Sometimes an interesting premise fails to carry a film to a luminous conclusion. "Shabd" has it all - a truly striking plot, great looking cast, terrific locations and mesmerising cinematography. Yet it misses the bus, stops short of delivering a genre-defying wallop in the jaded face of the box-office.
"Shabd" proves one thing for all times. Merely packaging a different plot in gloss cannot compensate for the absence of intrinsic credibility in the proceedings. Debutante Leena Yadav displays a flair for framing her shots in whispering silhouettes and hushed contours. Just what these hushed whispers are trying to say is not fully or even partially comprehensible.
The plot has just three characters. Unlike Aishwarya's previous art house product "Raincoat" (also an intimate character study) here the incidental characters don't fit into the narrative.
Caught between a critical snarl for his last book and a writer's block, Shauqat (Sanjay Dutt) encourages his stunningly poised wife Antara (Aishwarya Rai ) to get close to a colleague on the campus, so he'd have something to write about.
Far-fetched? Yes, for sure! The debutante director could nonetheless have infused enigmatic electricity into the unorthodox triangle, if only she had not made the film so heavy-handed and wordy. Every pause in the plot is filled with words of sighing ambiguity and every episode comes with italicised footnotes. Though relevant and insightful, the dialogues (by Sutapa Sarkar) simply flow in a suffocating spill over, so that you are never close to the three characters.
The words simply - or not so simply - come in the way. Sanjay and Aishwarya try to cross the bridge of verbosity and succeed to a point. Sanjay's lined face and anguished demeanour lend a queasy grace to the self-absorbed and delusory world of the writer.
But it's Aishwarya who surprises you. Never outside Sanjay Leela Bhansali's cinema has she looked so ethereal, fragile and confident. To her role of a wife who becomes a casualty of a strange spousal mind-game, she brings a tight emotional craving to lunge towards a reality check. She's all there...and yet lost!
There is a problem with Zayed Khan's character and performance. Considering Yash is meant to be a lecturer in the same college as the writer's wife and considering his presence is supposedly empowered by the writer's imagination (or, at least so we believe since Shauqat keeps pounding on his typewriter to announce the Other Man's manoeuvre), why does Zayed have to dress talk and behave like a camp carryover of his character in "Main Hoon Na"?
As a performer he's fine as long as he's funny. When he tries to be serious, he ends up being doubly funny.
Sanjay and Aishwarya carry the film towards a mellow and mature destination. Sanjay has a specially difficult role as a writer rapidly losing touch with reality. He lets his character's pain show on screen without guilt or apology. Beyond a point, the two principal actors fail to do anything with Leena Yadav's tangled triangle.
"Shabd" is like an intricate jigsaw puzzle where the final picture doesn't come together because there are vital pieces missing in the design.
Is Yash, for example, just a figment of Shauqat's imagination? Why does Antara go along with her husband's bizarre plans of thrusting her on to the young man? He suffers from a mental block. But what does she suffer from? A spouse scare?
In the absence of definite answers, "Shabd" ends up looking phonier than crisp currency bills packed in a game of Monopoly. Besides Sanjay and Aishwarya, the life-saver is Aseem Bajaj's cinematography. Though a little too showy to be fully effectual, the artwork (Omung Patel) and the photography tend to lend a dazzling array of slick images to a film that is otherwise quite empty at heart.