It's interesting to see women directors in India pushing the envelope to explore themes. Last year, we had Farah Khan doing a 'boys' film ("Main Hoon Na"). Now Vinta Nanda, a pastmaster at TV soaps, turns the tables on the macho brigade in Bollywood by doing the kind of angst-laden film on suburban paranoia that would normally go to a male director like Mahesh Bhatt.
"White Noise" is Bhatt's "Arth" without the comfort of distance. Nanda plunges right into the centre of her protagonist's anguished universe. Her first-hand experiences in the TV industry, her despair at getting caught up in the mediocrity and morass of the Great Indian Soap Trick, and most importantly, her acerbic study of promiscuous easy-flowing relationships in showbiz, are given a peculiarly pungent treatment in her debut spin.
By a stroke of luck, Nanda has got a relatively untried but potentially explosive actress to play the protagonist. As the TV writer Gauri Khanna, Koel Puri burns up the screen with her raw, yet restrained energy. Her post-debut performance (she was earlier seen in a quietly compelling performance in Rahul Bose's "Everybody Says I'm Fine") is no less than a spiked requiem to psychological complexity.
And let's face it. Nanda's protagonist is a tough nut to crack. Gauri is as fragile from the inside as she seems tough from the outside. The blend of the brittle and the unbreakable is reflected in scene after scene of scathing satire where we see Gauri at her workplace.
The constant bitching, the efforts to give a semblance of decency and coherency to the Saas-Bahu serial on air for donkey's ears, and Gauri's brave efforts to ride the wave of gender-based mediocrity are thematic strands that tie themselves up in a bewildering knot about the nullity of life's spiralling ambitions.
Moving in and out of Gauri's work and personal relationships, Nanda constructs a stirring drama of self-destruction... with a last-minute redemption that seems to be brought on more by the screenwriter than the character's destiny.
We've watched female protagonists topple over the brink before. But never quite like this one.
When we first see Gauri she's lost to the everyday world. In a series of jump-cuts we're told she has been given the heave-ho by her married lover Pavan (Aryan Vaid). The severance has shattered her.
Enter the gentle and sensitive Karan Deol. It takes an actor of Rahul Bose's devices to make Karan more than a stereotype. Bose has played the role of the supportive companion in "Mr & Mrs Iyer" and "Chameli". In "White Noise", the character is played at a different pitch -- with more casual cynicism and yet a firm comprehension of the contradictions that make metro-centric life such a mélange of the bitter and the sweet.
Without sweating over the details, Bose's character insinuates itself into Gauri Khanna's life, makes spaces where there's heaving hole of screaming anxieties.
Some fringe characters are a little lost in the plot. Ashiesh Roy as a TV director, who keeps referring to Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, is too shallow to be a parody of profundity. And the satire on soap culture (two actresses from Nanda's path breaking soap "Tara" -- Navneet Nishan and Amita Nangia --make funny in-your-farce guest appearances to drive the point about the all-pervasive impact of the soaps) makes you wonder if Nanda fears the audience would rather stay home to watch soaps than come to the theatres to watch her debut film.
The scenes between Bose and Puri almost always ring authentic. There's a strange dry and yet decisive chemistry between the two. Their introduction to each other on a rain-splashed evening somehow reminded me of Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman in "Kaagaz Ke Phool".
The dialogues, though credible, often make use of words like "precedence" and "propriety" that don't occur in everyday language. This staccato sincerity is a problem faced by most English-language Indian films.
Also the uni-dimensional bitchiness of the TV producer, though performed with glacial correctness by Mona Ambegaonkar, gets on your nerves after a point. Sure, such characters swarm showbiz in Mumbai. But for them to be interesting as characters, they need to be alchemised beyond a straight sluttishness.
Also, what was Karan's troubled relationship with his dad supposed to signify? Merely giving strokes of past to his all-there character?
Nanda is far more comfortable constructing a relationship between the two protagonists. Her narration provides them with ample space to grow towards a hesitant togetherness. In getting there, the narrative pieces together not only Gauri's shattered life (did we have to be reminded of it by a recurrent image of a broken picture frame?) but also an engaging urban fable on how the wanna-geeks live their restless lives on the edge.
When Gauri and Karan finally head for Kashmir (actually Hardwar) for a hasty Reiki session (a rather patchy finale, I must admit), the plot is at peace with its characters.
For the TV industry, the film is fun as a spot-the-celeb event. But for those staring in from the outside, "White Noise", with its generous helpings of Jim Morrison's music and allusions to the warmth that creeps into a rejected frozen heart, is more than just a pastiche of fashionable signposts of urban life.
There are symptoms of the illness that has taken over working women's lives in the larger cities. In "White Noise" we see the characters scratching the sleek surfaces of their lives for signs of substance.
The emptiness they encounter is what gives weight to Nanda's film.