By Subash K. Jha, Indo-Asian News Service
Starring Urmila Matondkar, Ashmit Patel, Dimple Kapadia, Raj Babbar, Naseeruddin Shah; Directed by Pankaj Parasher; Rating: ***
The sheer beauty of Varanasi - the temples, river banks, the aroma of incense -floods you as Pankaj Parasher - goes into a heady but steady spiritual quest.
"Banaras" works on several levels. As a film that takes us right into the heart of the holy city, it's a splendid occasion for sights and sounds seldom heard in contemporary cinema.
Full and irrevocable marks to cinematographer Nirav Shah, music composer Himesh Reshammiya and background scorer Surinder Sodhi for adding a luminous layer to this mellow-drama of some lyrical beauty.
These technicians are at their best, creating a world of optical and spiritual salvation without hampering the flow of the romantic tale that takes hold of the director's vision and guides him into a soul-searching exercise of considerable sensitivity and compassion.
Admittedly, Parasher's quest to fuse spirituality with romance runs into some road-blocks. Often you feel the ambience threatens to overpower the characters... or maybe that's what the underlying theme is meant to be.
But you can't take away from the endeavour's sincerity of purpose, its genuine desire to cross the boundaries between mass entertainment and intellectual discursion without making a song and dance of the unorthodox leap into the lyrical.
Of the song and dance, there's no dearth.
Urmila Matondkar, still glamorous and chic in her diligently acquired reputation for delivery controlled power-house performances, lends a glorious graph of growth pain and acceptance to her character. Put her in London or Banaras, her smooth effort to get under the skin of her character is a pleasure to behold.
Two themes that emerge from Urmila's fascinating picaresque character are the indescribable pain of losing love and how to sublimate it into areas of existence where the individual ceases to matter to herself.
The strong central performance is constantly aided by a knowledgeable supporting cast.
Raj Babbar and Dimple Kapadia as Urmila's parents bring a certain fresh raw emotionalism to their clichéd parts. Dimple rips the screen apart in her moment of reckoning with her screen daughter when the older woman must confess to a crime so terrible, it makes Lady Macbeth appear akin to Mother Teresa.
But the mood of forgiveness and the sheer lightness of discarding the heavy mantle of pain and guilt run across this prettily crafted piece of cinema where the anxieties of going beyond convention are constantly diverted into debates on the quality of life and death.
The polemics are never allowed to get excessive. Parasher suffuses the spiritual canvas with interludes that caress divinity. But the weightiness of the theme is occasionally undermined by plunges into banality.
What you carry home Urmila's pain after her low-caste beloved (Ashmit Patel, with the long hair suiting the part) is murdered.
Scenes where she re-visits her romantic bliss wrench your heart with their sincerity. The dying moments between Urmila and Dimple create a raging storm of rebuke and forgiveness.
And how can you forget Aakash Khuarana as rational psychiatrist experiencing the mysticism of Varanasi with sudden and swift results.
"Banaras" is a film that could easily have fallen into the trap of over-mystifying the theme and appearing phoney in its spirituality.
Providentially you cannot miss the bona fide intentions of the people behind this film... Not even Naseeruddin Shah whose cameo as 'God' is done with such contagious warmth it converts you into a realm of religiosity without compromising your state of supreme cynicism.
It doesn't really matter whether "Banaras" clicks at the box-office. For its tenacity of purpose and sensitivity of vision and for its genuineness of expression you have to grant the film the space to have its say.
This film deserves our respect.
Bollywood.com Rating: 3