The inexplicable decision to send the main character into a “dream state” to confess his life and work, and the rather bizarre choice of Richa Chadha to play the role of an adult Malaysian soft-core actress in the 1990s, are just two of the many things that Shakeela, written and directed by Indrajit Lankesh, does horribly wrong. But they are bad enough. They irrevocably undermine the film.
It’s not that Richa Chadha is a failure. In the scenes that matter, she is strong enough. She conveys the situation of the eponymous protagonist, a woman caught between an exploitative industry and a manipulative mother, with a lot of power.
The script, however, is so vulgar and predictable that the main character – a sex symbol who surpasses the reigning male superstar by asserting his right to do his own thing, provoking a hypocritical and strident reaction that jeopardizes the career of a morally ambivalent society that regrets her challenging films but lacks the courage to admit its obsession with her – does not get the layers that could have given the representation real weight.
Shakeela, which opened in cinemas on Christmas Day, is soulless and unaffected, although in places it touches on the ever-present issue of male domination in the entertainment industry. Shakeela is constantly judged and pilloried because she doesn’t act in movies that families can watch together. Worse yet, she is being held accountable by a leading industry for daring to reject their advances.
The relationship between Shakeela and her look-alike Suhana, played by Ester Noronha, is an important parallel piece that would have been infinitely better served if the writer-director had seen the percentage of depth. But since it is only an incidental detail of the plot, it does not take on any logic of its own and helps to pull the film out of the quagmire of mediocrity. Shakeela-Suhana’s subplot gets bogged down in a do-jism-ek-jaan (two bodies, one soul) discourse on female attachment, professional dependence and betrayal.
Shakeela’s cast also includes Pankaj Tripathi. She plays the role of an arrogant but insecure superstar who cannot stand Shakeela’s meteoric rise to fame after the suicide of Seda’s superheroine Smitha. He turns out to be the villain in her life.
As always, Tripathi does many things with his face, eyes and postures, which is a joy in itself. In a better film, he would have done wonders. In Shakeela, there is a complete disconnect between what the actor can deliver and what the movie can get out of him.
In Shakeela, there is a scene where the protagonist, who is still nobody, gets a role as a poster boy in a Silk Smitha movie. The nervous girl spills juice on the star and is quickly slapped. Shakeela swallows her pride and moves on anyway. She can’t afford to feel humiliated. Ironically, Silk Smitha’s untimely death creates a void in the field of sexually exploitive movies and she moves on and makes hay over a period of a decade.
n place of what it promises to be – an exploration of the wages of celebrity in an exploitative industry – Shakeela becomes an uneven melodrama with an adolescent love interest (Rajeev Pillai) encouraging the woman to reinvent herself and fight.
Finally, there is a clash between a biopic about Shakeela and the male superstar’s latest crime drama. But even if successful – Shakeela is creating a genre of her own at the peak of her career – she is constantly reminded that there is a price to pay.