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Director :
Music :
Lyrics :
Starring :
 Sudhir Mishra
 Sandesh Shandilya
 Irshad Kamil
 Kareena Kapoor, Rahul Bose

By Subhash K. Jha, IANS

There are some films where the central performance carries the narrative forward in ways that are so unpredictable, exciting, enchanting and life-giving that you wonder which is greater: the actor or the vehicle!

Kareena Kapoor as "Chameli" in Sudhir Mishra's richly textured tale of a prostitute's night out with the unlikeliest of male companions is as delicately perched on the slim and sensitive plot as a dewdrop trembling on a windswept leaf.

All the fabulous fragility of a woman who sells sex for a living and all the inbuilt self-deprecatory humour and irony that she employs to survive in the brutal and harsh flesh trade are mapped on that face - an enchanting map of the human heart, if ever there was one.

And what a face!

Whether swaying to Saroj Khan's informally seductive rhythms in "Behta hai man" or mocking the banker Aman (Rahul Bose) for his starchy cloistered middle class civility, Kareena goes way beyond anyone's expectations, including most decidedly her own, to deliver an all-time great performance, on a par with Nargis in Mehboob Khan's "Mother India", Meena Kumari in "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam" and Shabana Azmi in Mahesh Bhatt's "Arth". Kareena flashes an intuitive brilliance that comes to movies very, very rarely indeed.

The larger picture that emerges from the power and glory of the central performance is also incredibly incandescent.

Director Sudhir Mishra, who delivered a fiasco last year in "Calcutta Mail", returns to his roots to make yet another linear story situated during one night. He's done another film. "Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin" in the same format but his endeavour to suffuse anxious lives in smouldering colours fell short for the lack of inherent charisma in the actors.

Rahul Bose and Kareena work wonderfully as incompatible companions on a rain-splashed night. From Bose's initial white collar outrage at being stranded with a woman of sleazy repute, to the growing awareness of a compassion that flows between them like a two-way river nourishing one another's famished yet festooned life, he and Kareena make Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman" look like candidates rehearsing for a play on the prince and the showgirl.

The one stand out component in this vivid portrait of one night's unstoppered vagaries is the technical polish.

Seldom has an off-mainstream film, which "Chameli" undoubtedly is, exuded so much skill and efficiency in the execution of the story.

From the sound-mixing (which conveys mostly the melody of the rain without toppling over into a torrential downpour), to the background score and songs by Sandesh Shandilya, "Chameli" is a portrait of ravishing restraint and lyrical harmony.

Director Mishra mixes echoes of the film's un-definably tortured past with the jostling melee of the rain-drenched present in a chamber-piece that stirs memories of Bimal Roy's "Bandini" and Gulzar's "Mausam".

In some ways, Mishra goes beyond both the films in search of a contemporary content through caustic, yet sensitive, characterizations.

There are moments of tremendous poetry in the narration.

In the sequence where Chameli tells Aman about her first customer in a car at an age when she would have otherwise been playing with dolls, Mishra fills the soundtrack with the sound of girl in acute pain as she's being ravaged. Kareena tells the story with the detached pathos of Shabana Azmi narrating to Victor Bannerjee how her own mother sold her to a brothel in Lekh Tandon's "Doosri Dulhan".

Such moments convey the turbulence of a brewing storm without lathering the narration in loops of hysteria.

The enchanting equanimity of Mishra's narrative is flawlessly echoed in Kareena's physical and emotional movements - self-mocking one moment, she transforms into a tragedy queen the next - only to shatter our faith in her sentimental words by laughing away her confessions as fabricated sob stories.

The director denudes the narration almost completely of sentimentality. This is indeed a rare achievement for a film that delineates the wretched progression of a streetwalker's through a night of lush slush of intrigue, gender-based power games and liberation. The 'wade' until dark is both absorbing and heartbreaking.

Part-gamine, part-elfin, seductive and childlike, honest and calculating, this is probably the best portrayal of a prostitute ever seen in cinema of any language.

Kareena gets splendid support from Bose, who most of the time has to step back and watch his unlikely 'prey'-mate do her act.

Customer or camera, Kareena seizes both in her performance to deliver the best portrayal by an actress in the past decade.

Her performance wouldn't have worked so effectively without Rahul Bose, who brings an acute sense of self-annihilating cynicism to his role. Various dysfunctional characters, including a transvestite played powerfully by Kabir Sadanand, weave in and out of the two stranded yet evolving lives.

Aseem Bajaj's cinematography is a fascinating fusion of poetry and prose - in the "Behta hai man" song, we can't but marvel at Bajaj's skills as he captures Chameli's joie de vivre in a passing almirah's mirror.

Mishra's narrative is deliberately personalized. He imagines his characters as both puppets and masters of destiny. It's doubtful that the director could've assimilated so much of his lyrical thought processes without Kareena at the helm. In a sequence such as the one where she breaks into fragmented English in the police van, she incorporates waves of tragic irony into an outwardly simple moment.

It's doubtful that the actress knows what she has achieved in the film. We can forget Kareena. But we can never forget "Chameli". That's a true measure of the actress' achievement in this epic in a teacup.

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More about Chameli
- Wallpapers
- Music Review
- Interview with Kareena
- Official Website