Where have I been? Where am I? Fair daylight? I am mightily abused. I should e'en die with pity, to see another thus. I know not what to say. King Lear
It is Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights -- a day that celebrates good triumphing over evil. On this night, a film called The Mask is premiering, festival-be-damned. But it soon becomes clear that there is more behind this cinematic premiere than an ill-conceived schedule. Those involved are terse and on edge -- the film's star, Harish Mishra (Amitabh Bachchan), is notably absent, bedridden for unknown reasons. Shabnam (Preity Zinta), the film's co-star, is also absent, having fled the untrusting eyes and accusations of her husband to be at Harry's side. Director Siddarth (Arjun Rampal) refuses interviews, and rigidly, stoically stares off into space. Meanwhile, Vandana (Shefali Shetty), is boiling with anger that her companion, Harry, has been injured and tossed aside by those he gave everything for.
If it sounds a bit confusing, that's because it is. With The Last Lear (adapted from a play by Utpal Dutt), writer/director Rituparno Ghosh has crafted a slow-to-accelerate film that begins in confusion, but saves itself by weaving into an intriguing story about the dedication of passion, whether it be theatrical, cinematic, romantic, or personal. Present moments are mixed with yellow-toned memories as the director shows two sides of the story -- that of the women, Shabnam, Vandana, and a nurse named Ivy (Divya Dutta), as well as that of the men, as told through journalist Journo Gautam (Jishu Sengupta), who brought Harry and Siddarth together.
Slowly, Harry's story unravels. An epic Shakespearian theater actor, he quit the stage long ago, for rather mysterious reasons, right before his dream performance as King Lear. Living as a shut-in, he occupies himself with berating men who urinate on his outer property wall, as well as living and breathing the word of the Bard. Journo visits the actor for an interview, and it is completely disastrous -- he looks blankly at Harry as the man talks about Puck and Oberon (fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream), and it is obvious that while both are speaking English, they're not speaking the same language. However, Journo schemes for filmmaker Siddarth to meet him. He does; he impresses Harry; and he convinces the ex-theater actor to star in his new film about a disfigured clown. In his first forays in film, Harry struggles with the cinematic process, but finds refuge in teaching model-turned-actress Shabnam the skills of the trade -- all on the lush, forested backdrop captured by Abhik Mukhopadyay's camera.
The setup is a bit contrived, as is the revelation about how Harry gets hurt, but Ghosh's film is saved by the actors. Bachchan's Shakespearian-fueled Harish is a storm of passion. His voice roars, and in every scene you can feel his devotion to the stage and to the Bard. His exuberance is infectious, and for those that love theater, this might be enough to keep you hooked. But there are also the conversations between Shabnam and Vandana, who sit together for the night. They talk about their experiences with Harry, as well as their personal struggles. Shah's performance, in particular, is spot-on. At first, she is almost spitting with anger and acidity, but as she talks with Shabnam, she relaxes and the walls crumble to reveal a woman grieving for a love that no longer recognizes her.
If you can relax, allow yourself to get swept up in the power of Shakespearian recitation, and the quirks of an old, creative man, The Last Lear can be an enjoyable, inspirational journey. It is, however, one that can derail easily if one gets caught up in the slow-paced plot and sporadic, unbelievable moments. Nevertheless, it's a decent foray beyond the musical world of Bollywood, and it is a nice look into the Shakespeare that exists beyond Britain and North America.