because it will inflame Surya’s jealousy. And so Dilsher finds himself an improbable adopted son, a latter-day Eve Harrington in a domestic drama that seems to grow tenser by the day.
Director Singh, who co-wrote the script with Thani and Sumit Roy, isn’t exactly the subtlest of social critics, and there are times when “Zubaan” (whose title is an Urdu word for “tongue” or “language”) comes to resemble the Dubai-set version of “Dynasty.” It’s one thing to make Surya’s protective mother (Meghna Malik) a spoiled trophy wife, and quite another to introduce her tearing into some sort of plated crustacean with both hands. But the toxic family dynamics are sharply inhabited and rivetingly played, especially by Chanana, who deftly pinpoints the wounded insecurity behind Surya’s rich-boy privilege, and who is all too understandably jealous of the interloper in his midst. And Chaudhari gives an imposing, powerfully restrained performance as Gurcharand, who comes across as a thoroughly persuasive monster; cruelly withholding though he may be, it’s painfully clear why both Surya and Dilsher long so desperately for his approval.
Recently seen in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Cannes-premiered debut, “Masaan,” Kaushal is a charismatic, naturally engaging talent who never quite relinquishes his hold on the viewer’s rooting interest even as Dilsher’s actions run the gamut from duplicitous to despicable. But the actor has a tougher time getting a grip on a character who is never clearly defined beyond his moral polarities. Admirable as it is to give us a protagonist who’s the opposite of squeaky-clean, Dilsher never quite emerges in more than two dimensions, and his scheming, near-sociopathic drive for success feels increasingly at odds with the opposing thrust of the story, which is that of a kid who still hasn’t figured out who he is and what he truly wants out of life.
It would take a subtler and perhaps more seasoned directorial hand to better reconcile those character contradictions, which feed directly into the narrative’s overall sense of disjointedness. At its strongest in the perpetually fraught and brooding world of fathers and sons, “Zubaan” makes occasional forays into romantic melodrama, as Dilsher’s ongoing rivalry with Surya draws him into a flirtation with Amira (Sarah Jane Dias), a beautiful singer who invites the newcomer out to a musical/artistic desert retreat that suggests a tamer, more therapeutic Burning Man. This sequence and others like it are meant to supply a dash of Bollywood-style tonal relief, and also to unlock Dilsher’s latent gifts as a singer, but they feel as if they’ve been imported from a different, more generic picture.
And not, it should be noted, an unenjoyable one. Apart from the infrequent but infectious musical performances (especially one largely context-free dance number that juxtaposes pinpoint choreography with striking rear projections), Ashu Phatak’s score provides a continually enveloping sense of sweep. Despite a few lapses in pacing and construction, Singh (who previously wrote and produced 2004’s “White Noise”) has assembled a terrifically sharp technical package overall, distinguished by strong location work, Swapnil Sonawane’s muscular widescreen compositions, and Khyatee Kanchan’s versatile production design, encompassing everything from the rundown shanty that Dilsher initially calls home, to the glass-walled offices and carpeted hallways that define Gurcharand’s tantalizing world.