Sunday, March 06, 2011

Saat Khoon Maaf

Imagine a situation where nothing thrives- no love, life, joy, hope or creation. Imagine spending your whole life in such a situation. Most of us would get mad. Most of us would give up hope. But not Suzanna Anne-Marie Johannes. She always wanted to live life on her own terms. She was not going to be helpless. If a problem arose, she was not going to run away from it, or even tackle it like ordinary people do. 

She was the femme-fatale. Her beauty masked the emptiness of her life. With her passion, she could have any man she wanted. And they came. With promises of hopes and dreams, they came. She didn't care for anything else. She was not bound by normal conventions of tradition or morality. Watching Saat Khoon Maaf then is not an exercise in conventional norms and conscience. 

The film is based on a short story by Ruskin Bond titled, "Suzanna's Seven Husbands". Ruskin Bond appears in the movie towards the end. The name Suzanna is striking. It is established right in the beginning of the movie that Suzanna is a Christian. I don't think a story like this could proceed if Suzanna hailed from any other religion. 

In a country like India, where millions of women are tortured by their husbands everyday and are taught to be docile wives, the character of Suzanna could only proceed if she hailed from a religion, which since it came from the West appeared to be relatively "progressive" and "open minded" as compared to the other dominant religions of Hinduism and Islam. Does this mean that Christian women do not get tortured in India? 

Of course they do. But when it comes to how Christianity was imported to India, we see that the British purposely employed Christianity to "civilize the natives". It is said that they were horrified by the kind of violation that natives subjected their women to and hence sought to "teach them better manners" through this religion. Another important tool which they used in this civilizing mission: that of English language. 

Over sixty years of independence and we are still hung up on both. Whether we overtly accept it or not, it becomes much easier for us to accept radical changes when they are primarily introduced through a Western system. Radical methods to combat daily problems too are therefore much easily acceptable when they come through a "broad minded medium" like that of Western education or religion or language.

The film quite predictably then is set in Post Independence era. Suzanna's father was one of the first generation English officers who married a Hindu woman. Vishal Bhardwarj gives us clips and occasional insights into the character's life but does not waste too much time on introduction. Coz he knows and he knows it well, that the audience needs to not lose its patience till the 7th murder; an arduous task. 

The movie therefore cuts right to the chase with the dominating patriarchal character of Neil Nitin Mukesh, who suffers from a deep insecurity of his manhood characterized by possessiveness for his wife; which leads him to break the head of his subordinate who does a close dance with Suzanna (with Neil's permission btw). Mukesh is awesome. There are no words to describe the fantastic way in which he portrayed the gruesomeness of the character. 

However Neil's character, much like those of the other male leads remain black and white. Their grey shades never come to light; or even if they do, the black almost always submerges the white. The reason for this is mainly the fact that the director did not want either of them to overshadow Suzanna. She is the heroine of this movie and cannot be shown in negative light.

One can rationalize the need of Suzanna to kill her first husband, Major Edwin Rodrigues then. But Bhardwaj  does not show the action (of murder) right then and there. For some peculiar reason he chooses to wait till the end of the movie when he shows Suzanna killing all her husbands, one by one. May be he wanted to surprise the audience with Suzanna's violent streak, but the viewer knows it all too well by then and cannot wait to get out!

The second husband stops making any sense whatsoever. More than that is the puzzling question of why a wife would want to kill a drug addict husband. His wanton lifestyle could be a source of concern, his dishonesty with songs could also be a source of concern. But Suzanna refuses to surrender for all of those flaws. 

Instead what really gets on to her is when he fails to give up drugs. I read somewhere that John Abraham was angry with Bhardwaj for not giving equal weight-age to his character as Priyanka in the film. Well, he should thank Bhardwarj for that. John manages to irritate not only Suzanna but also the audience with his flighty overacting. The viewer actually feels relieved when he is killed.

The third husband is interesting. A romantic poet by day, a sadist by night, Irrfan Khan acts his role to perfection. This is where Suzanna's darkness comes to full play. She loses her sanity completely. Her husband, Wasillulah Khan hits her and covers her with bruises to satisfy his perverse needs. Suzanna tries to cover the bruises up with makeup, and visits several dargahs and masjids praying for the end of this savagely behavior. 

But things only get worse. This is when one sees her sitting in front of the mirror wildly tearing apart her hair and laughing insanely. This is when the first traces of psychotic behavior are spotted in Suzanna. She always had a dark reverie but it is the torture of the third husband that makes her lose complete faith. With a vengeance, she decides to take revenge upon him; leading to his death. 

The fourth husband has been portrayed beautifully by Russian actor, Aleksandr Dyachenko. This is where the song, "Darling" is featured. This song has been influenced by a Russian folk song which is also played in the beginning. Rekha Bhardwaj lends her melodious voice to this striking number which captures the mood of the narrative very well. The name of the Russian spy is Nicolai Vronsky and Suzanna repeatedly refers to Anna Karenina where Anna falls in love with Vronsky outside of her marriage. 

In the novel, Anna gets suspicious that Vronsky is involved in relationships with other women and commits suicide. In the film however, as Anna (that's what Vronsky used to call Suzanna) murders her fourth husband when she finds out that he has a wife and children outside their marriage. Even though he tries to explain to her and give excuses, she refuses to listen. It seems even the director gets bored after this and rapidly shows the fifth and sixth murder sequences. 

He hardly wastes time to provide reasons behind the fifth murder. Annu Kapoor is there throughout the movie right from the second murder and does a great job of a sex maniac. Naseeruddin Shah plays the role of Dr. Madhusudan Tarafdar who manages to coax Suzanna to marry him in spite of her not wanting to get married any more. But when she finds out that he had planned to kill her one night, Suzanna gets scared and murders him too.

The choice of her last husband, notably has disappointed some and mesmerized others. I for once, was ecstatic, not by her choice but by being able to guess who she is marrying right by seeing the choice of her wedding gown. At last Suzanna finds peace. The viewer is just happy to be able to leave the hall without killing anyone or himself. 

It would have been much easier for me had Suzanna been a psycho. Frankly that would have simplified things down. But the fact that there is a reason behind her madness makes the viewers wary at first and weary later, to try to find out reasons behind her continuous killing. 

One can only attempt to find out the reason behind her rampage when one combines the toll of tortures of her previous husbands combined with her killing of them. Murder does not only kill the victim. It also leads to a death of a part of the murderer. Suzanna is no exception. Her patience slowly dies down where she does not hesitate to kill even at the slightest hindrance.

Can Saat Khoon Maaf be called a feminist film? Feminism is not only about the victory of women and the celebration of their independence. Feminism is also about bringing to life their untold miseries. Suzanna's life cannot represent the lives of myriad Indian women even if they have thought of killing their husbands at least once in their lives! However it does show the excruciating circumstances a free thinking and independent woman finds herself in. It stands to reason that the situation would have been different if it had been a man with seven wives. 

Suzanna brings to mind the character of Emma Bovary in Flaubert's masterpiece. Throughout her life, Emma hankers for the ideal lover and even engages in extramarital relationships but she never finds the One. Her desperation is transmitted into a financial crisis through which she is unable to get out. The only way she can save her honor is by committing suicide with poison. 

Suzanna does not commit suicide. The director takes a brave step in this regard. The easiest way would have been to kill her and make her a martyr.Instead he brings the film to a conclusion with Suzanna finding peace in her seventh husband. 

The cinematography of the film is exceptionally brilliant. In several scenes, the camera does not capture the whole of the characters but simply a part of their face; a part of their expression. In the scene where Suzanna realizes that her sixth husband was trying to kill her, we see only a fragment of her face reflecting from a mirror where Madhuda is shaving. 

The rest of the frame is cloudy with the focus on Madhuda's naked back where Suzanna spots the scratches which her attacker had faced the night before. The second last scene where Suzanna meets Arun for the last time is shown only through the facial expressions of Arun; the camera rarely follows the 65 year old Suzanna except when Arun turns to leave.

The movie has been strongly contextualized in terms of history. Major Edwin Rodriques, Suzanna's first husband is a proud fighter in the Blue Star Operation, that took place during Indira Gandhi's regime. I am doubtful about Jimmy Stetson's rockstar reception in India. How many rockstars were there in India during the late 80s and early 90s? 

Again the Russian spy is well situated in the era of India's nuclear program in the late 90s. While Dr. Madhusudan Tarafdar, her sixth husband is shown listening to the radio about the ongoing 26/11 attacks (that took place in 2008). 

Acting wise, Priyanka surpasses all. There are no words to describe the genius she upholds in this movie. The movie has bold dramatic scenes; subtlety is upheld not in terms of brevity of speech or manner but rather through an almost maniacal celebration of blood thirst. The color black comes to foreplay once and again.

The first time one sees Suzanna in black is when her father dies. That is the first scene where Suzanna comes into the movie. The narratorial voice of Arun (Vivaan Shah) says that his 'Saheb' liked this color a lot and slowly this color became her color. Every time Suzanna decides to murder a husband, the viewers see her in black. This is a recurrent motif throughout the seven husbands. Most of the crucial scenes are filmed in darkness, at night. When not in darkness, the shabby surroundings (seen in the murder of the sixth husband) bear witness to the solemnity of the film. 

The film does not allow the audience to rest in peace. While it starts on a speedy note, the Director does not build characters but jumps straight to the action. This is one reason why most of the characters appear shallow. Necessary time is not spent in building them up. As a result even Suzanna appears psychotic at times when she should normally have appeared reasonable. Annu Kapoor's death is shown as a matter-of-fact occurrence which Suzanna actually enjoys. 

Suzanna's partners in crime, namely Maggie Aunty (Usha Utthup), Ghalib Khan (Harish Khanna) and Goonga (Shashi Malviya) are shown to add fuel to her passion for hatred and blood thirst. They help her commit the murders when in normal instances one would expect well wishers to inspire her away from murder. 

Bhardwaj's excessive obsession for the plot does not allow these characters to grow, except a little bit of Goonga during the time of the first husband. The viewer is left wondering whether these characters are psychotic or are they dark too; at any rate the four form a deathly combo. 

This is baffling specially if you are trying to follow a linear method of reasoning while watching the movie. The death of husbands like John Abraham, Annu Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah actually make you ask if their offences were too gruesome to not be forgiven. As stated earlier, Suzanna Anne-Marie Johannes is an enigma who cannot be grasped with common notions of morality and conscience. But the director could have done a better job of justifying her character. 

Vivaan Shah, the new found talent shocks everyone with his mature voice and acting skills. He is probably the only sane character in Suzanna's house, who keeps track of everything she does. He tries to make sense of Suzanna's turbulent nonsensical world. He loves her. 

It is not clear therefore why he refuses when Suzanna wants to give herself up to him. May be he did not want to lose the sanctity of their almost maternal relationship. May be he wanted to hold on to the noble idea he had of her. Or may be he was plain scared of getting killed too!

Whatever the reason be, after being refused by the person she trusts the most in her life, Suzanna goes into depression. And her last thread of conscience is lost. Vivaan Shah however manages to win hearts and appreciation. He probably surpasses all the male leads by his conviction and determination. One can proudly say that this youngster is here to stay. 

Saat Khoon Maaf cannot be judged through normal standards. This is an experimental genre and darker than Kaminey, which still had some entertainment quotient. I felt that Saat Khoon Maaf in the midst of providing bare dark facts somewhere loses out on the entertainment factor. However if you like a different style of film making and darkness, this movie is one to watch out for. 


reetam said...

really well written. a comprehensive critique, i must say.
just one thing. annu kapoor was hardly a sex maniac. more like a sex starved cocker spaniel :P

the silent observer said...

haha..that's a nice way to put it.. annu kapoor's obsession with suzanna led me to infer abt his sexual habits. :P

thanks for visiting. :)

RAY7 said...

I don't think the murder of the fourth husband - the Russian - was justified either. Most individuals have to face their spouse's infidelity in today's world. Then again the protagonist Suzanna is hardly like "most". I find Annu Kapoor's and Naseeruddin Shah's murders much more justifiable.
Well written.

the silent observer said...

I don't think the commonality of infidelity makes it justifiable though. and I was left wondering why annu kapoor was murdered in the first place..apparently naseeruddin shah "wanted to kill suzanna"- how do we know that he wasn't simply trying to quiet her down and take her money? I thought the director could have clarified things a bit more, specially if he wanted the viewer to retain a positive view of Suzanna.

thanks for having the patience to read the whole post. :)