With heavily kohl-lined eyes, a man (Prrashant Narayannan) stares blankly at a singer at a ghazal concert. A few rows ahead, a well-dressed young woman (Aruna Shields) restlessly keeps glancing at the entrance. There is an empty seat next to each of them. A few minutes later, a man and woman slide into those seats. Meet Mr and Mrs Mehta, and Mr and Mrs Singh.
From the audience, their clothes and the setting, you would believe you are in a small auditorium in Mumbai’s conservative and crumbling Girgaum neighbourhood; a little later you are told you are in London (though there is a giveaway sign of Cardiff, Wales, in one shot). This is the drabbest, most unexciting UK you have ever seen, or been shown on celluloid, but this is the least of Mr. Singh Mrs. Mehta’s many problems.
B-grade performance: Narayannan and Shields fail to impress.
The story is about Mrs Singh, the wife of an adulterous man, and Mr Mehta, a cuckold. Neera Singh’s suspicions about her husband’s infidelity lead her to Sakhi Mehta’s doorstep, where she encounters Ashwin, Sakhi’s artist husband. Vulnerable, hurt and angry, Ashwin and Neera seek solace in each other’s company, sharing stories of how they met and married. We learn that the Singhs have been married two years, that he is a successful advertising executive while she writes an agony aunt column for www.behenji.com (you see her tapping her keyboard only once).
The Mehtas, who’ve been married for seven years, decided not to have children. She supports his art, believing he will make it big one day. When Mr Singh and Mrs Mehta go off to Paris for a week, some partner-swapping follows in the UK, where Neera and Ashwin are drawn to each other on the rebound. In a few days, Ashwin feels inspired to paint and persuades Neera to pose for him in the nude. Many pixelated shots of Shields in various poses follow. The climax—an exhibition where Mr Singh and Mrs Mehta realize that the cat was out of the bag a long time ago—is drawn from Mike Nichols’ 2004 film Closer.
While the issues and complexities of the relationships might be contemporary and realistic, the portrayal is unidimensional and amateur. Writer-director Pravesh Bhardwaj’s inexperience permeates every scene and frame and the tacky production values, shoddy camerawork and agonizing screenplay exacerbate the tedium. In such circumstances, you are left with no choice but to notice the upholstery, lamp shades and photo frames. So you notice the typical British apartment with stripy wallpaper and heavy wooden furniture in which Neera copes with her grief, while Ashwin is constantly rolling and smoking cigarettes at a riverside or in his studio. This is one of those movies where the characters can only do one thing at a time, and have to pause for thought before every line is spoken.
The performances are a huge letdown. While Narayannan acts like he is in a European art house film, Shields’ performance is akin to a B-grade family drama heroine. Her consistent expression is of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. Cast opposite her wooden presence, Narayannan, a capable actor otherwise, slides into inertia.
The director uses montages over ghazal-Sufiana songs to show the two of them pensive and conflicted. The entire film has the feel of a Pakistani TV soap, circa 1984. Some of the stilted dialogues do jump out at you. For instance, when Neera checks her husband’s cellphone records, she counts that he has called Sakhi 87 times and called her only 32 times. Or this one: “Mera husband tumhari biwi ko ghumata rehta hai. Tumhe bhi mere upar kharcha karna chahiye”.
There is no reason for anyone to spend on a ticket for this film.
Mr. Singh Mrs. Mehta released in theatres on Friday.