Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 24, 2006

Ek Hasina Thi

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

For the average cinemaphile, Indian film means either Bollywood epics like "Lagaan" or art movies like "Water." Three screeners graciously made available to me from Subway Cinema, the main organizers of this year's Asian Film Festival in New York, are exceptions to this rule. They are all meant mainly for the local Indian market and address "law and order" themes such as the kind made familiar in Hong Kong cinema. Indeed, the promo page for this film on the festival website describes it as "No Singing, No Dancing, No Mercy."

Last night I watched "Ek Hasina Thi" (There Was a Beautiful Woman) and can happily report that, as is the case with already reviewed Korean, Japanese and Chinese films from this year's festival, India is maintaining the level of excellence I have learned to expect from this part of the world.

Sarika (Urmila Matondkar) is a single woman working as a travel agent in Mumbai. Obviously wary of men in general, she threatens to report her next door neighbor to his wife when he makes unwanted advances on her.

When the handsome Karan (Saif Ali Khan) shows up the next day to book a flight to Frankfurt, she is just as put off by his advances. She refuses a dinner date with him, but finally relents to have tea. He is not easily dissuaded, however, and pursues her relentlessly until she finally breaks down and invites him up to her apartment. In no time at all, they become lovers. But in the back of her mind, there must be a sense that this extremely macho and extremely wealthy man is not to be trusted. However, as is usually the case when you fall in love, you leave your critical faculties at the door.

A couple of weeks into their relationship, Karan asks Sarika to entertain a friend who will be in Mumbai for business. Since he will be out of town himself, he needs somebody to make him feel at home. After Karan's "friend" arrives at her apartment, she makes him a cup of tea which he does not even finish. He announces that he has a business appointment and will see her later in the day.

Up until this point, the film is a fascinating study of sexual politics in contemporary Mumbai, but it shifts gear immediately after Sarika turns on her television an hour or so after the stranger has left, only to discover that he was actually a hitman who was killed during a job.

As she watches the news report on the killing, Karan phones her and pleads with her to get rid of the man's suitcase. She is too much in love and too much under this domineering male's thumb to question him or to even go to the cops. In fact, the cops have come to her. As she is walking down the steps to dump the suitcase, she is confronted by a group of Mumbai's finest who haul her down to the station after discovering that the suitcase is filled with guns and other incriminating evidence.

After Sarika is arrested as an accomplice to the hitman, Karan sends his lawyer to the jail in order to persuade her to leave his name out of it. We soon learn that Karan is a big-time gangster himself and will sacrifice her to stay out of jail. After they convince her that she will do less than a month for the offense if she pleads guilty, Sarika is shocked to discover that she must spend seven years in prison with no chance of early release.

At this point, the film becomes an Indian version of the classic women behind bars flicks of the 1950s, but made far more interesting by director Sriram Raghavan's decision to avoid all the clichés associated with this genre. Suffice it to say that Sarika discovers that she was betrayed by Karan and his lawyer and plots revenge.

From the moment she escapes, the film hurdles forward at a breakneck pace. You feel tremendous sympathy for the wronged Sarika and cheer for her as she foils gangsters and cops alike. As is the case with the Korean "A Bittersweet Life," the Indians have a far better ability to make hair-raising thrillers and for probably a lot less money than the supposed experts in Hollywood.

Interestingly enough, despite his obvious flair for action melodrama, Raghavan told interviewers at rediff.com that two of his favorite directors are Abbas Kiarostami and Krzysztof Kieslowski, who are best known for making art films. One can't possibly imagine Jerry Bruckheimer paying tribute to such artists, let alone having seen their work. I suppose that is part of the reason that Hollywood stinks so bad.



  1. I imagine having gone to film school that Bruckheimer would have had some knowledge of this. I know Michael Bay does among other massive filmmakers. We know the Lucases and Spielbergs do, though I guess they are a different league. My friend worked for Bruckheimer for a bit and had interesting stories. Bruckheimer is a massive corporation like any other. I guess it’s weird to me and a bit of a cry from Kiarostami. Let’s not forget that Lang had great output from Hollywood — as did Chaplin (even though Limelight is my favorite for some reason or another).

    Comment by Alexander — June 26, 2006 @ 2:18 am

  2. You should send this post to Sriram Raghavan. It was a well written tribute.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — June 26, 2006 @ 3:34 am

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