Rituparno Ghosh's Raincoat is a languid commentary on love, on sacrifice, and most of all on the facades people erect when they cannot bear the harsh light of real life. With a presentation that is more like a stage play than a film, it demands a lot of its actors. For the most part, the film and the actors hold up well.
Manoj (Ajay Devgan) is unemployed and in dire straits. Desperate, he leaves his village for Calcutta, where his old school friend Alok, a successful television producer, has put in a good word for him with some of their mutual acquaintances. Manoj's plan is to swallow his pride and visit each of these acquaintances, asking for loans so he can set up a small business. He has one more stop in mind, though - to drop in on his old flame, Neerja (Aishwarya Rai), who left him six years before and married a man with more financial promise and security. In one rainy afternoon, Manoj and Neerja desconstruct themselves as they spin tales for one another, catching up on the intervening time.
Manoj and Neerja lie to one another about their circumstances as much because they are ashamed to admit the truth to themselves as they are to admit it to one another. The titular raincoat is the film's principal metaphor for both the effect of such deception and its inherent weaknesses. It is a protective cocoon that shields its wearer from battery by the elements, but each time a character puts it on a piece of concealed truth is revealed. Its message seems to be that the more the characters try to hide from themselves, the more likely they are to be discovered by the people closest to them. Raincoat amplifies and builds on the metaphor with others - closed windows thrown open and then closed again; broken lamps and the shifting shadows thrown by candles; fractured mirror reflections; roaches hiding in the darkness of a closed drawer.
Raincoat's premise is compelling enough. Its theatrical style - much of the film takes place in one cramped room, and the narrative is principally conveyed through dialogue between Manoj and Neerja - is well-suited to the tight psychological study that the film endeavors to present. It falters when, at times, the pace slows beyond even my tolerance for contemplative cinema. And there are moments when the exposure of the stage-play approach is more than its actors can bear; Ajay Devgan wears a shroud of gloom so dense that at times he threatens to collapse inward on himself, and Aishwarya Rai's performance, which may have been aiming at nonchalance, verges instead on petulance.
The most promising interactions are those between Manoj and his Calcutta hostess Sheila, Alok's wife - these two come much closer to honest connection than Manoj and Neerja ever do during their afternoon of elaborative fiction. Unfortunately we are not treated to enough of Sheila; her revealing conversations with Manoj are limited to a handful of crackling scenes. Still, Raincoat offers enough to hold the viewer's interest in the small orbit of its characters, seasoned by lovely, plaintive songs with the poetry of Gulzar. And its ending is both satisfying and thought-provoking - it reminded me of the ironic stories of O Henry, and I was pleased to see that inspiration acknowledged in the film's closing credits not moments after the thought had occurred to me.