Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Release date:
July 14, 2017

Ashish Bisht, Raveena Tandon, Arpita Chatterjee, Areesz Ganddi, Simon Frenay, Raj Suri, Anika Dhawan, Gaurav Nanda, Andrew Hoffland, Shray Rai Tiwari, Cameos: Sanjay Suri, fashion designers Varun Bahl and Wendell Rodricks
Hindi with English

One of the great highs of being a cinephile comes from watching a new release by a director whose body of work you love, and discovering that they have done it again. There is, I have come to realise, a sub-conscious tension I experience as I enter a hall before any film, more so before a film by someone with a solid track record, and if the film turns out to be good, a sense of relief that washes over me as I leave – relief that those couple of hours of life were not wasted, and in the case of an artist I respect, relief that they have proved to be consistent.

My heart broke a little when I saw Shab this week. It has been helmed by Onir, who made the politically brave, mind-shatteringly beautiful My Brother Nikhil in 2005 and I Am in 2011, with the latter deservedly going on to win the year’s National Award for Best Hindi Film. Shab is his first directorial feature in six years, but the intervening period has, unfortunately, not been well spent.

The title comes from a Hindustani word for “night”. The story is about what goes on under cover of a metaphorical darkness in Delhi’s social circles, where young entrants on the glamour scene are used and abused by unscrupulous veterans, where a creative person you see at work in a posh colony could be supplementing their income by dabbling in the world’s oldest profession, and where bored rich married couples find excitement in infidelity.

In one of Shab’s earliest scenes, an aspiring model from a small town walks to the head of a catwalk in the briefest of shiny briefs, wiggles his butt and crotch about for the viewing consumption of a panel of judges seated below the stage, and introduces himself in broken English that causes them to snigger. He is achingly young and eager, but they appear not to see that. What they see instead is a target for their snobbery and their lust. 

It is a moment brimming with pathos and potential, not over- or under-done, but just right. Newcomer Ashish Bisht playing the boy-child on the ramp – Mohan from Dhanaulti – seems to have been well chosen for the role. As he stands there before that elite set, the picture of innocence and enthusiasm mixed with a dash of stupidity, anxious to impress and evidently impervious to their contempt, it is hard not to feel uneasy on his behalf and sorry for him. It is possible that Bisht is acting here, but to all appearances he is just being.

That fleeting passage perfectly illustrates the difference between the objectification of a person with the reins in their hands (such as a male superstar choosing to dance shirtless to Dard e disco, and other top heroes in India’s big film industries) versus a person with less power (heroines from the same film industries, including the seniors among them) versus those with no power at all (female debutants and even men like Mohan). No one touches Mohan during that trial, yet there is exploitation written all over it.

When the wealthy socialite Sonal Modi (Raveena Tandon) decides that Mohan is a worthy toy boy, we learn that he is not quite as innocent as he looks. She later re-christens him Azfar to fit him better into snooty circles, anoints him her fitness trainer, and starts carting him around wherever she goes. Azfar develops a swagger and a seductive air with women, and strains at the leash on which his mentor keeps him.

If Shab had been able to carry forward the nuanced air of discomfort in that opening talent hunt, it could have been special. Because of that promise, when at first we are introduced to a string of individuals and we watch their paths intersect, it seems like something might come of it. Unfortunately, Shab disintegrates within its first half hour. And so, we are hauled across the criss-crossing lives of character after character, from Mohan/Azfar, Sonal and her designer buddy Rohan Sud (Raj Suri), to restaurateur Neil (Areesz Ganddi) and his close friend Raina (Arpita Chatterjee), Raina’s sister Anu (Anika Dhawan) and her neighbour Benoit LeBlanc (Simon Frenay), Neil’s lovers, Raina’s clients, and… you know what, it does not matter, because the comatose narrative – divided pointlessly into the four seasons – left me so indifferent after a while, that I could not even remember their names.

The problem lies not with the multiplicity of characters or even the acting for the most part, but with the shallow writing, jagged editing (initially intriguing but distractingly choppy as time goes by) and inert direction. Shab somehow feels like a film Onir made in the middle of a million distractions. The editing has been credited to the usually reliable Irene Dhar Malik and Onir, the screenplay and dialogues to Merle Kröger and Onir, the Hindi dialogues to Adhiraj Singh and the dramaturgy to Kröger, while Urmi Juvekar has been acknowledged for the story idea – let them decide culpability amongst themselves in this case.

Whatever conclusion they may arrive at, the fact remains that even though some of the actors in Shab are worth caring for, not a single character is.

Bisht is sweet up to a point, but is lost to surface treatment by the writers. Tandon has screen presence and gorgeousness, but after an interesting introduction, is given little to do beyond be haughty, hot and horny.

Chatterjee is a veteran of the Bengali industry. She was strong in her Bollywood debut Chauranga (2016), which was co-produced but not directed by Onir. In Shab she is inexplicably stiff as cardboard, which weighs heavily on the already insubstantial writing of Raina. Ganddi and Frenay look like they might add up to something more with a better script, but they are so under-written that it is impossible to judge them by this film. Suri, thankfully, does not go stark raving camp like designers in the formulaic Madhur Bhandarkar mould, but his motivations in his final scene are one of this film’s many mysteries that I do not give a damn enough to crack.

Restraint cannot mean zero vitality, yet that is what you get in Shab. Worse, the film does not have anything new to say. We already know that wealth does not guarantee marital happiness, that freshers in the modelling and acting professions get taken advantage of sexually, that big cities can be challenging to small-town folk. We know of the casting couch, high-society call girls and closeted homosexuality. They exist, but what more can you tell us about them beyond what has already been told? What emotion can you stir up that has not already been felt?

If the answer to either question is “I don’t know”, here is another question: is the film worth making? Shab, sadly, was not.

Rating (out of five stars): *

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
108 minutes 27 seconds

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