When the Bollywood-going crowd ambushes a film in an act of Groupthink and J’accuse!, the film is not spared. Fitoor’s crime, as has been heard through the grapevine, is that it’s nothing more than a shallow affair that whitewashes the Kashmiri insurgency.
Its stars are indeed easy on the eyes and so are its aesthetics; in fact its the most transcendentally beautiful Dickenian classic brought to screen and its lush soundtrack worms its way into one’s consciousness. But in and day and age where the common Indian man’s palette for good cinema has evolved since the days of damsels in saris swooning over machismo heroes’ chest puffery in the Swiss Alps, that just won’t cut it.
But Fitoor, I would argue, is not superficial. If anything, it’s the opposite of that.
The foundation on which Fitoor must stand on, the novel, Great Expectations, is superficial however. Poor boy (Pip, here “Noor”) meets rich girl with a stiff upper lip (Estella, in here “Firdaus) who, despite their class differences, become childhood sweethearts. Girl walks out on him, they reunite a decade later, she plays him like a fiddle because of her custodian’s toxic conditioning (Miss Havisham, here “Begum”), and because he’s a masochist. In the end, she realizes she was wrong and runs back to him. That’s it.
The novel attained its status as a classic not because of its formulaic storyline but because of its telling – its prose was haunting and it played commentary to issues that permeated Victorian England’s socio-economic landscape namely the decadence of aristocrats as well as social immobility.
Because present-day India is stifling from those same issues, Fitoor director, Abhishek Kapoor, could have gone that route but he instead subtly infuses his Bollywood take on the novel with something just as relevant to India.
But before I delve into the film’s subtext, attention must be given to the purveyors. Katrina Kaif has Estella’s emotionally stunted ice princess schtick down to a T, while Aditya Roy Kapur’s Pip is a car crash you can’t take your eyes off of. It’s painfully evident that the actor has given it his all here especially when his character begins to be consumed by his love for Firdaus. His credibility never wavers, and although Aditya might be playing Pip, one gaze at his coal-fire eyes and sheer intensity and a bibliophile can’t help but see Bronte’s Heathcliff.
“Abhishek Kapoor understands Dickens and his belief that realism and romanticism are not schisms, but complementary dualities.”
The film’s beauty is just as polarizing. Every frame looks like a portraiture from the Jahangir Mughal period brought to life. Fitoor as a whole is a loving homage to old world Islamic mysticism, the likes of which we haven’t seen from Bollywood since the days of Mughal-e-Azam.
However, those who dismiss the film as superfluous eye candy should have paid closer attention to the pivotal scene in which Noor unexpectedly lashes out on his benevolent benefactor, expressing to him his frustration of constantly being controlled. One gets the sense that he’s not necessarily directing his words at the benefactor, but that he’s referring to something much more broader in context. This speech is nowhere to be found in Great Expectations, it’s an artistic license Kapoor has taken to convey his message.
You see, unlike Dickens’ Pip & Estella, Fitoor’s Noor and Firdaus aren’t just as princess and a pauper who fall in love, they’re pawns in a master scheme, pawns who are toyed with, lied to, exploited but above all, they’re constantly denied the right to self-determination and autonomy from external parties.
Noor and Firdaus are indeed a personification of apartheid Kashmir.
So is Tabu’s Begum whom we learn was once a young, unassuming girl stripped of her dignity and reduced to a shrivelled, immoral crone who believes the only way forward is to surrender to oppression and assimilation.
Begum is the Kashmir we fear, Noor and Firdaus are the bleeding heart Liberal’s perception of the Kashmir of the future, one in which sees the state take charge of its fate. Theirs is a happy ending, hers isn’t.
This prevailing metaphor could have been fleshed out more by Kapoor so as to give the film the heft its been accused of lacking, but he chose not to patronize or alienate his audience – after all, this is a Bollywood blockbuster. Much to his chagrin however, no one, not even his peers, seemed to get it.
Barring the hastily assembled deus ex machinas that clog the flow of the film in its latter half, Fitoor is nevertheless a sumptuous celebration of sight and sound. More importantly, by subtly tapping into the zeitgeist under the guise of a love story, Kapoor has succeeded in doing what others before him, filmmakers who are arguably much more exalted than him – David Lean (Dr. Zhivago) and Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter) – have failed to do in their cold, detached interpretations of Great Expectations. Abhishek Kapoor understands Dickens and his belief that realism and romanticism are not schisms, but complementary dualities. Because of Kapoor, Dickens is alive and he lives in Kashmir.