If there’s one thing that director Onir excels at, it’s the way he etches out characters. From his first film My Brother…Nikhil (2005) to his latest Shab, Onir has measured each character with a rawness and maturity that few filmmakers seem capable of. Their stories are woven into a seamless tapestry of emotions and relatable problems. So realistically drawn, that it doesn’t feel like fiction.
Like fine things though, Onir’s Shab is an acquired taste.
There’s confusion, fractured scenes, and fragmented thoughts. Unrelated characters flit in an out.
Mohan (Ashish Bisht) is a model from a small town. He wants to make it big in the city. With his unrefined English to his gaudy dress sense, Mohan is all the more realistic for his naivety.
Until he meets a rich cougar called Sonal Modi (Raveena Tandon). Bored with her marriage, Sonal seeks a raw, sexual experience and finds her boytoy in Mohan. She rechristens him Azfar. Their relationship is not just sexual. Mohan/Azfar manages to model for big names while being spoiled silly by Sonal. In his mind, he’s perhaps in love or at least someone special in Sonal’s life.
Soon enough though, his naivety vanishes.
Parallel to Mohan’s story runs Raina’s (Arpita Chatterjee), Neil’s and Benoit’s story. Raina and her younger sister, Anu, move to Delhi to start a new life. Raina has her own baggage. She’s over-cautious, with an intrepid gaze and a purposeful gait. Her background is kept under wraps even from the audience. Driven by circumstances, she leans on her friend Neil and neighbour Benoit.
Neil, who runs a cozy café in a posh Delhi locality, deals with heartbreak and loneliness. His boyfriend wants to marry a woman to hide his sexuality. It drives Neil into a shell, as he struggles to come out.
Benoit, originally from France, has settled in India with a small job and an easygoing life. He migrated to forget about his tumultuous past. In the process, he struggles with the loneliness and confusion of living in a foreign land.
Shab, which means night, represents the dark side of anything; where one partakes in the charades of life in the morning while at night the truth prevails and reality hits hard; where the masks fall off and each character peers into the mirror to see who they really are, and what circumstances led to their seemingly inadequate lives.
Apart from the terrific characterisation and attention to detail, the film’s strength also lies in its actors.
Bengali actress Arpita Chatterjee, has her moments in this, her Bollywood debut. Short-cropped hair and always on the lookout, Raina oscillates between the vulnerable young woman in the big bad world and the strong-headed lone wolf, eventually carrying her past as a badge.
Raveena Tandon as Sonal, thankfully, doesn’t try too hard, the way she did in her last comeback film, Maatr. And the woman doesn’t seem to age, looking better and better in each scene. She is perfect as the older seductress.
Onir’s methods and concepts appear familiar though. Some scenes are reminiscent of a typical Madhur Bhandarkar film. The casting couch. The forced compromises of dealing with the nexus of high society and their fashionable lives. And the cheesiness that comes along with these scenes. But at least here, sexual energy runs high, and there’s no awkwardness.
It’s a refreshing change to see such relatable urban relationships and heartbreaks.
What can a filmmaker do, though, when the audience is too prudish to watch homosexual relationships portrayed on screen? In a scene where a character talks about his partner (another man), a few people in the audience walked out of the theatre. Some sniggered. Others furtively looked into their phones.
Shab might just be Onir’s most original dark film. But the audience may not be ready for such honesty on screen.
The Shab review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.