The lyrical though rather unoriginal sounding phrase accompanying the title of this film - "A Mystic Love Story" - holds a somewhat dubious role. The mystic acts as both deterrent and incentive, simultaneously barricading the moviegoer from going to the ticket counter and prodding him on. None of us wants to be endlessly tormented with some mumbo-jumbo trash. But like the brave soldier, you're ready to take a bullet or two.
So how do you fare? Or more importantly, how does Banaras fare?
To put it simply, "Smoke gets in the eyes." There are patches in the movie that pinch the eye (quelling all cerebral activity), but then there are momentary spells where Banaras redeems itself. It's almost as if Parashar is desperately toiling to rescue his film from expected muddle and mummery.
The plot takes the road much travelled. Shwetambari (Urmila Matondkar) overhears Soham's (Ashmit Patel) routine sa-re-ga-ma recital, and very soon the two are roaming Banaras like a pair of turtledoves. Their hangouts are mainly a boat afloat the Ganga maiyya, the ghats, and Buddha's Sarnath. No wonder they're so rarefied.
But the cruel hand of destiny scraps out the love story. Soham's familial roots are unknown as he is adopted by a low-caste woman. Shwetambari's aristocratic Brahmin parents (Dimple Kapadia and Raj Babbar) are too deeply trenched in mucky casteism. Trouble brews, and sweet Soham is conveniently bumped off.
So where's the mysticism? Enter Babaji (Naseeruddin Shah), Soham's guru, the holy man who recycles into existence every century. Babaji introduces our hero to the enchanting world of philosophy. Under his wing, Soham chants Om, does some tapasya, and gains spiritual realization - he experiences sahaj (the oneness of man with the Divine), and you are treated to a montage of volcanic eruptions, blooming buds and the vast oceans. A bit corny, but what the heck, movies just aren't movies without the corny.
The guru, at regular intervals, expounds on the subject of the inner eye whereby one can discover the innate interdependence of mind and matter. This feels right out of the pages of one of Sogyal Rinpoche's many works. Which, mind you, is a good thing.
The occultism does tend to get a wee bit trite, but Naseeruddin saves it from turning into empty bombast. Alluions are made to Kabir, Buddha and Tulsidas. Soham is analogous to Sant Kabir in that he too is an outcaste, and like the sufi sant attains realization through divine love.
Before anything else, the astute observation that Urmila can be quite irksome. There's a constant twitch dancing on her lips and she just can't resist expanding the orbs of her eyes. Barfing wouldn't be an inappropriate response to this. Though in all fairness she plays the sanyasin bit with much more grace and much less melodrama.
The whole movie is in the form of a flashback - Shwetambari's painful past. It is she who is the quintessential gurumata, the female renunciate who heals others.
The showstopper is the rather fetching Ashmit. Mind the crude simile, but he's very much like this savoury dish made even more palatable after being dressed up in those elegant Fab India kurtas. Yeah, so he's damn fine, but on screen he seems perpetually "Harry Potter - Stupefied". He's there alright, but that's about it - he's just there.
The second bit of the movie has Shwetambari going nutty post Soham's murder. She discovers her parents' connivance in this vicious act. That more or less pushes her over the edge. But that push sets her free. The widow in white is metamorphosed into a renowned teacher of metaphysics.
The guru - shisya relationship is a thematic consistency through Banaras. Babaji enlightens both Soham and Shwetambari, and Soham is Shwetambari's mentor. Wonder why it's always a male mentor condescending to awaken the lost female soul?
Shwetambari is faced with the eternal human predicament - whether to forget and forgive. Whether to return to abandoned Banaras. Of course, she goes back to her dying father, rescues her murderous mother, and everything's peachy. Her beloved Soham visits her regularly, apparition and all. So it's really a mystic love story.
Only one thing I would give anything to know is, how Kabirdas, in the other world, would rate Banaras. He would be the ultimate reviewer now, wouldn't he?