Few minutes into Mirzya, you know that the film wants you to feel that you are watching an epic – with a capital E – but all you could feel for in the film is…nothing. And you wonder, well, yeah, how can you, as a cinema lover, not feel anything when you just witnessed the names of some cinema stalwarts in the opening credits? It’s not a great feeling. Last time I got this feeling while watching a film was during Bombay Velvet. And like Bombay Velvet, this one is bogged down by the same problem of self-seriousness.
The film is taking itself too seriously. There’s conscious attempt to make and look everything like… Epic. Which is why, despite of opening the film with a fourth-wall-breaking invitation (by Om Puri) into the alleys of blacksmiths, the film doesn’t feel inviting; it goes on its own trip. Despite of its free fluid photography, the form appears rigid. I can imagine what a hard time P S Bharathi would have had editing this film which is also a musical. Problem is, her hard time is clearly showing. The transition between two music pieces is not really in tandem with the rhythm of the frames – it makes its stellar soundscape appear patchy.
Yet, even after having a great team -- Gulzar for writing the film and songs, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for writing the score, Pawel Dyllus as the director of photography, Bharathi as the editor, this is completely a director's film. Which should have been a achievement. But it clearly isn't. Which is why all the flaws should rightly be credited to Mehra rather than to the individual department.
Gulzar does get to display his flashes of genius here. Take the first ten minutes of the film: We are taken to the childhood of Munish and Suchi. They are school buddies. Suchi takes the caning from the teacher for homework not done by Munish. Her father is a police officer. We see him cleaning his pistol. Munish sees it too. But the only idea of what's going in the kid’s head we have is his concern for his best friend whose palms are now bruised red. You now know where it's going but nothing is as pronounced on the screen. It's minimal, it's a shocker. We hear, in Gulzar’s voice, “Ishq me aksar yeh bhi hota hai; chot kahi lagti hai, zakhm kahi par hota hai.” (It often happens in love; someone is injured, someone else is wounded). It's broken, and deathly poetic. This part should have been the prologue, and the other shocker towards the end, when Gulzar Saab reminds us the same lines again, should've been followed with a fitting epilogue. At least, the symmetrical structure and the book-ending nature of the prose wouldn't have been sacrificed with a tepid mid-act.
These two scenes are brilliant visual storytelling that only a master like Gulzar could write. Even in verbal scenes, there's a lot to admire in his minimal yet effective writing. When grown-up Adil returns to Suchi’s father reminding him about the kid who stole his pistol saying that the kid used to love Suchi and he still does, the father walks up to him and asks how did he change his name from Munish to Adil? This is great economy of words. No major slack, no melodrama heavy exchange, yet powerfully convincing. Also, when Suchi is telling her horse-riding tutor Adil about her frolic affairs with Munish, Adil fires back with go find him in Govardhan Public School. No “how did he…?”, no other questions asked, one eureka moment and that's all. Lovely economy, again.
In the same ‘grown-up Suchi meets grown-up Munish’ scene, they confront physically more than orally, you do see some igniting passion -- she ends up tearing his gunjee, you see the first-timer actors are giving their best here, but you somehow don't feel the passion. Again, it's a completely directorial flaw -- he owns each and every frame of this film. This scene is the most modernly youthful one in this time traversing tale -- there's sexual tension, there's anger, there's underlying emotion of rekindled love, but all in thought, nothing on screen. Give this scene to Imtiaz Ali and see the magic.
Mehra is more invested in the form here than the content. It's not a bad thing. Except that we as an audience aren't invested in it much. Even if you want to, you either get the feel that even the director doesn't know what he has to do here or he finds methods to alienate us in the pretence of artistic ambition if he himself isn't alienated at first place. He wants his labour-of-love frames to speak to us, not realising that he is hammering them on us with those underlining background score and slo-mo shots. Gulzar roots this Mirza-Sahiban folklore through the musical sutradhaar (in Daler Mahendi’s voice) in rustic Punjabi language. But how do you expect a Polish DoP to understand Punjabi and translate it on screen? His tracking, trolleying, top-angles, low-angles add to the good-looking style but has no sense and purpose of narrative. It is like Mehra wants to tell us time and again that there's something deep, but, afraid not, there’s nothing, at least in his filmmaking.