However, my interest was piqued not by the main narrative of the film which is something that has been portrayed quite often in theatre and cinema from various angles, most famously in India in Guru Dutt's "Kaagaz ke Phool", but by two sub-narratives which I feel contextualise this film in very important contemporary ways.
In fact one sub-narrative, the more important one, that of the subordination of women and their rebellion against this, kicks off the film and takes up quite a lot of its time. Like in Shakespeare's King Lear, there are three women, the veteran actor's young co-star, his live-in partner and the nurse who is taking care of him. All three are in various ways suffering from patriarchal oppression but yet initially when they first meet they are all antagonistic to each other. But the beauty of the film is that as it unfolds and these women interact with each other and reveal the various oppressions they have gone through and are currently suffering, they begin bonding with each other and in the end become friends at the moment of its tragic denouement. Shefali Shah as the live in partner puts in a virtuoso performance, far outstripping other major actors like Preity Zinta as the young co-star, Amitabh Bacchan as the veteran actor and Arjun Rampal as the film director and has deservedly won the "Best Supporting Actress" award in the National Film Awards of 2009. The live-in partner is not oppressed by the veteran actor but by societal norms which look askance at such "illegal" relationships. In the end she poignantly reveals why the veteran actor suddenly decided to retire just a week before he was to act as King Lear. This revelation is a major statement of the extent to which women are burdened by patriarchy in this country and the price they have to pay for rebelling. Once again, even though some critics have questioned the plausibility of the reason for the veteran actor recusing himself from acting as King Lear I feel it is a great gender sensitive master stroke from Rituporno Ghosh that has considerably increased my respect for him.
The other sub-narrative is a comic one but has a very serious message. The veteran actor is angry that men frequently, on a daily basis, urinate on the wall of his house!!! He keeps a vigil and chases them away. Later when the young director has succeeded in establishing a rapport with him, he installs a CC TV and so they can sit in the comfort of their room and watch. Then, instead of chasing away the urinators they play a game trying to guess what they do for a living in life. The urinators are not just poor people but well heeled car driving men also. This sub-theme too carries on to the climax. The cavalier attitude of Indians, especially men, towards sanitation, which is today a serious environmental and social problem in this country with most of its rivers polluted beyond redemption has been cleverly woven into the story in an unobtrusive way lending it a comic sub-theme and once again this has served to further increase my respect for the departed director.
King Lear is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare's better plays, some critics say it is the best, underlining how greed can distort humans, and the director has cleverly drawn from some of its motifs to craft a very good film. The icing on the cake is the very soft, almost indistinguishable, playing in the background of classic Hindi film songs from films like Pyaasa, whose lyrics echo the conversations going on between the three women. All in all a great treat after a long time from Indian cinema.