Right off the mark, let's get one thing out of the way. Nishabd is not Lolita. Make sure that you've got that salient point etched into the very fibre of your being. Unfortunately, no one shared this nugget of information with us before we watched the film, and we went in expecting a Lolita.
Nishabd is not Lolita, and indeed, Ram Gopal Varma never claimed that it was. What is it then? Very briefly, at the beginning, Varma appears to be headed down the same highway as Nabokov, Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne. In the galaxy of human obsessions and perversities, only Nabokov's book could boldly go where few authors had gone before. Kubrick's film and Lyne's film (even though it was made in the relatively permissive late 1990s) had to stop several significant miles short.
Varma barely gets started, when he quickly takes the special exit marked "Bollywood Directors Take Diversion Here", and keeps us in somewhat familiar territory. Nishabd revolves around the lives of Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) and his family. He lives with Amrita (Revathy), his wife of 27 years, in a picturesque tea estate. Their marriage is not unhappy, but is not seething with passion either. Their daughter Ritu (Shradha Arya) comes home during her vacations, with her friend Jiah (Jiah Khan) in tow.
Jiah is precocious, but of a melancholy disposition, and nothing impresses or excites her very much. Until she starts to spend more time with Vijay, that is. She imagines him to be a stuffy, avuncular type at first, but discovers that he has a philosophical and passionate facet that enchants her. In turn, she goes from being a kid who happens to be his daughter's friend, to being an object of his (and his camera's) gaze, to a sprightly, and at the same time intense, nymph.
Jiah evokes all manners of emotions in Vijay, ranging from affection, to annoyance, to lust. She also sets off a sub-conscious hankering for his youth, and reflections on his mortality. In the midst of Amrita's and Ritu's innocent presence, unspoken love blossoms.
Everything starts to come apart when, in the course of one day, their dalliance is discovered. The arrival of Amrita's brother Shridhar (Nasir) precipitates the descent from domestic harmony into mental agony and moral dilemmas all around.
In terms of story and plot, Nishabd teeters on the edge of being a conventional pati, patni aur woe tale. Jiah after all is an 18-year-old college girl and not exactly a child, so the ‘shock' value of a 54-year-old man developing a yen for her isn't too high. Increase the girl's age by a few years, keeping the man's age constant, and you get Jogger's Park!
If it was meant primarily to be an examination of lust as a primeval emotion, there isn't enough by way of footage to throw light on that aspect. The one motif that tries to emphasize Vijay's corporeal attraction is the now-here-now-gone shots of Jiah's thighs and Vijay's roving eye, especially during the first half.
If we are to look at Nishabd as a conventional love story, even that isn't developed very convincingly, and the film hangs somewhere in limbo. To top it off, the ending is disappointingly tame and frustrating.
Needless to say, Nishabd comes with all the relatively superior technical and production values of the RGV factory, with no musical distractions, and with economical duration. The Munnar tea estates are a fantastic backdrop, the background music switches deftly from sparkling to somber as the mood of the movie changes, and there is a lot of fancy camerawork (some of the weaving and bobbing might leave you a bit dizzy!).
The cast does a more-than-decent job, with Revathy perhaps succeeding the most in bringing Amrita to life. Newcomer Jiah Khan is very slightly over the top at times, but is definitely a name to keep track of. Amitabh is competently broody, and Nasir fits in his role to a T.
Nishabd is not Lolita, but that doesn't mean Varma doesn't sneak in a couple of tributes (there's a "Jiah with lollipop" moment, and yes, there's a "Jiah in the garden" moment). We also couldn't help notice that the protagonist is named Vijay (Exeunt: Angry Young Man, Enter: Dirty Old Man?). A piquant touch was the character of the deaf manservant. He has no part in the plot, and so you literally never see him in focus, you never hear him, and that's the way it should be.
You could wait until Nishabd shows up on TV or in a video store, but who are we kidding – it's an Amitabh-RGV movie about an old man's love for a teenager, so you'll probably go and see it anyway. Just remember, however, "Nishabd is not Lolita."