Like his film Makdee, Vishal Bhardwaj's The Blue Umbrella is a story about a child, though it is not as explicitly a children's story as that wonderful fable. Nor is it as decidedly a grown-up story as his Shakespeare adaptations Omkara or Maqbool. However one characterizes this film, though, one thing is certain - I need to see more Vishal Bhardwaj films.
In a picturesque town in the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh lives a little girl named Biniya (Shreya Sharma). Biniya does what most little girls do - runs around and plays with the other children, and bargains for candy and treats with the keeper of the local snack stand, Nandu (Pankaj Kapur). One day, on the mountainside outside the village, Biniya finds a beautiful umbrella, and is entranced by its sky-blue watercolors, delicate papery canopy, its bamboo ribs and sensuous ruffles. When the Japanese tourist to whom it belongs finds her, Biniya trades her precious good luck charm - a bear claw - for the umbrella, and brings the marvelous artifact back to the village.
There, Biniya becomes the center of all attention, as children and adults alike are fascinated by the umbrella. Nandu covets it, and offers her all the toffees and biscuits she can eat in exchange for it - but Biniya isn't selling. Then one day Biniya's heart breaks - she turns her back on the umbrella for a few short moments, and it vanishes. When Nandu obtains a nearly identical umbrella - his is red - from a foreign seller, Biniya vibrates with rageful suspicion, and determines to prove that Nandu is a thief.
There are so many marvelous touches in this short little film that it's difficult to single out a few without feeling guilty for giving others short shrift. It is visually stunning, with a rich palate and carefully-constructed shots that deliver beauty and symbolism in equal parts. In one scene, Biniya brandishes the umbrella like a kung-fu master to protect her older brother - himself a powerful champion wrestler - from a coiling cobra. In another of the many lovely scenes, Nandu tries, without success, to bribe Biniya with a bunch of balloons. The brightly colored balloons float slowly away like Nandu's dreams as he stands, small and beige and still, before the grey backdrop of a rocky waterfall.
Indeed, Bhardwaj uses the picturesque village and its breathtaking natural surroundings to great effect, creating a dreamlike or fable-like quality even while presenting day to day village life in charming and engaging vignettes throughout the story. And while most of the characters are not fleshed out - the 90-minute running time does not afford very much deep character development - Nandu and Biniya are, as much through expressive silences as through any dialogue. In this way, the film bears some similarity to Bhardwaj's delicious Makdee, presenting village life with some vividness, along with the maturation of a child's spirit in opposition to a stubborn and cruel adult. Unlike the witch in Makdee, though, Nandu has some nuance of his own. Sour as the pickles he relishes, this bitter little man is nevertheless moved to poetry by the beauty of the umbrella, which he rhapsodizes in loving terms.The film has some themes in common with The Gods Must Be Crazy and other stories of that ilk, in which a mysterious and desirable object of foreign origin invades a peaceful, tightly knit community and breeds unrest and mistrust among its residents. The umbrella surely carries the allegorical force of the variety of outside influences that exert themselves on Indian village life, both foreign influences and those from other sectors of Indian society. And in Biniya's village, where the villagers routinely entertain tourists (and sometimes even con them), there is enough resilience that in the end, the umbrella's upsetting influence can be calmed, and the umbrella integrated into the village's peaceful fabric, as Nandu changes the name of his snack stand from his surname "Khatri stall" to "Chatri stall" (umbrella stall).