‘Zubaan’: Busan Review

The Busan International Film Festival kicks off its 20th edition by stepping out of its comfort zone with the feature debut from Mozez Singh.

Despite recent accusations of political meddling and budget cutbacks that were noticeable, if not crippling, the Busan Film Festival opened its landmark twentieth year in decidedly muted fashion (strong winds and torrential rain didn’t help). Opening (surprisingly) with a film from India rather than a homegrown South Korean choice is an odd programming choice for such a significant anniversary, odder still given the fact that Mozez Singh’s Zubaan is a scattershot, only occasionally engaging rags-to-riches-to-rags Bollywood spectacle more notable for its “WTF?” moments than for toe-tapping songs. Despite an insanely attractive cast and some striking visual moments, prospects for Zubaan overseas seem thin at best, and even success at home will be moderate at best given that other, more polished Bollywood product is easy to find and a smattering of touchy subject matter could raise eyebrows.

In what is effectively a coming-of-age drama disguised at first as a Talented Mr. Ripley-ish mystery, young Sikh man Dilsher (Vicky Kaushal, Masaan), heads off to Delhi in search of fortune, if not fame, working at a development company run by the ruthless (so we’re told) Gurcharan Sikand (Manish Chaudhari). Sikand hails from the same Punjab village as Dilsher and many years before gave the stuttering teen some sage advice — after watching him get beaten up by some local bullies: Fighting makes you a man, you see, and teaches you to rely on yourself and so on. After finagling his way into a gig working security for Sikand, Dilsher simultaneously rescues and embarrasses heir apparent Surya (theater vet Raaghev Chanana, 24: India) by solving a labor dispute and gets the elder Sikand’s attention. Before you know it Dilsher’s living in his idol’s mansion, much to the chagrin of the Sikand matriarch, Mandira (Meghna Malik), who has her own fraught relationship with Gurcharan, and Surya, who can’t figure out why his daddy doesn’t love him as much as Dilsher (boo hoo).

The Bottom Line

A jack-of-all-trades coming-of-age, rags-to-riches song-and-dance epic that is master of none.

Standard as the set-up about two “sons” warring for their father’s attention and fortune may be, Zubaan starts well enough, positioning the still-stuttering country bumpkin Dilsher against the handsome, educated Surya nicely, and giving Chanana plenty of chances to run wild with the sniveling, entitled Surya. Had Zubaan stuck with the rivalry as its driving narrative, Singh and co-writers Thani and Sumit Roy might have been on to an examination of increasingly affluent India and the influence of the globalized world. The Ripley angle is also dropped, quickly clarifying Dilsher’s lost lamb purity instead of diving deeper into his character as a clever, manipulative opportunist that he seemed to be early on. Instead they shoehorn in a trite, cliched “transcendent power of music” thread to create a toothless Bollywood-esque drama.

Dilsher, we learn in flashback, was the son of a musician whose hearing loss resulted in tragedy. Unable to sing, his father’s untimely death left Dilsher with a reactionary opposition to all things musical. Of course, Surya’s would-be girlfriend Amira (an utterly stunning Sarah- Jane Dias) shows him that singing is in his blood, and if he’d only listen to what his voice is saying he’d figure out who he really was. Amira has her own family tragedy to deal with, which she medicates with various drugs and liquors in a refreshingly honest (for India) portrayal of drug use. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the two worlds Dilsher is straddling are going to collide, and when they do it’s in a brilliantly baffling moment that sums up Zubaan’s tonal, thematic and musical flaws in one scene (more like it and Singh would have had a camp classic on his hands). The musical interludes feel more like randomly inserted music videos than organic moments that grow from the narrative and could easily have been excised in favor or character development and some considered plot points. Dilsher’s rock star finale is more embarrassing than uplifting.

Similarly, Bollywood movies are only as memorable as their music and Zubaan’s is only moderately compelling; it’s hard to remember any of the tunes a day after it’s over and a bizarrely flat sound mix doesn’t help. The choreography by Uma-Gaiti is average for the most part and there’s not standout song — odd for Ashutosh Phatak (Fire in the Blood). The one exception to that is a Rajasthan desert memorial celebration that Swapnil Sonawane’s sweeping images breathe some life into. The appealing cast is as strong as they can be, with Malik and Dias leaving the biggest impressions, and Dias proving she should have no trouble taking up the throne from Aishwarya Rai should she choose to.

Production company: Sikhya Entertainment, Metamozez Entertainment

Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Sarah-Jane Dias, Manish Chaudhari, Meghna Malik, Raaghev Chanana

Director: Mozez Singh

Screenwriter: Mozez Singh, Thani, Sumit Roy

Producer: Guneet Monga, Shaan Vyas

Director of photography: Swapnil Sonawane

Production designer: Khyatee Kanchan

Costume designer: Aki Narula

Editor: Deepa Bhatia

Music: Ashutosh Phatak

Casting director: Mukesh Chhabra

No rating, 115 minutes