Apr 05


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History repeating

As it happened, Vic explained, director K. Asif was Muslim, and so living and working in India he felt so strongly on the matter of tolerance and coexistence that this was his way of making a statement, reworking a familiar story to particular ends — a fine approach, well validated by both its commonality over the centuries (millennia?) and how it was employed here. But the director was not solely given over to a message film, this was meant to be a popular entertainment where the money was on the screen and the talent was top notch, something Asif wasn’t going to screw up if he had the chance. He didn’t, and then some. This is one of the richest such films you will ever see, it’s an anti-Dogme film through and through and thank heavens for that.

Set mostly in the palace of the Mughals but at points granting the viewers scenes of battling armies or desert wastes, or even here or there actual filming on the grounds of the actual palace, the set feels like one vast playground for the cameras and actors and more — it might not actually be one set, it doubtless isn’t, but such is the scope and scale you want to believe it is. The two sequences that were actually shot in color the first time through, meanwhile, are opulence redefined — crystalline lamps, multicolored fabrics and costumes that almost look like they are dripping silk, jewels everywhere. Rivers flow into channels between parts of the grounds, massive scales of justice — literally that — play an important role in the plot. Add to that fairly extensive background extras in many scenes and the result is pure cinematic overdrive, at once familiar from Western costume epics and yet different.

But much like, say, Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings, the emphasis not only can be, but is, on the killer closeup, where everything falls into background as one or two characters converse or reflect. It should be said at this point that the acting, while working with melodramatic situations and language, is never less than effective — the theme of forbidden love and ‘correct’ behavior defining so much of the story as it does, it’s little surprise that there’s actually a lot here that depends on pregnant pauses, silences, conversations that either are a touch stiff because they *have* to be stiff or explosive because the breaking point has been reached. There’s even room for a great comic relief role in the person of the lead female character’s sister, who is one of those perfectly wry, saucy and sassy people that more films should perhaps be about instead of just being the comic relief — great sense of timing on her part, and the quizzical, flustered look she always leaves her foil (a friend/guard of the prince) is priceless in turn, caught as he is between propriety and frustration.

‘It’s like the French language of India’

So Vic spoke about the language being used in the movie at one point, and at many points he snorted and expressed his annoyance with me at the text of the subtitles, which he denigrated for the paucity of their language. It turns out that the language being spoken, Urdu, wasn’t ‘merely’ Urdu but a kind of dialect so refined and elegant that, indeed, it could be seen as French is in many English speaking countries, a tongue that conveys sophistication and beauty and more.

The way Vic describes it, though, it might almost make sense to draw a comparison with the Russian language at its most metaphorical and elegant — the language of the script is apparently seen as poetry by those who love the film and was likely written as such to start with. Vic illustrated this by comparing one sequence where the prince has an extensive piece of dialogue translated only by one line on the screen. The several lines Vic translated directly from the spoken words were so intense, epigrammatic and stylized that I was amazed and pleased in equal measures, it seemed to fit the mood of everything perfectly.

Then there’s the music — oh man. This could require an essay on its own, to be utterly honest. Suffice to say that I’ve rarely felt so perfectly drowned in sound. There are only one or two moments where the songs are in fact delivered in movie-musical style, no musicians or orchestras or anything on screen but no reason either to stop one from breaking out into song. (That the best such moment is delivered by the wonderfully cynical sculptor — more on him later — is wonderful to see and hear.) But regardless of where or how they are portrayed on screen, the result is breathtaking — part of the restoration involved rerecording the music (overseen by the original composer, who’s still alive) but keeping the vocals, a blend of past and present that not only works but flat out kills.

There’s one sequence Vic previewed as a throwdown, and so it is — the lead female character and the evil schemer (aiming for the prince’s love herself) battling each other in a singing competition of sorts, judged by the prince. Set in an outdoor part of the palace and with each character backed by about twenty different singers, it’s a simply overwhelming combination of sound and vision, the striking vocal performances and the lush, multichannel orchestrations filling up all the space while the visuals, though seemingly static (long shots on both choirs, sitting down the entire time and conveying their songs through upper body motion and facial expression) have a careful, measured elegance. To have seen that was to have been lucky indeed — one of those pure moments of artistic effort where everybody came together perfectly.

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