The story of star-crossed lovers Mirzya and Sahiba is one of Indian literature's most enduring tales. This classic Punjabi story has been told and retold for generations, in no small part due to its defiance of caste conventions and the way it circumvents the arranged marriage norm that still exists even today in many parts of India. Mirza Sahiban shares a few elements with the western story of Romeo and Juliet, and that reference should at least give viewers unfamiliar with the story a grounding in the type of love story this is going to be. And like that tale, this one is always ripe for reinterpretation.
This time around the story is tackled by two giants of Hindi cinema, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (Rang De Basanti, Delhi-6), and Academy Award winning lyricist/screenwriter Gulzar, whose credits are too numerous to mention and whose career goes back fifty years. The combination of these two immense talents in Mirzya is a treat too tempting to avoid, but unfortunately the film falters under the weight of its own melodramatic urges and suffers a fate worse than death, it's boring.
Mehra and Gulzar have decided to tell the story in three seperate time periods in an attempt to tie modern events to the ancient story. There is the fantastical ancient setting in which Mirzya steals away with his beloved but forbidden Sahiba in a dialogue-free musical action set piece stretched throughout the run time of the film. Then there is the modern retelling of the story with the same actors portraying the contemporary versions of the legend, this time named Monish and Suchitra. The film does break to give the modern romance a back story that explains why the love is forbidden and showing the pair as children, but it is brief, and most of its appearances in the film are limited to repeating flashbacks.
The structure of the film is actually quite clever, and allows even the least familair with the story to at least understand that this tale is something out of classical literature, or at least something familiar to Indian audiences. Even if you cannot decode the details of the ancient section of the film, it's quite clear what is going on. The problem is completely to do with the film's execution and an incredible amount of self-indulgence on the part of Gulzar and Mehra.
In a bold move by Mehra, the leads are both debutante actors with no feature roles in their pasts. In the role of Miryza/Monish, Mehra cast Harshvardhan Kapoor, a ruggedly handsome man with abs for days and a soft spoken power about him that goes a long way toward gaining the audience's empathy. As Sahiba/Suchitra, Mehra is a bit less successful with the performance of Saiyami Kher, a ravishingly beautiful woman whose limited acting range is a real detriment to the film. In fact, for the vast majority of the film Suchitra does most of the talking, but her glib manner throws off the somber tone of the film while Kapoor's largely silent role conveys more angst and emotion by a wide margin.
All that being said, the actors are mostly pretty okay. I don't see either of these performers bringing home and Oscars any time soon, but they are perfectly passable in their roles. The main issues have to do with the two autuers at the head of this serpent, Mehra and Gulzar.
Gulzar is a legend in Bollywood and one of India's most respected poets as well as one of the most famous lyricists in the industry. As such, Mehra appears to have given him free reign with both the lyrics and the screenplay, and the result is a soppy melodramatic mess that attempts to wring every ounce of pathos from an already tragic story by way of overbearing musical narration and hackneyed dialogue that doesn't quite fit the contermporary setting. Even though the film follows much the same trajectory as Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet in attempting to create an ancient love affair on modern soil, in this case it over-indulges and the film suffers for it.
However, Gulzar cannot be held completely accountable, after all a film is captained by its director and Mehra is just as much to blame for being too in love with his own images to know when enough is enough. The fantasy flashbacks are beautiful shot and scored, but they are almost exclusively shown in extreme slow motion to make up for the lack of dialogue. This directorial decision stretches the film out at least an additional twenty minutes, if not more, that is filled with nothing but slow motion archery. It's gorgeous, but this two hour and ten minute film features only about one hour and twenty minutes worth of real action, which leads me to my other major concern.
Mirzya is too long. I know that the general concensus around the world is that Indian films are too long in general, but I've never been a subscriber to that particular bias. Films should be exactly as long as they need to be, no more and no less. However, very little actually happens in Mirzya. There are only a handful of truly essential scenes that are padded by flashbacks, slow-motion fantasy sequences, or unnecessary Greek chorus style songs. Had they cut down the film to a reasonable length and even attempted to put in some quality setpieces to bring some energy to the screen, it would've done wonders. However, as it sits, the film is little more than an overwrought tourism advertisement for the beauty of Rajasthan. To call it a disappointment would be kind.
Mirzya wasn't really on my radar to review before this week. But when the chance arose to give it a look, I was more than happy to spend some time in Mehra and Gulzar's world. Unfortuantely, I spent more time checking my watch than watching the film and that's never a good sign.