Women in prison films have been with us for ages, and it looks as though they will continue to attract directors for a long time to come. My personal favorite is Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 (1972). Oddly enough, the most recent incarnation of the genre I’ve seen, Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2006), I found repellant for much the same reasons as Jeunet’s Amelie: the people in Park’s film are not so much characters as a collection of idiosyncrasies, none of whom inspire admiration or respect. Princess Aurora (2006), while not exactly a women in prison film, was nonetheless a notable achievement in the vendetta genre.
It was with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that I approached Sriram Raghavan’s debut film produced by Ram Gopal Varma. On the one hand, I had been utterly swept away by another RGV production, Ab Tak Chhappan (2004), based on the true story of an ‘encounter specialist’ in Mumbai. I was also encouraged by what I had read of director Raghavan, who had said in an interview that he scoured all the available films of the women in prison genre, which taught him what not to do. He also added that he wanted above all to keep the film realistic but stylish. On the other hand, having read glowing reports of RGV’s directorial prowess, I first watched Company (2002) and was immediately put off by the sprawling 3-hour-long film’s MTV-style editing, numerous song-and-dance numbers, an atrociously bad script and routine acting, all of which seemed to be the embodiment of the evils against which Varma had for years vociferously combatted, and for which he has earned the respect of critics and filmgoers at film festivals the world over.
Sarika (Urmila Matondkar) radiates beauty and innocence. She earns a living as a travel agent in Mumbai and, aside from the unwanted attentions of a prying neighbor, leads a rather conventional existence. That is, until she is swept off her feet by Karan (Saif Ali Khan), a handsome stranger who insinuates himself into her life through an improbable series of events. Hardly a few weeks pass, when Sarika is sentenced to spend seven years behind bars for crimes she didn’t commit. With a serial killer for a cellmate (as well as legions of hungry rodents) she comes under the wing of a gangster (Pratima Kazmi), who looks after her and arranges her eventual escape. Pursued by the police, Sarika has sworn to avenge herself upon her former lover…
Forging a satisfying balance between style and substance, Ek Hasina Thi is not so overtly self-conscious as the Korean films mentioned above, never indulging in virtuosity for its own sake. Like Sadhu Agashe (Nana Patekar), the law enforcer-turned-fugitive in Ab Tak Chappan, Sarika pursues Karan, while at the same time being sought after by the police. In the course of events, Delhi is turned into a hotbed of carnage, leaving in its wake strewn bodies and corpses… Some of Varma’s favorite themes of corruption, moral ambiguity and vigilante justice crop up as well. It has been argued that what starts off as a compelling thriller with two magnetic Bollywood stars (Urmila and Saif), gets bogged down in the second half with, among other things, why Sarika would pursue Karan after having set him up by the underworld, and just how Sarika, a convicted felon, could navigate Delhi with impunity, charges that are not entirely unfounded. But allegations that the script is weak, or that the entire second half of the film is without interest are completely baseless. To be sure, some of the incidents stretch credibility, but what keeps this thriller from becoming another cliche are the electrifying performances of Urmila and Saif. It must be admitted that there is a refreshing absence of melodrama that mars some of the Korean productions mentioned earlier, and the film benefits from very high production values. Special mention must be made of Urmila’s performance, whose handling of the transition from vulnerable travel agent to cold-blooded killer, aside from one or two scenes which call for the actress to degenerate into hysterics, is thoroughly captivating. Urmila, who had made dozens of films in Bollywood and whose career was secure, wanted to take on more challenging roles, and impressed critics with her performance in the ill-fated ghost story Bhoot (2003). Her performance here cements her reputation as an actress deserving of respect. Highly recommended.
India | 2004 | Directed by Sriram Raghavan | Starring Saif Ali Khan, Urmila Matondkar, Seema Biswas, Ravi Kale, Pratima Kazmi and Madan Joshi
Net Effect Media
Format: 16:9 Anamorphic
Sound: Dolby 5.1
Region: All NTSC
Running time: 120 Mins