Oh how the mighty have fallen! Actually, scratch that, it was a terrible way to begin. For that particular phrase carries in it more than a whiff of glee, a triumphal giggle-snort at witnessing a stumble from a heretofore infallible entity, like a pompous vicar passing wind during his fiery sermon on social etiquette. Let’s face it, we enjoy the air of embarrassment when a world renowned chef inexplicably serves up a turd frittata on live TV. But there is none of that vengeful mirth in one’s reception of Saat Khoon Maaf, the latest entry from Bollywoodwünderkind Vishaal Bhardwaj. After the director’s triple-whammy of Maqbool, Omkara, and Kaminey, we the audience probably got a bit too fat-headed for our own good and superimposed on Bhardwaj a mantle of invincibility – he is film’s über mensch and he can do no wrong! And being so invested in his awesomeness, the feeling one is left with at the end, and indeed through much of SKM, is one of disappointment and helplessness – our hero let us down? How can that be? Does he not love us anymore? But perhaps we should be thinking of our own culpability in the scenario, maybe the guy was under too much darn pressure to keep beating himself at his own game; just how long can we keep flogging that prized horse to indefinitely maintain its maximum speed? At some point it WILL either a) drop from exhaustion, or b) kick us in the mouth – in this case, both. After all, pretty much every great artist in history has at one point or more, laid an egg that no mother could love.
Based on Ruskin Bond’s short story ‘Susanna’s Seven Husbands’, the film lays out its central premise pretty plainly: Susanna (Chopra) marries, and marries often, for love, duty, convenience, pity, but she is let down every time by her grooms who turn out to be psycho (Mukesh), junkie (Abraham), sado-masochist (Khan), bigamist (Dyachenko), annoyance (Kapoor), and gold digger (Shah Senior). Through her endless and fruitless quest to find amour parfait, Susanna is loved from afar by Arun (Shah Junior), a servant’s much younger son (who also tells the story through flashbacks), and aided in her romantic and murderous endeavours by a trio of domestics who presumably constitute a kind of Greek chorus to the proceedings, except they keep rather quiet for a chorus.
It’s not difficult to spell out what some of the problems with SKM are. It’s too episodic and, surprisingly enough, despite the subject matter, lacks that seductive, dark intensity that marked Bhardwaj’s earlier films. It has neither the haunting quality or characters of Maqbool, nor the discomforting menace of Omkara, and certainly not the frenetic allure of Kaminey. Where Susanna’s story could have been used to explore a subtext not only on questions of prescribed feminine roles but also notions of family, marriage and honour within a patriarchal construct, the film merely meanders on the surface, seemingly content to relate anecdotes that, beyond the initial appeal of the macabre, have little substance, and become less and less interesting as the film progresses. The final nail in the coffin is Susanna herself, a character so sketchy and ill-defined as to be rendered utterly implausible. In traditional grand guignol and théâtre macabre, improbable characters are still plausible because of the heightened stylization of their entire milieu. In SKM, that is not the case, and as a result, Susanna and her predicaments and her actions come off forced and lacking in both logic and cohesion.
Still, this is our man Bhardwaj we’re talking about, so let’s consider this cinematic hiccough a momentary lapse in judgement – as batting averages go, his is still near impeccable. It’s alright man, we still love ya. If nothing else, we’ll always have ‘Beedi’.