Let's get one thing straight. Khoya Khoya Chand (KKC) isn't an easy film to peel. Its appeal lies in the onion effect that writer-director Sudhir Mishra creates, while ruthlessly denying that sentimental quality which makes movies about the past so moist and dewy.
KKC doesn't strive to beautify the Hindi film industry in the 1950s and 60s. Mishra is the maestro of the acerbic kingdom. His quirky characters forge their fate not out of tears but blood.The pain of wounds that never heal….or squeal ….lingers in the way the idealistic writer from Lucknow. Zafar (Shiney Ahuja) looks around the world of creative and sexual compromise, tried to find his bearings, falters and catches himself before he slumps to the ground.
Zafar could be Guru Dutt in Pyasa surreptitiously eyeing his 'fallen' beloved, a budding half-open rose named Nikhat, who's so delicate that she could shrivel at an alien touch.
When, in one of the film's finest sequences, Nikhat tells the pained Zafar about how she was raped by a producer at the age of 14 while Mama-dearest(oof those self-gratifying Ammas of filmdom) sat in the next room listening to Baby's whimpers of pain, we are not allowed the luxury of tears.
Mishra is almost fearful of overt sentimentality. Time after time, in this layered and complex film, he pulls back, just when we begin to wallow in the poignancy of the moment.
In this endeavour to create a world of dry-eyed pragmatism from an era that reveled in melodrama and sentimentality, Sudhir and his editors (Ruchi Narain, Archit Rastogi) are one.
Though the film lumbers towards the second-half creating a world of pain that's painful to behold, there's an austerity of expression in the individual scenes ,a ruthless denial of excessive drama, that's accompanied by a remarkable use of light and sound , emotion and the commotion that accompanies the process of filmmaking.
The signs and indications of emotions are so distant that you nearly miss the cues that govern an archetypal star's journey from anonymity to the large queues. The power-play in the entertainment business of the 1950s emerges from a twitch of the eye, the purse of a lip and the lowering of an eyelid. Gestures rule.
Sudhir Mishra is a master of the nuances, so much so that we sometimes miss the larger picture. Take that sequence in the second-half when the now ideologically-challenged Zafar pleads with the impish and seductive actress Ratanbala (Soniya Jehan) to sign his first directorial venture.
As the writer and actress indulge in the seductive game of hide and seek, the director pans the camera to the great big mountains echoing a sweet strain of a melody from a film being shot on the spot.
The opposition between the world of optical illusions and the larger less manageable world of people who create those pretty illusions is represented in characters and episodes that are sensitive, as well as savage in encompassing a whole era of our film industry.
At the core KKC is a triangle about a user-friendly actor (Rajat Kapoor, as temperate as ever), a used actress(Soha) and a conscience-stricken artiste(Ahuja) who wants to 'rescue' and 'redeem' the fallen woman. Remember Dharmendra in Satyakam and Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om?
Zafar's descent and decline into compromised creativity creates a crusty crux to Mishra's luminously layered gentle-at-heart-austere-at-the-top tale of deceptive passions.
Shiney Ahuja's eyes convey the betrayal of a whole generation of creative decline. He could be Devdas battling his resentment against a tyrannical father, or he could be Guru Dutt in Pyaasa grappling with the growing disenchantment of a post-Nehruvian generation that's rapidly relinquishing its integrity.
From Meena Kumari to Madhubala and Nargis, Soha is an enchanting amalgamation of all the actresses who have ever waltzed by on the shimmering screen. Soha has the noble vulnerability of a born aristocrat and the waif-like quality of Orphan Annie. When put into a world of compromises, this child-woman displays tremendous strength of will.
Watch Soha's controlled movements when Zafar proposes to her. Soha's incredulous delight at the sudden proposal is infectious. Some of the more sordid scenes escape her inner world.
But what the heck! Who really knows what goes on in the murky minds of artistes? Not even the artiste herself is aware of her own potential to plunge the deepest depths of darkness.
Sudhir Mishra takes the plunge with strength of vision that gives his fragile narrative an inner sturdiness and vitality. The power of the narration in Khoya Khoya Chand lies in holding back the emotions, never succumbing to the temptation of overstatement, giving us tantalizing glimpses into a world that's long gone…and yet remains an integral part of the Indian cinematic experience.
While both Shiney and Soha are in splendid shape, there's much to be said about the supporting cast who confer a captivating nostalgia to Sudhir Mishra's finely sketched but ultimately elusive world of dreamers and achievers.
The technicians are first rate. To me, the real stars of the film are the cinematographer Sachin Krishnan and art -director Gautam Sen who creates an aura of fleeting mocking flamboyance around people who are picture-perfect in appearance but fractured in their inner world.
This is a tough film to crack. But the effort is worth it. Because finally it leaves us with people who live in 'glance' houses and do not realize their own mirror-image vulnerability until it's too late.