F.K.R. Productions' ZUBEIDAA, directed by Shyam Benegal, is a tale of a young man's (Rajit Kapur) quest to uncover the life and times of his mother, Zubeidaa (Karisma Kapoor), who has been more of a mysterious stranger to him.
The story of the film is set in the early 1950s. Zubeidaa is the only daughter of filmmaker Suleman Seth (Amrish Puri). Unknown to her father, Zubeidaa acts in a film 'Banjaran'. When her father learns of this, he forbids her from pursuing a film career and hastily arranges for her to marry Mehboob Alam, the son of his childhood friend, without consulting Zubeidaa.
Soon after they are wedded, Zubeidaa and Mehboob have a son, Riyaz. Tragedy strikes when due to a misunderstanding between the two families, Mehboob is forced to divorce Zubeidaa and the shocked girl retreats into a shell.
Zubeidaa's life undergoes a sea change when she is introduced to Maharaja Vijayendra Singh (Manoj Bajpai) at a polo match by a family friend, Rose (Lilette Dubey). The Maharaja is besotted by Zubeidaa's beauty and invites her to a celebration ball. At the ball, he shocks Zubeidaa by proposing to her.
A hesitant Zubeidaa eventually succumbs to his charms and entrusting her son, Riyaz, to her mother's (Surekha Sikri-Rege) care, she accompanies the Maharaja to Fatehpur as his second wife. In Fatehpur, she meets Mandira (Rekha), the Maharaja's first wife.
Mandira introduces Zubeidaa to the customs and etiquette of the palace life. Initially, Zubeidaa is gloriously happy. However, she soon discovers that the Maharaja's interests are increasingly veering towards matters of the state. Zubeidaa is further upset when the Maharaja selects Mandira to go along with him on his election campaign.
The film is a saga of the trials and tribulations faced by a ravishing beauty, Zubeidaa, who dares to lead life on her own terms.
Like a majority of his films, Shyam Benegal once again attempts a film that peeps into the heart of a woman. The transformation of a school girl to an obstinate woman has been handled with the compassion it merits by the writer (Khalid Mohamed) and director.
Benegal has taken utmost care in recreating the look of the bygone era and the effort is indeed praiseworthy. The story is conveyed through the eyes of characters who had interacted with Zubeidaa in her lifetime and despite many flashbacks, the narrative holds your attention till the conclusion of the saga.
The film does have its share of shortcomings, the most obtrusive one being the stretching of the story in the post-interval portions. The coming together of princely states in the post-independence era and the manipulations of the powers-that-be in those days would be of little interest to the cinegoer of today.
Also, the film could've done without one character, that of the Maharaja's (Manoj Bajpai) younger brother (Rahul Mahayar). It looks unnatural in the screenplay and makes the viewer feel that it has been integrated to add grey shades to an uncomplicated love story.
Barring these deficiencies, ZUBEIDAA scores in several departments. The dramatic scenes have been shot with exactitude, keeping in mind the disposition of the film, plus the music (A.R. Rahman) is upbeat and of course, the performances are sterling.
The conflict between Zubeidaa and her family at the outset and with her Maharaja-husband later on, have been canned with concern and the contribution of a proficient maker is evident in numerous sequences.
Rahman's music is malleable. From the lingering 'So Gaye Hain' (Lata Mangeshkar) to the harmonious 'Dheeme Dheeme Gaoon' (Kavita Krishnamurthy) to the pleasant 'Mehandi Hai Rachnewali' (Alka Yagnik), every song is a gem. Their picturisation is simple but arresting, keeping the mood of the film in mind. Javed Akhtar's lyrics are also superior. Rajen Kothari's cinematography is luminous.
There's no refuting the fact that ZUBEIDAA belongs to Karisma Kapoor. The actress looks every bit the character she is portraying and the effort is laudable. She essays the multifaceted character with flourish and scores every time she comes on screen. There are innumerable sequences she leaves a mark in, but the ones that can be singled out are when she breaks down after being divorced by her husband in the initial reels and in the one in the climax, when she forces herself in the two-seater aircraft, pushing Rekha aside. Here's one performance that deserves the National Award.
Besides Karisma, the three important characters ? Rekha, Surekha Sikri-Rege and Lilette Dubey ? deserve accolades too. Rekha enacts her sequences with grace, giving a regal look to her character. Here's one mature performance that the actress will always be remembered for. Surekha Sikri-Rege excels yet again, while Lilette Dubey (as Rose) is first-rate. Her characterisation is so life-like.
Manoj Bajpai is admirable, while Amrish Puri is, like always, dependable. Rajit Kapur, as Zubeidaa's grown-up son, is adequate. Shakti Kapoor is okay.
On the whole, ZUBEIDAA is a must-see for lovers of sensible cinema and those who appreciate great performances. At the box-office, the film should do very well at select theatres of 'A' class centres, though it will not set the box-office on fire at the small centres.