A prince, a princess and the days of the maharajas - just the ingredients to
make up a typical fairy tale! And all together, not the kind of tale to be told
by a Shyam Benegal. Not quite, we agree, for though this tale is about a fairy
of sorts (figuratively speaking), it's far from the 'they-lived-happily-ever-after'
By the way, trust Khalid Mohammed (story-screenplay) to write about his mother. His semi-biographical scripts and screenplays bring to cinema a certain fascinating sense of detail and authentic emotions. It's another thing that his screenplays turn out to be a bit slack. Anyway, he does enough to salvage the product as a whole.
So here we go with another female coming to terms with an unfair life, and with all the zest that it demands. Zubeidaa (Karishma) is the sort of free bird who will ruffle the feathers of her conservative family and society of the '40s. She acts in a film without the knowledge of her father (Amrish Puri), who himself has earned his fortune from a movie studio. But this family knows how to put her down, as she is first married off to the son of a family friend and is later divorced without her having a say.
Her father's secret love interest, Rosa Davenport, initiates Zubeidaa into the society of princes by taking her to a polo match, and here she introduces her to Vijendra Singh (Manoj Bajpai), the king of Fatehpur. Cupid strikes and Zubeidaa leaves her son with her mother and is off to fairyland. Here she meets with the prince's first wife, Mandira (Rekha), whom he comes clear on before tying the knot. Mandira herself is pleasantly tolerant of Zubeidaa.
Despite their love, Zubeidaa finds her spirit once more constrained by the protocol, and her naïve self often gives into jealousy of Mandira, without much cause. Soon comes the annexation of the princely states and Vijendra Singh decides to contest the elections. His taking Mandira out for campaigning irks her no end, and one folly of hers leaves the prince and herself both dead.
Exploring this tale is Zubeidaa's son, Riyaz Masood (Rajat Kapoor), a film journalist. Just the thing to make the biographical bit complete. The back and forth narration works just perfectly, although the first few minutes could be disconcerting.
The fact is that the first half is rather shallow, what with the most of the key players yet to make an appearance. The ambience and detail is hardly authentic, and the golden shade that pervades the retrospect is totally miscalculated. Shyam Benegal is the last director to need technology to improve his movies. The maudlin bits, too, are unconvincing. So, the best moments come towards the end when the elections are underway, and also through the bits of Riyaz Masood probing away into his mother's story.
The performers acquit themselves very well, indeed, but Karishma is easily allowed to slip away into the doll-ish look. She is even more constrained by the fact that her character isn't developed properly towards the beginning. Her naivete is not all too obvious, although her spirit is. Rekha is, well... stunning!
Khalid Mohammed once again trusts his dear script to Shyam Benegal, after Sardari
Begum, - he would find it difficult to trust anyone else, himself being an exception.
What's more, there's Sardari Begum (Smriti Mishra) performing Mujra for our prince.
Way to go, Shyam and Khalid!