Cast: Richa Chadha, Pankaj Tripathi
Director: Indrajit Lankesh
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
The inexplicable decision to send the titular protagonist into "a dream state" in order to get her to come clean about her life and work and the rather strange choice of Richa Chadha to play the role of a 1990s Malayali softcore adult actress are only two of the many things that Shakeela, written and directed by Indrajit Lankesh, gets horribly wrong. But these are bad enough. They undermine the film irretrievably.
Not that Richa Chadha is a write-off. In the scenes that matter, she is pretty strong. She conveys the predicament of the eponymous protagonist, a woman caught between an exploitative industry and a manipulative mother, with considerable force.
The writing, however, is so pedestrian and predictable that the central character - a sex symbol who gets the goat of the reigning male superstar by asserting her right to do her own thing, besides sparking a shrill, hypocritical, career-stymieing reaction from a morally ambivalent society that laps up her titillating films but does not have the courage to own up to its obsession with her - does not acquire the layers that might have lent the portrayal genuine heft.
Shakeela, which has been released in theatres this Christmas Day, is both soulless and tone-deaf although parts of it touch upon the still-relevant theme of male domination over the entertainment industry. Shakeela is constantly judged and pilloried because she isn't part of movies that families can watch together. Worse, she earns the wrath of an industry A-lister by daring to spurn his advances.
The relationship between Shakeela and her body double Suhana, played by Ester Noronha, constitutes a significant parallel track that would have been infinitely better served had the writer-director seen percentage in diving a little deeper into it. But because it remains only an incidental plot detail, it fails assume a logic of its own and help in lifting the film out of its morass of mediocrity. The Shakeela-Suhana sub-plot loses its way in a hackneyed do-jism-ek-jaan (two bodies one soul) spiel about female bonding, professional inter-dependence and betrayal.
The Shakeela cast has Pankaj Tripathi, too. He plays a supercilious yet insecure superstar who does not take too kindly to Shakeela's meteoric rise as a box-office star after the suicide of the super-successful Silk Smitha. He emerges as the villain in her life.
As always, Tripathi does a great deal with his face, eyes and body postures - that in itself is a delight to watch. In a better film, it would have worked wonders. In Shakeela, there is a complete disconnect between what the actor is capable of delivering and what the film is able to extract from him.
Shakeela has a scene in which the protagonist, who is still a nobody, gets a walk-on part in a Silk Smitha film. The nervous girl spills fruit juice on the senior actress and is promptly slapped. Shakeela swallows her pride and carries on regardless. She can't afford to take umbrage. Ironically, Silk Smitha's untimely death creates a vacuum in the sexploitation movie space and she moves in and makes hay over a period of a whole decade.
After a trashy dance number that goes with the opening credits - Chadha's suggestive moves are meant to tell the audience what kind of films Shakeela did at the height of her acting career, not to indicate what this film is going to be like - we jump to 1999 and street protests against her films. "Shakeela hatao, cinema bachao, Kerala bachao," the placards read. Angry slogans are raised against and her detractors move in to strike.
Cut to Shakeel's conversation with a patronising writer who has been engaged to pen the story of her chequered career. She wants to break away from the B-movie rut and act in a film that will allow her to demonstrate that there is more to her than just sleaze and skin show. The man talks down to Shakeela. She takes it in her stride. She is a woman who has had success, but respect has eluded her. When she agrees to share her life story on the writer's terms, she is subjected to a narco test as she narrates her tale and, with a doctor in attendance, the writer takes notes.
A bulk of the film is made up of flashbacks. The character's voice links one segment of the story to the other, but the pitching of the narration is marred by inconsistencies. At times, Shakeela's voice resembles a murmur because she is in a semi-conscious state. At others, it turns into a full-throated commentary. The background score, too, is overly intrusive.
The flashbacks reveal Shakeela's childhood in a verdant coastal village. She is happy as long as her indigent fisherman-father is around her. The man, afflicted with tuberculosis, has to take care of a large family, which includes his wife, a former junior artiste who laments the opportunities she has lost, and six daughters. Shakeela is the eldest.
Her acting talent is revealed early in life. In school, she plays Draupadi in a play and wins a trophy. By the time she gets home to share her joy, her life has changed and the family is forced to relocate to Cochin. Once there, her ambitious mother pushes her into the shady world of C-grade movies. The girl has to keep going because she is the family's sole breadwinner.
Matters come to a head when a spurt in rape cases in the state is blamed on the films that Shakeela does. The moral police sharpen their knives and the media goes after her hammer and tongs. Left to fend for herself, she begins to feel the heat.
Instead of being what it promises to be - an exploration of the wages of stardom in an exploitative industry - Shakeela turns into a patchy melodrama involving a childhood sweetheart (Rajeev Pillai) who encourages the woman to reinvent herself and fight.
Eventually, the climactic clash is between a Shakeela biopic and the top male superstar's latest cop drama. But even in success - Shakeela, at the peak of her career, spawns a genre of her own - she is repeatedly reminded that there is a price to be paid.
Shakeela is a woman in a man's world: that is the point that the film wants to make. But it ties itself up in knots in trying to get the point across. Neither Richa Chadha nor Pankaj Tripathi can clean up the dreary mess. The two stars are for the two actors. There's none for the film.