About the story: Once-famous writer Shaukat Vashisht (Sanjay Dutt) is stuck in a crisis: His critics and readers lately reprehended his books for being unrealistic. But after two years, Shaukat seems to have overcome his writing block, and finally sits down at his typewriter – to the delight of his wife, university lecturer Antara (Aishwarya Rai). His imagination creates the heroine of his new book, Tamanna (= desire), whom Shaukat gives Antara’s features. This time he wants to stick close to reality, and he encourages Antara to enjoy life, even when young photography teacher Yash (Zayed Khan) openly courts her. More and more, fiction and reality merge in Shaukat’s view, increasingly he believes to be the one who pulls all strings and is able to write the fate of others. As Antara realizes the extent of his schizophrenia, she finally informs Yash of the fact that she is married, and tries to pull Shaukat back into reality, and into their mutual love. But instead of helping him, she unintentionally pushes him all the way over the edge to madness...
"What is reality?" This question pervades the whole film Shabd (= Word), and Leena Yadav does not make it at all easy, for the audience of her debut film, to answer this question. Where ends reality, where begins fiction and vice versa? Shabd is – as I want to state beforehand – a brilliant and exciting movie. It seldom happens that I am so deeply under the spell of a film like with Shabd, which left me stunned. Otherwise, only Raj Kapoor had this effect on me with his films from the 40es and 50es, although these are of course in a very different category than Shabd. But the effect on me was similar. Some stylistic elements – in particular the letters which come 'snowing' and later are coloured red – may not be to everyone’s taste; I found them fascinating because they matched the plot’s mystic and artificial mood. A writer invents a story, believes to have it in his grip, to write reality by way of his fiction, and thus to control us and our perception. The end was even more unsettling, and nearly drove me mad as well. Only when I watched it again, I understood the subtlety of Antara’s experiment, but this does not change the immense impact of the climax. Yadav, Rai and Dutt have accomplished a great feat here.
The film is carried by the brilliant acting performance of Sanjay Dutt. He did not play such a quiet, introvert character since Saajan – a far cry from his "bhais" and gangster roles, even from his Munnabhai character. Sanju expressed his gratitude to have been given this role in several interviews, and for those who know about his interest to play a big variety of characters, this is perfectly credible. Shaukat probably is his most ambitious role to date, and he shapes it with a lot of sensitivity. His slowly budding schizophrenia is all the more believable since Sanjay gradually develops the madness in his acting, and reigns in his emotional energy until this development reaches its peak – to then let it erupt dramatically in his scene with Antara on top of the cliff, when he beseeches her to prove him that reality and fiction are not the same after all, because his conceived reality becomes ever more painful for him, and in the end, when Antara's experiment literally makes him crack.
Director Leena Yadav raved about him that "Sanju can just get into the moment during some scenes, that he sometimes breaks the line between acting and being. There are many moments in the film where he rose above the script and was completely engrossed in the character."
Aishwarya Rai is superb, too. She needs to be given more and more credit for her courage in choosing unusual roles in off-beat films. In Shabd she once again proves to be not only a beauty queen and great dancer, but a serious actress, too. She manages to make Antara, standing between her older husband and younger admirer, a credibility that leaves no doubt in her character's unshakable love to Shaukat, all the way to the end. Sanjay and Aishwarya do harmonise beautifully; their bed scene - oh yes, there is one, and it shows Sanju's still excellent body with terrific tattoos on his shoulders - has been shot in a discreet and tasteful way, which gives it a very sensitive and erotic touch.
Zayed Khan can not keep up with the combined power of his two co-stars, but he plays the amiable nice guy, and there is no need for him to do more in this film. The other characters are, frankly, unimportant. Shabd is definitely intimate theatre, very much like Saajan – but Saajan really was the classical love triangle between one woman and two men, while Shabd is basically all about Shaukat's (inner) world, in which he makes his beloved wife and a young stranger to protagonists in his novel, and which drives him ever deeper into schizophrenia and finally madness by his intended but increasingly hurting equalisation of reality and fiction.
As I said before, it is a truly brilliant film, which perhaps not everyone can recognise easily, but which will probably touch every viewer. (And if you like Sanjay Dutt and particularly his multifarious voice, get the soundtrack as well, which he enriches with spoken passages in several songs). Welcome to Shaukat’s World!
Produced by Pritish Nandy, Rangita Pritish-Nandy; Directed by Leena Yadav
137 Min.; DVD: Eros, English Subtitles (including songs), subtitles are missing in a few places.
© Diwali; Translated by Anamika