Ambition and beauty occupy virtually every frame of director Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor, which is based on Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel Great Expectations. Shot exquisitely (by Anay Goswami) and mounted lavishly, the film unfolds leisurely in a seemingly timeless world.
Kapoor (who has co-written the film with Supratim Sen) moves the story from Victorian England to snow-swept Kashmir, where nine-year-old Noor becomes instantly besotted with the snooty, aristocratic Firdaus the moment he sets eyes on her at the estate of her mother Hazrat Begum (Tabu). Although the children become close friends, Noor is repeatedly made aware that Firdaus is out of his reach.
Fifteen years later, now chiseled and frequently shirtless like an Abercrombie model, a grown up Noor (Aditya Roy Kapur), who has blossomed into a promising artist, lands a scholarship to an art residency in Delhi from a mysterious benefactor. Even as he’s experiencing his first brush with success, he meets Firdaus (now played by Katrina Kaif) again, and realizes she still makes his heart beat faster. But the knockout redhead keeps sending mixed signals, ultimately insisting on an icy distance between them as she prepares to marry a Pakistani politician (Rahul Bhatt) chosen by her mother.
I found myself completely invested in the story and the characters during the film’s first hour, but the screenplay isn’t as surefooted post-intermission. The tense political climate of Kashmir is merely referred to in passing, never exploited to serve the story in the way that, say, Haider did. In a clever scene that sadly never translates as powerfully as it was intended to, Noor chants a potent political slogan to allegorize the love triangle between him, Firdaus, and her Pakistani fiancée. Other than that it would appear that the film is set in Kashmir purely to milk its aesthetic beauty.
It’s in the second hour again that we come closer to understanding Hazrat Begum, who represents the fascinating Miss Havisham character from Dickens’ classic. Tabu is mercurial as the bitter, lonely old crone who sets Noor up for heartbreak, and her descent into madness is chilling. The writing isn’t always consistent – one moment she’s in a wheelchair attached to a drip, next thing she’s all perfectly coiffed and outfitted, showing up at a London art event – yet Tabu largely humanizes a character that has long slipped into caricature.
Crucially, the script makes an unnecessary digression into Begum’s flashback, which simply does not work for reasons of inappropriate casting and a clunky voice-dub. Those portions alone temporarily yanked me out of the film because of how unconvincing they were.
The key to remaining invested in Fitoor ultimately comes down to whether the lead pair works for you. As far as I’m concerned, I was pleasantly surprised. Aditya Roy Kapur is unmistakably earnest, and nicely brings out Noor’s wide-eyed sense of wonder and his boyish innocence despite being repeatedly manipulated. The stunning Katrina Kaif, for her part, often singled out as a weak link in movies, is a shrewd choice to play the impenetrable Firdaus. For a character whose motivations and mind are meant to be hard to read, she reflects that mystery convincingly. Her Anglicized accent still jars, but when called upon to throw herself into it – like a scene in which she confronts Begum – Katrina doesn’t disappoint.
Kapoor ditches many of the overarching social themes of Great Expectations to focus on what is primarily the story of star-crossed lovers and a complex romance. Fitoor isn’t perfect, but it’s a skillfully made film that’s easy on both the eye and the ear. In these times of fast-paced, hyperactive storytelling, you can appreciate the film’s dreamy, moody pace. I’m going with three out of five.