Friday, February 18, 2011

The Hindi Black Widow: 7 Khoon Maaf

Okay, so maybe Susanna Anna-Marie Johannes killed a few husbands. At least she had good reasons, most of the time. Frankly, she is not a bad person really, she just has bad moments—six or seven of them. Falling somewhere in the spectrum between Shirley MacLaine in What a Way to Go and Theresa Russell in Black Widow, Johannes is profoundly unlucky in love throughout Vishal Bhardwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Her mother died in child birth and her beloved father tragically passed during her early formative years. Johannes will never have to worry about money, but love is a different story. Of course, the courtships always start out great, yet once hitched, her hubbies’ bad sides quickly reveal themselves. #1 was a military hero, but his war wounds made him bitter and cruel. Though he vents is frustration on Johannes loyal retainers, they will have the last laugh. This process will repeat.

Naturally, each husband is awful in his own unique way. It is not for a lack of effort on her part either. A devout Christian, Johannes even converts to Islam for Wasiullah Khan. Though his lyric poetry suggested a romantic soul, his violent sexual abuse turns her life into a nightmare. Truly, it will be the death of him. Over the decades, Johannes luck never improves. Even her sixth husband, a holistic doctor played by the great Naseeruddin Shah, turns out to be highly problematic. Eventually, the compounding tragedy of her serial mariticide threatens to engulf her very soul, a descent viewers witness in a series of Noir-style flashbacks.

Sort of a Hindi Anthony Hopkins, Shah is perfectly cast as the sophisticated and mysterious #6. However, Maaf is unquestionably a star vehicle for Priyanka Chopra as Johannes. Convincingly aging forty years, she also preserves a sense of Johannes’ vulnerability and fundamental Christian decency, despite her constant resorts to homicide. Indeed, the latter will take on renewed significance in the third act.

Bhardwaj has a reputation for straddling the boundary of Bollywood and India’s Parallel Cinema. Arguably, Maaf leans sixty-forty to the latter. While there are musical interludes, they usually happen in relatively realistic contexts, like Johannes’ wedding celebrations (of which there are plenty). Of course, there is also a lot of melodramatic messiness to satisfy Bollywood fans. While the tone can be a bit erratic, Bhardwaj keeps the pace brisk. In fact, his sly black humor and a surprisingly substantial emotional payoff give the film a distinctive character. As ambitious Bollywood or accessible Parallel Cinema, Maaf is a good introduction to Hindi films. Considerably better than many recent imports from the subcontinent, it opens today (2/18) in New York at the Big Cinemas Manhattan.