Dir. Vinod Pande
I have watched quite a few rotten movies out of love for Shabana Azmi. I did not enjoy the dour, crotchety Avtaar, which tries to send a message about respecting one's elders, and winds up just shaking its fist at kids today, those selfish, unfeeling jerks. Nor do I have much nice to say about the amateurish Morning Raga, which looks as if someone filmed Shabana ji giving a master class to a bunch of undertalented young actors. So Yeh nazdeekiyan is far from the worst film I have ever watched for the sake of Shabana-pyaar - that dubious distinction goes to the truly execrable Son of Pink Panther, with Gaja Gamini snagging honorable mention - but it is not much better than Avtaar or Morning Raga.
Yeh nazdeekiyan gets legitimate points for boldness - not the superficial boldness of its clutchy, gaspy sex scenes between Parveen Babi and Marc Zuber, but the more substantive boldness of a consensual open marriage, an idea that makes many people squirm even today, in east and west alike. And of course Shabana Azmi is perfect in it, in her familiar avatar of the wronged wife who discovers a self-actualized identity in the shards of a broken marriage. This is the kind of role that Aparna Sen said she could not give to Shabana ji, lest the casting spoil the story - because everyone knows how the arcs of such characters go when played by Shabana Azmi. But her performance is satisfying to watch all the same, understated, poised yet emotional. It is a comfortable space for both Shabana ji and her fans, Shabana Azmi comfort food.
She is the sine qua non of my love for Hindi films. Le sigh! Also her dad Kaifi Azmi has a great cameo.
But despite Shabana ji's best efforts at a delicate touch, too much of Yeh nazdeekiyan is ham-fisted, like those cringey sex scenes, or Marc Zuber's allegedly charming flirtations which ring stiff and false in both scripting and performance. And too much of it is rambly and simply not well-crafted enough for all its earnest ideas and its one good performance to hold the day. It means well, but makes the worst misstep a movie can make: it is boring.
Still, it has a few nice directorial touches. Here, reciprocal jealousy at two different points in the film, conveyed with parallel shots and cleverly-chosen book titles in the display.
In the beginning of the film, Shobhana (Azmi) and Sunil (Zuber) share a marriage that seems buoyant with both passion and love. Sunil, an advertising director, is something of a philanderer. At first it seems Shobhana is being played, but when a friend confronts her about it, Shobhana astonishingly explains that Sunil's excursions do not concern her. That's just a matter of the body, she says. She has Sunil's heart, which is the important thing.
But Sunil's heart does soon stray toward one of his dalliances, or at least he thinks it does, for a while. The woman is Kiran (Parveen Babi), a sriracha-hot model whom Sunil is shooting for one of his commercials. When they meet, Kiran's friends dare her to make a pass at Sunil. But he is cold to her advances, and the snub drives Kiran to an obsession with winning his attention. In other words, Kiran falls for Sunil only because he shows no interest in her at all. This is an ugh-worthy way to write a female character and a romance. I have to acknowledge, though, that it is not entirely unrealistic - this sort of thing does happen. And so I cannot accuse Yeh nazdeekiyan of lazy scriptwriting on this score, just unappealing scriptwriting.
But, Parveen Babi! On the beach! In slow motion!
And speaking of unappealing, Marc Zuber is about as uncharismatic a wet noodle of an actor as one could cast opposite the presence of Shabana Azmi and the breathless heat of Parveen Babi. He broods, he mopes, he sets his jaw; it's not even an unconvincing performance so much as it is an uninteresting one. Coupled with the weak foundation of Sunil's relationship with Kiran, Zuber's flatness drains the energy from a movie that seems to plod on for weeks.
The message of Yeh nazdeekiyan seems to be that the deep bond of love that is formed of a true understanding between two people is of more value than a superficially shiny attraction, however passionate. Shabana Azmi has said that she thought Yeh nazdeekiyan, with its forgiveness and reconciliation, would be a surefire hit, but she later found that the ending of Arth resonated more strongly with women in the audience yearning for a reflection of their frustrations. (Arth is also a better movie in every aspect of its execution by a long way, so the comparison is not entirely rigorous.) In Arth, Shabana Azmi's character choose not to return to her husband and her old life, after learning to her surprise that she could provide for herself and live fulfilled and contented without a husband. In Yeh nazdeekiyan, Shobhana learns these things too, launching a successful music career after she leaves Sunil. But she still elects to take him back when he asks her to.
That is not an entirely unfeminist ending; Shobhana makes the choice freely, without loss of agency, and there is nothing to suggest her career will not continue once the marriage is repaired. So perhaps Yeh nazdeekiyan escapes the reset-button criticism that has been leveled at another self-discovery story, English Vinglish, in which Sridevi's character's self-actualization comes to an end upon her cheerful return to an apparently unaltered version of her previous life. The difference there is that while Sridevi's character learns a lot about herself during the movie, her husband does not; there is no parallel narrative for him. In Yeh nazdeekiyan, to its credit, Sunil learns lessons of his own. He starts the movie with an acknowledged roving eye, and ends with a greater understanding of the precious and unique relationship he has with Shobhana. Ironically, the most feminist aspect of Yeh nazdeeekiyan may be wrapped up in this point: The defeat of patriarchal oppression requires not only the awakening of women, but the profound changing of men.