Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s recent films have famously existed in a world of his own creation, a world cut off from the one we inhabit, a world where logic is a hindrance. "Guzaarish", his latest offering, may be less esoteric than his last film, "Saawariya", but it’s still an unsatisfying effort because the filmmaker continues to invest more in the appearance of every frame than in the emotional truth of his characters.
Apparently set in current day Goa (although this is a very different Goa from the one we saw in Bhansali’s earliest and most sincere film, "Khamoshi"), much of this plot unfolds in the sprawling Mehboob Studios bungalow-set that stands in as the home of our protagonist. Ethan Mascarenhas (played by Hrithik Roshan) is a renowned magician who has been living as a quadriplegic for the last 14 years, after he suffered a terrible accident at the peak of his career. Between dishing out upbeat life lessons on a radio show he hosts, and cracking naughty jokes to his feisty nurse Sophiya (played by Aishwarya Rai), Ethan decides he wants to end his life. His lawyer friend Devyani (played by the excellent Shernaz Patel) is instructed to file a plea for euthanasia. Meanwhile Ethan also takes in a young apprentice (played by Aditya Roy Kapoor), who is desperate to learn magic from him.
Its various subplots inspired from different films, "Guzaarish" is a mash-up of many interesting ideas. From Christopher Nolan’s "The Prestige", Bhansali borrows the sabotage angle between rival magicians, but that culminates in an over-simplistic redemption that adds nothing of any value to the core plot of this film. From "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", Bhansali steals memorable moments like the one in which the wheelchair-bound hero struggles with a stubborn fly, until he resigns himself to live with it. But it’s the Oscar-winning Spanish film "The Sea Inside" that the director plunders most liberally from, taking full scenes and the dynamics between key characters too.
While you may be willing to overlook the plagiarism (although you shouldn’t!), it’s hard to forgive the sloppy writing. Euthanasia is a delicate and controversial issue, but the film never quite comes to grips with its theme of mercy killing. More than one character talks about the right to choose, but those scenes fail to punch you in the gut because the dialogues are so predictable and superficial.
"Guzaarish" is beautifully shot and has a larger-than-life operatic feel to it. But it’s also shamelessly manipulative. It’s hard to care for Bhansali’s characters because the emotions never feel real. Hrithik Roshan’s silences are deeper than the corny dialogues he’s saddled with, but for the most part he appears awkward offering a theatrical pitch to match the film’s OTT sensibilities. A terrific, subtle actor, Hrithik looks uncomfortable in this melodramatic space.
Aishwarya Rai’s performance meanwhile, is completely in sync with the film’s heightened sense of drama; the actress benefitting evidently from her previous experiences of working with the director.
For a Bhansali film, "Guzaarish" has a surprisingly uninspired soundtrack (composed by the director himself, incidentally), and the screenplay has enough holes in it for it to work as a fishing net. But to be fair, there are some lovely moments that jump out and surprise you. Like that crackling scene in which Ethan pretends to be aroused when Sophiya’s massaging his feet, to which she responds by offering some suggestive moans herself. Or that lump-in-the-throat portion in which Ethan wrestles with the rain dripping in through a hole in the roof.
Unfortunately moments like these are few and far between in what is ultimately a slow, silly film. I’m going with two out of five for director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s "Guzaarish". The magic is missing in this one!