It's a strange and stirring phenomenon. Even as Indian cinema moves away from traditional formulas and styles of storytelling to embrace a more global format of presentation, filmmakers seem to seek creative solace and sustenance in its most cherished values and visions.
In one of the critical moments of Revathy's very fine, very moving and finally deeply satisfying film I caught a glimpse of Bimal Roy's "Bandini" - a classic that came at a time when AIDS was something that super-powers gave to third-world countries.
It's the moment when the protagonist Tamanna (Shilpa Shetty) infected by the HIV virus finally comes face to face with the broken and crippled man Rohit (Salman Khan) who gifted her with the disease.
As Tamanna approaches the inert wheel-chaired figure, her bitterness and pent-up rage dissolves into a blinding compassion for the man who has snatched away her life....The sequence effortlessly echoes Nutan's legendary run towards her dying lover Ashok Kumar in "Bandini".
It is both an acceptance and rejection of life.... a giving and a taking that constitute the two sides of the human condition. And if it's bold and brave of Shilpa Shetty to walk that thin line between action and abyss, life and death, then it's even braver of the director to have gone into a subject as prickly as AIDS without getting preachy, screechy, judgemental or even unduly sentimental.
In the rather over-sentimentally titled "Phir Milenge", a fiercely contemporary issue like AIDS fights for space with diseases that go deep into the soul.
Revathy takes the germ of her idea from Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia" - where a cynical lawyer fights against an AIDS victim's professional persecution and learns a few things about a life on the brink of a blink - and opens it up to include issues that go way beyond physical disorders.
By changing the gender of the protagonist in "Philadelphia" Revathy gets to address issues such as gender discrimination. As Tamanna battles to get back her job with the help of her lawyer Tarun (Abhishek Bachchan) her war against AIDS becomes almost complementary to other diseases eating away at the heart of society.
Woman's empowerment - a theme so dear to female directors - is used here to light up those dark enclaves in the theme of gender equation that cannot hold a candle to disease and death. And yet, there's a magical spiral of moral priorities at work in this film through which we look at Tamanna both as an isolated victim and a universal figure of persecution and victimization without feeling sorry for her.
This simultaneous macro and microcosmic view - or a long shot and a close-up view - is further supported by the great dignity that Shilpa Shetty invests in her role. As Tamanna whose corporate ambitions come crashing down in the face of an adversary too huge to tackle, Shilpa surprises you by doing a 180-degree gyration away from her oomphy image. She brings an immense sensitivity and dignity to the emotional core of her character.
Moments such as the one where she finds out about her disease (from a doctor played director Revathy) or the one where she breaks down in front of her lawyer after their defeat at the hands of a one-armed wily lawyer (who is ironically a woman, played with steely will by Mita Vashisht) or those tender moments with her kid-sister (who says, "Learn to stop persecuting yourself before you expect the same from others") -- could have easily lapsed into sobs.
With considerable support from her director, Shilpa comes up with a performance that's clearly to her what "Bandini" was to Nutan.
Abhishek Bachchan as her well-meaning but forever-flurried lawyer provides unexpected strength, power and energy to the plot. For those who thought he was a revelation in the recent "Yuva", this performance is further antidote to cynicism.
Going from fear and revulsion at the disease (watch Shilpa's crumbling face and body when he refuses to shake hands with her) to an angry comprehension of the immense dimensions of injustice involved in Tamanna's case... Abhishek is the film's conscience. His finale speech on the need to address AIDS is done in a tone and manner that his father would recognize.
Abhishek's eyes and smile have always been the window to his soul. It took a woman director of Revathy's sensitivity to realize his true potential.
And why just Abhishek? Revathy's handling of the entire cast and the first-rate crew (including a very fine though under-used music score by Shankar-Ehsan-Loy and Bhavatha Raja) is proof of Indian cinema's maturation.
One of the film's many achievements is to bring the guru-shishya ethos into constant play. Whether it's Abhishek's bonding with his senior (Nasser), Salman with his guru (the late Somayajulu in a cameo) or Shilpa with her boss... Revathy's film never misses a chance to tell us how important the past is to the present and future. Revathy pays a homage to tradition without making a song-and-dance of it.
My only quibble with the film is Salman Khan as the viral catalyst Rohit. After destroying the life of the woman he presumably loves to death (pun intended) why is Rohit portrayed so sympathetically? Only because it's Salman Khan? His role has not only been misleading in the publicity, it is incongruous and vague. Moreover Salman dying of AIDS is as convincing as Mallika Sherawat dying of celibacy.
What makes "Phir Milenge" unique, if not exceptional, is its tone of narration. The characters speak and 'act' with an urbane casualness that's the opposite of the ham-and-cheesy performances typical of our melodramas. The tone may be incomprehensible to a section of the audience. But it doesn't mean we should never go beyond cute lisping sounds just to cater to the elementary audience.
Peeling off the melodrama Revathy comes with a film swarming with delicate ideas, poised on the precipice of tragedy and yet exuding a sense of hope.