Mirzya – Not Bad at All, Really

Mirzya, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s modern retelling of a tragic Punjab folk tale, debuted in India last year to hostile reviews and even more hostile audiences, who turned it into a flop of historic dimensions. The consensus was clear: beneath spectacular cinematography (by Pawe? Dyllus), an articulate and beautifully written screenplay (by the poet Sampooran Singh Kalra, known popularly as Gulzar, returning to film after many years), and Mehra’s well-paced direction, lies a love story not worth writing home to mom about. Audiences did not root for the two doomed lovers, Monish (Harshvardhan Kapoor) and Suchitra (Saiyami Kher), and without a chemistry that we could imagine losing our lives for, and which transported us to Heaven, the movie failed. The occasional favorable review, such as a brief bit in the New York Times, treated Mirzya as merely harmless eye candy.

Surely such a thing is not some sort of overlooked masterpiece!

Actually, yes.

Or, um, maybe.

It depends.

Is this an incompetent love story, with a lack of chemistry at its core, which audiences and critics rightly rejected? Or is it rather an ingenious bait-and-switch, a love story hidden at the very edge of a gorgeous canvas, and which audiences and critics failed to understand?

The answer I think can be found in the brilliance of every part of this movie. Sweepingly gorgeous cinematography, perfectly shot in every way, is matched by great songs and great choreography, by a Greek chorus of singers and dancers in the film’s “Blacksmith Alley”, and performances that are uniformly impressive, from veteran actors to newcomers. The filmmakers’ virtuosity convinces me that the story at its core could not have been incompetently imagined; I believe that Mehra and Gulzar knew exactly what they were doing, and they made exactly the film they wanted to make.

***

Our first introduction to Suchitra (or Soochi) and Monish is, indeed, off-putting. We see them as school children; Soochi is awkward and a bit overweight, and she towers over the tiny and shifty Monish. Soochi’s father is kind, sad, overprotective, and deeply, somewhat mysteriously sympathetic.

Monish arrives late to school, without his homework. Monish and Soochi touch hands secretly and fleetingly. Monish takes Soochi’s homework, then remains silent as the teacher raps the palm of her hand. The teacher, we clearly see, understands what is happening, and the punishment is designed not so much to punish Soochi, but rather to show her that Monish is not worthy of her attention, that he will not rise to her defense, as indeed he does not. Humiliated, Monish returns to the school later in the day with a stolen gun, and he shoots the teacher dead, not to defend Soochi’s honor, but to avenge his own humiliation. The court sentences Monish to juvenile prison, from which he escapes. All Soochi knows is that Monish has vanished from her life.

Is this Mehra’s idea of the start of a beautiful love story? Is it a badly conceived misfire? I think not. But this is all the gawky Soochi has; it is all the weak and undergrown Monish could ever hope for.

***

In the next scene, some years later, Soochi has flowered into a beauty, and the world fawns over her, as the world will fawn over beauties. She is engaged to Karan; he is modern royalty, the son of a Maharajah, and a handsome, cheerful great-guy heir to an empire of hotels and resorts. The father who once worried over her now beams with pride.

Indeed, just a few years after the events that opened the film, beauty, wealth and social status have been thrust upon the beautiful woman whom our wobbly young protagonist has surprisingly become. While Saiyami Kher is indeed beautiful, the resemblance between the two actresses is nevertheless remarkable. The awkwardness is still there, behind Kher’s eyes; Soochi seems to realize that she does not belong here, and she still pines for the childhood friend who vanished, and who paid attention to her when no one else would. Even if the attention was far from selfless, it was at least honest. “I’m not a princess,” she insists to Adil, the horse trainer Karan has tapped to teach her to ride; she is a princess, of course, but in her heart, she does not believe it, and she never will. She seems to want the charade and all its resulting ridiculousness to end. And, of course, it won’t take a genius to figure out who Adil really is. He is her escape from the charade.

***

Once Soochi recognizes Monish, the expected tragedy ensues, interspersed with flashbacks to the ancient folktale of Mirza and Sahiba, featuring the same actors, which ends much the same way, although more cinematically and prettily artificial. Soochi and Adil’s love is far from beautiful, and only they would see themselves as a modern-day Mirza and Sahiba, whose story is included here as a bit of ironic commentary, lavishly filmed. Indeed, while Soochi and Monish might wish to imagine themselves in such epic terms, we suspect they ultimately recognize the desperation, hopelessness and purposelessness of their nihilistic end.

So no Romeo and Juliet, I suppose; but Mehra’s purpose here may be to turn on its head the entire starry-eyed idea of doomed lovers who willingly die in each other’s arms. And the fact that he does not believe in Monish and Soochi’s love does not make their tale any less moving. As the horror grew, I was deeply struck by the plight of young Soochi, who rejects a prince’s unconditional love because she cannot believe she is worthy of it, in favor of Adil’s selfishness, which is something she knows and understands. She rejects a life that might well have been a happy one with a man who adores and defends her, and she instead chooses an ignominious death with a man who decidedly does not, and it is heartbreaking. Monish makes the same choice, rejecting the love of the young penniless woman in Blacksmith Alley who sheltered him when he was a fugitive, and whom he seems to recognize as his soul-mate. Instead, he will pursue the princess who has soared above him, and bring her crashing to Earth, like the warrior Mirza shooting his arrows into the sky.

***

In the final analysis, were audiences apathetic?; did this film leave us cold? No; the film left audiences confused and angry, not unmoved. Is this India’s Heaven’s Gate? By box office standards, certainly. But remember the respect with which Heaven’s Gate is viewed today.

Mehra said in an interview, “Mirzya is one of the greatest love stories ever told. What you feel is what you get out of it. It lets you breathe love in your own way.”

Mirzya denied us the romance that audiences expected, but in its place, he gave us two  unexpected love stories: a prince’s love for a young woman who rejects and humiliates him; and a poor beggar-girl’s love for the boy she saved. Was that the movie that Mehra intended to make? I certainly think so. But in any event, it is the movie I saw, the movie that I breathed in my own way, and it is a very good one.

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