Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 04/10/06 01:21:09

"A Spiritual Experience Indeed!"
3 stars (Average)

As I ran to relieve myself at the intermission point of Pankuj Parashar’s 'Banaras', fed up and completely let down by what I’d endured in the first half, I never imagined I’d suggest this movie to anybody, let alone advocate it profusely. Strangely, Parashar infuses such life and meaning into the second-half that the meandering pre-interval portions actually fit into the larger scheme. Save a few unnecessary song and dance routines and certain scenes that aren’t exactly polished, 'Banaras' is undeniably a spiritual experience. I don’t remember the last time my years 'of reading religious scriptures(or atleast going through them, I don’t mean to suggest that I’m some expert on the subject), being a Hindu, born in a highly religious country, raised in an urban metropolis, for all reasons practical without any religious leanings existence' were made so clearly aware to me. That is exactly what 'Banaras' did and it made me feel enlightened, if only on an existential level.

The movie begins with a wonderful montage of the city of Banaras. The sheer brilliance of the landscape and its bathed virgin look at once kindle some eternal yearning within. Parashar doesn’t push down our throats a lesson in the religious and spiritual importance of the city. Instead, he merely allows DOP Nirav Shah to let his camera drink in the images which speak volumes of themselves that no words can simplify. We meet Shwetambari(Urmila Matondkar), a spiritual healer of some kind, living in Mauritius. Shwetambari has forsaken the holy city of Banaras, a city that she was born and grew up in, to be beckoned by her ailing father on his deathbed. As Shwetambari muses whether she should go back to the city that she has left behind, we learn of her reasons for leaving the city in the first place. Born to affluent upper-caste Brahmins, Shwetambari is doted upon by her father Mahendranath(Raj Babbar) and mother Gayatri Devi(Dimple Kapadia) who have had her after many efforts. On the opposite end of the spectrum Soham(Ashmit Patel), abandoned as a child, is raised by a low-caste sweeper. Soham, under the tutelage of a mystic sage Babaji(Naseeruddin Shah), grows to become a learned individual well-versed in the religious texts and excelling at arts, especially classical music. Shwetambari and Ashmit meet because of their shared musical interests, but soon develop a bond which they find timeless. It is in this interlude that the film drags along at a droning pace. Besides, the lovers profess their love in such archaic terms that there’s nothing romantic about it. Upon retrospect though, that is precisely what Parashar is aiming for. In the nonchalance of the lovers is their everlasting destined fate justified. But how do you forgive the barrage of songs that Parashar forces upon us? For a change, Himesh Reshammiya doesn’t compose popular tracks, giving a more classical album. However the way in which Parashar uses them is appalling to say the least. Ashmit Patel, who can’t act if his life depended on it, mouths complex classical notes in a slipshod manner, making it unintentionally funny. There’s also a young girl lip-syncing to the crooning of an adult singer, and a festive song that fulfills all the chestnuts of holi(an Indian festival of colours).

Anyway things only get worse, or so I thought! Shwetambari manages to get her parents to accept Soham despite his being from the lower-strata of the religious hierarchy. Hearing the two lovers pontificate about life, religion and science is akin to listening two junkies on a shaman trip. Infact when Ashmit Patel’s Soham had his enlightenment, I was on a trip of my own. My body was present at the cinema-hall, but my mind was off wondering how cute Ayesha Takia looked wearing a nose-ring just a couple of days ago in the dreadful Shaadi Se Pehle! Coupled with Dimple’s second consecutive bland performance(following ‘Being Cyrus’), the reels were getting painful to sit through. And then suddenly, as Soham is killed just a day before his wedding, the movie came to life.

The teasing argument of science versus religion that takes place earlier in the movie is dealt with singularly in the second half without any deviations. Reality is questioned; the quantum soup of our existence is pondered on and the simple nature of truth is defined. Parashar gives a master-stroke by making the same actor play a science professor and a rigid musical teacher, underlining the symbiotic relationship of science and religion. With Akash Khurana’s entrance, as an ailing psychiatrist who’s returning back to Banaras in his dying days, things become astonishingly overwhelming. Dialogues(Javed Siddiqi) are thrown at us like pearls of wisdom- “Mahaan aatmayein sharir ki mohtaaj nahin hoti”(Great beings aren’t bound to the existence of their body), “Agar sachchai ko samajhna chahte ho, to khudko samjho”(If you want to comprehend truth, understand yourself) and “Jo saral hai, wohi sach hai”(Truth is simple).

By the end, I didn’t know what had hit me. I’d undergone an experience that I’m unable to define. Have I really been living in a confused state of rationality, as Shwetambari opines about learned men of science? Am I like Khurana’s Dr. Bhattacharya, trying to protect myself from the very thing that I’ve come from and will fade into? The clarity required to answer these questions are quite simple, and they are true! L.C. Singh, a professor of mysticism and existentialism at the Banaras Hindu University and visiting faculty at Harvard, who’s written and produced this film has given us an opportunity to experience something that we rarely, if ever, do at the cinemas.

Parashar, who has for the most part of his career been an uneven director, directs Banaras with a touch of grace and languorousness. His direction is just apt, not meddling with the proceedings and letting them remain true to the script. He gets good performances from his cast, most notably Raj Babbar, Arif Zakaria, Akash Khurana and his old Jalwa pal- Naseeruddin Shah. Urmila Matondkar looks luminous sans make-up and, except one sequence where she goes over the top, is in good form. The true hero of this film however is Nirav Shah. His lenses capture Banaras with such reverence, it makes the city breathe and have a life of its own. It makes you want to visit Banaras.

Does the film require one to be a staunch Hindu or even merely one inclined towards religion? I doubt. The film is universal, and if any of you has ever questioned your being or wondered about the cycle of life, this movie might help you look in the right direction for the answers. No, it won’t provide you the answer!

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