Abhishek Kapoor set himself a tough task when he decided to adapt Great Expectations for a Hindi film. His chosen text is the most challenging of Charles Dickens’ classics: it is dreary, gloomy and depressing despite the final crumb offered in the form of a happy ending.
The original is the story of the wealthy Miss Havisham who is so shattered when her groom does not turn up for their wedding, that from that day forward she remains dressed in her bridal finery, keeps her home decorated as it was for the celebrations and lets her wedding cake lie rotting on her dining table.
She gives vent to her bitterness towards her cheating lover by training her foster child, an orphan called Estella, to break the hearts of men. Pip – the hero and an orphan himself – is smitten from the moment he meets the little girl. The book travels with them into their adulthood, which is marred by the manner in which old Miss Havisham has affected the young woman’s ability to love.
Abhishek – who earlier made the lovely Rock On!! (2008) and Kai Po Che (2013) – transposes Dickens’ saga from 19th century England to present-day Kashmir. Miss Havisham becomes the handsome Begum Hazrat (Tabu), reclusive resident of the lavish haveli Anjuman; Estella is her daughter Firdaus Jaan Naqvi (Katrina Kaif), who is sent off to study in England – a mandatory move in most of Ms Kaif’s films, designed to explain her accent; and Pip is Noor Nizami (Aditya Roy Kapur), brother of a poor local handyman’s wife, who grows up to become a famous artist.
Though faithful to the book, Fitoor is a not a carbon copy. Thankfully not, since Miss Havisham is Dickens’ most troubling female character, epitomising the ‘neurotic, frustrated, eccentric spinster’ stereotype or that oft-visited cliché of the evil, destructive witch in European fairytales perpetuated through generations of misogyny by artists and society as a whole. This film avoids the lure of the striking, haunting imagery Dickens used to represent her. There is no worm-eaten cake lying in a cobweb-ridden hall in Abhishek’s version, no ugly old lady in a decaying gown, and the mansion is far from decrepit. Quite to the contrary, Anjuman is still rich and beautiful, and the child Noor is smitten from the day he first sets foot in it when his brother-in-law is summoned to do some odd jobs at the house.
He is as enchanted by Firdaus, the cold, distant, well-turned-out girl-woman who rides a horse on those sprawling grounds and mocks him for his poverty. She is, to him, the unreachable star, an enigmatic creature whose allure lies as much in her aloofness and snobbery as it does in the hand of friendship she condescendingly extends towards him at one point. She moves away. They grow up. They meet again. He is now a grown man in love.
If you can tolerate the extreme sexism in Dickens’ portrayal of Miss Havisham, Great Expectations is actually an ideal choice for contemporary Kashmir. In Fitoor, the Noor-Firdaus love story is not just about gender relations or social disparities. Hazrat does have a reason to hate men, which is revealed much later in the film, and Firdaus at one point does refuse to hook up with Noor, harshly telling him, “Shaadi do darjon ke beech hoti hai (A marriage can only take place between two people of the same class),” but Abhishek and Supratik Sen’s writing takes it beyond that.
In their vision, Hazrat is a metaphor for an older generation in Kashmir, justifiably embittered by the actions of the state but unjustifiably plotting to bequeath that bitterness to their children, denying them their own pursuit of happiness, going so far as to encourage them to sleep with the enemy in their quest for revenge against the Indian state. Yet the state is not a homogeneous entity. It is not just scheming members of government. It is also made up of people, soft, gentle, in love and longing to be loved.
So far so good, except that Abhishek and Supratik appear not to have trusted viewers to get the point without being spoon-fed. Their interpretation is robbed of much of its depth by their needless decision to bestow dark red hair – not a natural Kashmiri colour – on Hazrat and Firdaus. Come to think of it, it’s silly. The interplay of their dyed tresses and auburn, autumnal Chinar leaves – an eternal symbol of Kashmir – is so literal that it makes me want to shake a fist at Team Fitoor in exasperation. C’mon, we got it! You should have trusted us.
This might have been forgiveable if it weren’t for the casting of Firdaus. Katrina is woefully inadequate in Fitoor, trying to convey Firdaus’ sorrow and confusion with expressionlessness. To make matters worse, her screen companion through much of the film is an actress who has the ability to eke out feelings from a log of wood. This is not Tabu’s best, but in a role that could have been easily over-played and caricatured, she elicits some degree of empathy even for her decidedly unlikeable character. Aditya as Noor is efficient, but that’s about it.
It is hard to comment on the supporting cast since they are all playing very limited characters. The only exception is the adorable Kashmiri child actor Mohammed Abrar Sheikh who, as little Noor, fits perfectly into the setting. This is not to endorse the belief some film buffs hold that only Kashmiris should play Kashmiris and so on (this subject demands a long discussion for which we do not have space here), but it shows a casualness towards detail when the child playing Noor has a precise Kashmiri accent but Aditya speaks differently.
The film’s technical embellishments are all in place. Anay Goswamy’s visuals are impressive without being overwhelming, the costumes are attractive, and the music by Amit Trivedi (songs) and Hitesh Sonik (background score) is adequate within the context of the film.
Tabu’s makeup artist deserves kudos for lending age to her face intelligently, rather than with standard Bollywood crutches such as thick spectacles and white hair on unchanged skin.
The production design is well thought out, travelling from Anjuman’s wintry insides to the fiery warmth of the spaces Noor occupies in Delhi and London, as he swings between hope and despair. His striking art works and the scenes in which he creates them are among Fitoor’s high points.
The dialogues are inconsistent though. While many are lyrical, there are weirdly suggestive undertones (clearly unintentional) in a reformed terrorist, once helped by little Noor, telling the now-grown-up chap: “The memory of the phiran you gave me has kept me warm through many nights.” Err, didn’t the filmmaker replay that line to himself before retaining it in the film?
This, however, is a mere aside. Fitoor’s primary problem is that it fails to conjure up the sort of passion that it should have and could have with less literalness and better central casting. Perhaps we have been spoilt by Vishal Bhardwaj’s brilliant Haider (2014), another Hindi adaptation of an English literary classic transported to Kashmir. Fitoor certainly can’t be accused of the laziness with which Wazir recently scraped the surface of the state’s agonising reality, but it also lacks the wealth of meaning and emotional resonance of Haider.
There is a bomb blast in the film at a crucial point – the build-up to it is so underplayed that the explosion comes as an absolute shock. It is one of Fitoor’s most memorable, most effective moments, yet the occurrence fails to inform the later actions of those personally affected by it. Therein lies Fitoor’s defining flaw: it is inconsistent in dealing with the political context of its chosen geographical setting.
The pain, the rejection, the searing desire for revenge, the all-conquering power of love – none of it is adequately conveyed in Fitoor which, by the time its final scene rolled around, left me as cold and detached as Estella’s heart was when she first met Pip.