Film: "Shab"; Director: Onir; Starring: Raveena Tandon, introducing Ashish Bisht, Arpita Chatterjee, Areesz Gandii, Simon Frenay; Rating: ****
Delhi...soaked in the wispy wetness of monsoon, the shivery tensions of winter, the sweltering sweaty seductiveness of summer... Onir's latest film, his first since the game-changing envelope pusher "I Am", absorbs the changing climate of Delhi during a year of incredible emotional upheavals in the lives of four main characters who are as memorable as they are persuasive in their sexual and emotional impulses.
While we soak in the sheer infinity of Onir's gasping, sighing human relationships as they unfold in a passionate quartet, we notice how tranquil the surface remains while what lies beneath threatens to erupt any moment.
"Shab" (which means, Night) is the quintessential calm-before-the-storm drama. The raging winds of the four protagonists' emotions are harnessed tightly but nimbly. While Onir's people are allowed the space to create their own emotional pace, they are barely given a chance to vent their anger and resentment at injustices that life has heaped on them.
Each one of Onir's protagonists is a silent sufferer. There is the aspiring model from a small town, Azfar (newcomer Ashish Bisht), who becomes a toy boy for a rich bored socialite wife Sonam Modi(Raveena Tandon, in her career's best performance).
Onir sets up the dynamics between the eager-to-please small-towner and the imperious sexual predator with an erotic fluency that reminded me of the seductive game played in the French rape drama "Elle". Of course, no one rapes anyone in "Shab". There are other deeper ravages and wounds to worry about.
Raina (Arpita Chatterjee, emotive and strong) leads a duel life as a warm caring elder sister who has a murky irresolvable secret life.
Secrets burst at the seams in Onir's simmering narrative. His understanding of human relationships is deep and thoughtful. As Raina gets close to Azfar -- or wait, is it Azfar who gets close to her? -- she fights back a pain that threatens to overpower her better judgment of human relationships.
Raina's friend Neil (Areesz Gandii, so natural he doesn't seem to be aware of the camera prowling so confidently into bedrooms), a homosexual trying to break out of brutal relationship finding love all of a sudden (as we often find it) in a tender caring French tourist Benoit (Simon Frenay) moonlighting as waiter.
There is a scene that's at once funny and savagely ironic where Azfar, wildly heterosexual, advises the gay Neil to settle down with an 'abadni'(woman).
Of the four characters I found Benoit to be the most fascinating. He is warm and giving, and discernibly in love with the heaving heat and lust of Delhi's upper crust. There is a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek scene where a suave gay designer Rohan Sud (Raj Suri) reminds Benoit that he has been hitting on him for 6 weeks.
"Eight weeks, Sir," Benoit smiles back, implacably.
Defences do crumble in this saga of unfinished yearnings and unfurnished desires set in an explored part of Delhi where the small cosy warm cafes and eateries exist in a neon-lit row. It's a revealing hotbead of sexual politics shot by cinematographer Sachin Krishn with an easygoing intensity, never over-the-top but never letting go a chance to shoot a character and a moment in all its chic splendor.
"Shab" is a gorgeous-looking film with a starcast that's easy on the eyes. Raveena Tandon has never looked better. She brings a bewitching bitchiness to her lonely character's part. Newcomer Ashish Bisht is not afraid to share his character's ambition-prone humiliation. His natural rawness works well for his character. And Arpita Chatterjee often through her eyes expresses all of Raina's pain. She is quite a discovery.
But it is the French actor Simon Frenay whose pain and hurt stayed with me after the film.
Doing away with the shallowness of Madhur Bhandarkar's "Page 3" characters, Onir gives us a film that's powerful and delectable. A smouldering simmering sensuous tale of betrayal and redemption, Onir stages a fragile, brutal and beguiling exploration of relationships in the overheated metropolitanism of Delhi.
But be warned. This is not every one's cup of tea -- or glass of cognac, if you will.