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Starring: Manoj Bajpai, Karisma Kapoor, Lillette Dubey, Rahul Maarya
Director: Shyam Benegal
Rating: **

It is based on scriptwriter Khalid Mohammad's true-life story, which had the makings of a classic. Zubeida (Karisma Kapoor) leaves her infant son for Vijyendra Singh (Manoj Bajpai), the Raja of Fatehpur. Her tumultuous life, till this point, includes a failed attempt to become a screen actress (she was dragged away by her father from the sets) and a failed marriage.

Set in the late '40s and early '50s, the tale evokes the period the merger with the Indian Union encourages the Raja to fight elections. Zubeida, now Meenakshi Devi, gets sidelined in the process as Vijyendra Singh's first wife (Rekha) gets precedence in a more political atmosphere. She manages to push her aside for a place by her prince but the plane on which they make their journey to Delhi crashes.

These shades of the '50s intrigue are muted. The focus instead is on Zubeida's son's search for his mother and her enigma, both of which are shown as being suppressed or redefined to suit the needs of contemporary times. So far so good. The problem begins when Benegal's cliches start making their customary appearance on the screen. The story's canvas is big, but Benegal keeps to his characteristic midshot-centred, small-scale realism. Zubeida's character is full of interesting contradictions, at times she seems like a '50s Madame Bovary. But then she is referred to as an 'azaad panchchi' (free bird), or someone who did not know her mind another example of the silent didactic in Benegal overwhelming the subtle artist (the master of irony) of Nishant and Manthan. In fact, the first half is flat. Benegal alludes to earlier films like Mammo and Sardari Begum, but is unable to repeat the 'Bhumika' type of songs. The old forms are intact, but there is no elevation of a period-style to an abstract, contemporary cinematic comment. Perhaps the director wanted to go a bit more 'commercial', but then, he should have evolved a new idiom.

There is a also a casting problem Manoj Bajpai doesn't look like a prince. He is simply too gawky and plain for the role. Karisma performs well as a restless, neo-rich Muslim girl, but her emotions become predictable towards the end. Performance-wise, the two cameos by Lillette Dubey and Rahul Maarya are noteworthy. But then, the songs and dances are a big let-down. Rehman was good as Rehmana couple of songs apart, the attempt to compose like Vanraj Bhatia doesn't work.

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