The cultural dilemma and conflicts faced by exponents of a fading art form seem to fascinate playwright Mahesh Dattani. In "Morning Raga", a Carnatic singer comes to terms with past tragedy and present exigencies through her association with the young.
And in "Dance Like A Man", which Pamela Rooks directs from Dattani's layered and luminous play, we meet two bharatanatyam dancers Ratna and Jairaj in the declining years of their professional lives.
Initially, we see the couple completely from the outside, first from the viewpoint of their purported son-in-law Vishal (Sameer Soni) and then their daughter Lata (Anoushka Shankar). This deliberate exteriorisation of the narrative makes us stand outside the protagonists' lives and yet be part of them.
Pamela Rooks, whose adaptation of Khushwant Singh's "The Train To Pakistan" captured much of the exacerbated ethos of those troubled times in 1947, here goes for a more intimate portrait of fissures. We see two fairly anachronistic characters Ratna (Sobhana) and Jairaj (Arif Zakaria) as two individuals trapped in a cultural chasm.
At times the politics of aesthetics are shown to seep into their lives with unsettling brutality, rendering their mutual and uncommon love for a common art into a fight for self-assertion rather than reason for collaborative creativity.
At first when we see the dancing couple from Vishal's viewpoint, Jairaj and Ratna with their dance-is-life theory of existence appear ridiculously self-absorbed. The conversation among the trio is so tangential as to appear ridiculous. While Vishal wants to broach the subject of their daughter's marriage, the couple is only concerned about their daughter's endangered 'arangetram' (dance initiation) as the mridangam player has broken his hand.
The sequence is constructed as a typical chamber piece with minimal camera movement and optimum communication of complex emotions through the expressions of the actors as they plunge into their characters with a relish afforded only in a cinema that allows its emotions to emerge through the characters, and not vice versa.
In what can be termed an opera-in-reverse, Rooks records the bitterness, and undercurrent of rivalry between the couple in a spiral of tones that goes from their future son-in-law's mild amusement to a grim and greatly disconcerting debate on high art and its exploitation, even by those who practise it with seeming single-mindedness.
As the slim but profound story unfolds we see Ratna to be a woman of many devices. Partly a devoted wife and defiant daughter-in-law (watch Sobhana carefully in the sequence with pa-in-law Mohan Agashe where she bursts into a totally improper giggle when reminded of the effeminate nature of male dancing), Ratna also unravels before us as a woman who has perhaps used her husband to further her own vastly superior dancing talents.
In his expressions of bitter anguish and yet smothered rage, Arif Zakaria reminds us of Amitabh Bachchan in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's "Abhimaan". The male ego cannot comprehend the phenomenon of the spouse overtaking his talent. Though this is a far more complex film than "Abhimaan", "Dance Like A Man" finally seems more stagy than other films about two professionals married to one another who fall apart in the race to the top.
Unlike Mahesh Dattani, who has deliberately denuded his film "Morning Raga" of the theatrical element, Pamela Rooks seems to revel in the staginess of the original material.
Fortunately, except for Sameer Soni who's a little too filmy -- or glamorous if you will -- for the film's authentic albeit stage ambience, the cast seems to instinctively grasp the nuances and layers that decorate the drama of the driven.
Curiously, Pamela Rooks films Jayaraj's troubled past with his autocratic father (Mohan Agashe) in an orange-glow mood rather than the usual sepia tones applied to cinematic memories. Flashback in this way is fleshed with more flamboyance than usual.
Many of the play-on-film's bland spots are easily overlooked by Sobhana's utterly mesmerising pivotal performance.
As the dancer, wife and mother overpowered by her desire to fill her life and surroundings with aesthetic excellence even at the cost of disrupting her domestic life, Sobhana brings a lustrous texture and an inimitable ripeness not only to her character, but also to the entire work.
Pandit Ravi Shankar's daughter Anoushka's acting debut is not disappointing. Not an actress but more a presence signifying that cultural clash that layers the film, Anoushka dances well and projects an inherited confidence so essential for her part.
At a time when Hindi cinema seems determined to strip bodies instead of soul, "Dance Like A Man" brings an enchanting soul-searching element into the art of cinema.