Saturday, October 30, 2004

Morning Raga 

Morning Raga is a huge improvement on Mahesh Dattani’s first film Mango Souffle, and a large part of the credit would go to Rajiv Menon’s exquisite cinematography, which makes the film such a visual treat. And the remarkable fusion score (Mani Sarma, Amit Heri).

The plot is serious, but still lightweight—with its instant fixes, pop psychology and fear of carrying the characters’ traumas to morbid levels. While this makes for a brisk, watchable 90-minute film, it does not leave a lasting impression.

Singer Swarnalatha (Shabana Azmi) is stricken with guilt when her violinist friend and her own son are killed in an accident, when she is taking them to Hyderabad for a performance. After this, she refuses to sing or cross the ill-fated bridge to the city.

Twenty years later, the dead woman’s son Abhinay (Prakash Rao), tired of composing ad jingles comes to the village, where his crusty old father (Naaser) looks after the family lands and hopes his son will take over. In the village he meets Pinkie (Perizaad Zorabian) who has come there to deal with her own angst. She is a singer, and with her help he tries to fulfill his dream of starting a fusion band.

Their rehearsal space is above Pinki’s mother’s (Lillete Dubey) boutique, and the other two band mates – the dorky guitarist and flaky drummer--are almost picked off the streets. But their music has something vital lacking, which, Abhinay figures, can be solved if Swarnalata sings for them. There must be dozens of practicing Carnatic singers in the city, but we accept this plot device.

With amazing ease, Swarnalatha is persuaded to record—no resistance to new gadgets, no rustiness due to lack of riyaaz. But she still refuses to cross the bridge to perform in the city. The problem is solved by her giving quick Carnatic vocal lessons to Pinkie. A bit of female bonding here, a bit of comedy at the expense of Pinkie’s mother, who trips around the village looking for local colour.

Pinkie own grief is connected to that accident—a needless complication—and all the supposedly broken souls are mended by fusion music! Even Abhinay’s father is softened by his son’s resolve.

There is no depth to the friction between Abhinay and his father; Pinkie and her mother settle their differences with one quick, clumsy ‘confessing’ scene. Swarnalatha’s pathological fear of the bridge is also cured in a jiffy! It’s as if Dattani didn’t want his characters’ inner demons haunting the viewer.

In the performances there’s a sharp divide between ‘then’ and ‘now’ – Shabana Azmi and Lillete Dubey – excellent as can be expected—give studied, ‘show-offy’ performances, while Prakash Rao and Perizaad Zorabian are casually natural. Only the brilliant Naaser of the ‘then’ generation manages an unruffled ‘now’ performance. Vijay, the actor playing Swanalatha’s supportive husband, is quietly understated.

Morning Raga is in English, which doesn’t sound right in a rural milieu, and also limits the film’s audience to urban multiplexes and festivals. But those who venture in to see it, despite its lack of commercial elements, won’t be majorly disappointed.


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