You wonder what Hindi cinema has come to. After the poetic, languorous and tender Dilip Kumar-Madhubala alliance in "Mughal-e-Azam" comes the leery, sordid and sadistic Mahesh Manjrekar-Sameera Reddy liaison in "Musafir".
"Musafir" is certainly a grey and grim departure from conventional cinema. It gives us a gritty and violent world of deception and debauchery where none can be trusted, certainly not the creative visionary who stands at the helm of his murky universe of mean men and women.
Sanjay Gupta's vision is as whacked out as the vision of a drugged trapeze dancer teetering at the brink of his disintegrating world.
Having gone to Hollywood to source and sustain all his films, from "Aatish" to "Kaante", Gupta now takes a "U-Turn", literally. He's electrifyingly inspired by Oliver Stone's film by that name.
In the central role of a battered but not beaten wife, Sameera fits into Jennifer Lopez's role, creating a uniquely sensuous space for her character.
The wife, Sam, in "Musafir" is unlike any victimised heroine we've seen before. She takes her husband's tormenting brutality without a flinch, and yet goes out into the Goan sandscape to slither and slide to Vishal-Shekhar's raunchy tunes, returns home in time for another bout of self-deprecating roughing-up from her husband.
Enter Anil Kapoor...in more ways than one. As the stranger riding into the dusty town, Anil fills up the battered wife's life with his exuberant anxieties. This role is quite a departure for the ever-careening actor. He's neither good nor virtuous. He's an actor fobbing off a mid-life career crisis by whooping it up on screen.
Gupta's film breaks all the rules. It does so with an urgent insouciance that needn't render itself to any worthy definitions of aesthetics.
It's all about the money, honey...and sex. In the second and by far the more riveting half, the director hatches a devious plot whereby we see the husband Luka (Mahesh) and his wife both trying to convince the stranger in town Lucky (Anil) to kill the spouse.
The narrative here becomes double-edged. By imposing both the husband's and the wife's perspectives on the hellish marriage, Gupta confers an unsettling ambiguity on his plot. The scorching aura of the goings-on and the feeling of a heated heist degenerating into a wacky waste never leave the narration.
The trigger-happy storytelling indicates a distending, disembodied orgy of sexual and emotional brutality. The first half is replete with images from Quentin Tarantino's cinema. These mean men with guns in their hands and cigarette butts dangling stylishly from their parched lips could be part of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, if only their swagger had more substance.
Gupta's mean men are the quintessential nowhere people. They float in and out of the realm of nightmare and fantasy like a patient on the operation table swimming in and out of consciousness.
"Musafir" isn't a pleasant film to watch. It represents the other, dark face of mainstream Hindi cinema that moves in a direction opposite to the cinema of Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar. To that extent Gupta deserves to be credited for his adventurous spirit.
But the mood of rebellious creation never quite attains the nubile nirvana of a work of pop art. The cinematography by P.S. Vinod captures the night and early morning shades as well as the evening time languor of hedonistic Goa.
Gupta's characters make you uncomfortable. Watching them go through their monstrously mercantile motions you wonder what sort of minds have conceived such fictional lives. And what quality of life the film recommends for viewers.
What keeps you from flinching away are the performances. Anil and particularly Mahesh are first rate as the stranger and the husband. Sameera's is an interesting performance.
Sanjay Dutt's villainous Billa with stained teeth and a hyperactive knife is a guttural caricature of the screen villain. He keeps making jolly jibes at Hindi cinema's formulistic villains. But you feel Billa pokes fun at the archetypal villains because he secretly admires them and wishes he could be a part of that comic-strip diabolism.
In a similar vein we can see Sanjay Gupta struggling to be offbeat in his filmmaking mainly because he knows not to be any other way.
"Musafir" is a psychedelic journey into crime and sex that Quentin Tarantino could've made if only he knew how to shoot Sufi-Bhangra songs right in the middle of a serious shootout!