By Neel Chaudhuri
LONDON. MR. SINGH and Mrs. Mehta wake up in post-coital unkemptness. They are lovers, tangled in an affair that is soon apparent to their respective spouses, Ashwin and Neera. The cuckolded husband and forsaken wife hesitate to confront their lesser halves, instead spending their days together in shared misery. Friendship quickly turns to intimacy; a parallel deception that plays mostly in cafés and the studio where Ashwin paints. They sleep together and then Ashwin asks to paint a nude portait of Neera.
It is futile to discuss the shortcomings of Indian films that borrow (steal, remix) from foreign cinema. Comparisons with the original are almost always disappointing. Mr. Singh / Mrs. Mehta generously pinches plot and design from a contemporary masterpiece, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Anyone who champions that film (as I vigorously do) will be especially saddened and befuddled by this one.
Writer-director Pravesh Bhardwaj illustrates too clearly the deceit of the eponymous couple. Karan Singh (Naved Aslam) and Sakhi Mehta (Lucy Hassan), in their furtive phone calls and fake business trips, seem almost to be courting suspicion. This is heavily underlined by an overbearing score and a relentless use of handheld camera. It glares in contradiction to Karwai’s film, where the lovers are conspicuously absent, the camera a drifting bystander and the music, oh well, must I go on?
And so the rest of the film lacks any sort of enigma. It seems pathetic that Ashwin (Prroshant Narayanan) and Neera (Aruna Shields) play out a level of incredulity long after their realisation. Their own affair is mostly a series of laborious montages with the music of Ustaad Shujaat Hussain Khan. The only genuine moment of vulnerability — successive shots of Neera crying in the bathroom and stroking her cheating husband’s hand as he sleeps — is dwarfed by the moral and emotional hopscotch of the rest of the film.
The actors struggle with a trite script, their awkwardness magnified in technicolour. Bhardwaj has the palette of London all wrong, preferring vivid interiors to the grey outdoors, which might at least have made the film visually synonymous with its subject. Everything is dressed to match Ashwin’s amateurish art, which takes over the last act.
It reeks of bad television drama, and against the aching beauty of Kar-wai’s film, you are forced to echo Mr. Singh’s declaration: “Mamooli Hindi mein dhoka or in English, the Great Betrayal.”