He counts the numbers of steps she walks from the bus stop to her home in the chawl. She counts the number of missing buttons in his shirts and holes in his vest. East or ‘vest’, Shiva and Astha, played by two enormously talented newcomers Meezaan and Sharmin, are diehard romantics, the kind that would easily die for love.
There is a purity of the heart and a sublimity of the soul in this love story, a remake of the beautiful but melodramatic Tamil hit 7G Rainbow Colony. Malaal wins you over not by being persuasive but simply letting the love grow organically from its natural environment, in this case a Mumbai chawl shot with a glowing, raging but restrained passion by cinematographer Ragul Dharuman who sees a glimmer of hope in every shot but refuses to romanticize squalor just to amplify the sentimental value of the story.
The courtship, love and what ensues between the couple thereafter is captured in a gentle waves of empathetic exuberance, as though the director Mangesh Hadawale (remember his earlier notable films Tingya and Dekh Circus Dekh?) wants to believe in the feasibility of love to heal all hurt, as much as we do.
The young actors playing the lovers are so fresh, appealing and unshackled by guilt, we are gradually swept into the rites of their romance: the initial rebuffs by the girl, including a humiliating stalking allegation in a bus where the passengers thrash the boy. Meezan’s Shiva More takes it all in his stride, the snubs, the fleeting kindness, the sheer challenge of convincing the girl that he loves her for life, and beyond.
The scenes between Meezan and Sharmin are beautifully detailed and nuanced. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s music goes a long way in conferring the courtship and passion with a resolute realism. I was specially enchanted with a flute passage used for a pre-climax love-making sequence. It is so rare and precious, I felt I was being sucked into a world of spiritual romance where the bodies become irrelevant the way they rarely do in love-making scenes of Indian cinema.
While Hadawale stamps the romance with his delightfully pickled Maharashtrian touches (watch out for the scene stealing Marathi actors) I could easily make out Sanjay Bhansali’s influence in the colourful songs and dances where Meezan dances like a dream. There is practically nothing that this debutant can’t do. Indian cinema has got a new star.
Sharmin Sehgal is a stand-alone discovery, totally unaffected by influences she lets her strong-willed character take over her personality .
There are many episodes of sheer poetic glory in the narrative. There’s magic in the way Shiva looks at Astha. Words become the least relevant tool of communication. There are also some very powerful sequences with older members of the cast. A sequence between Meezan and his screen mother (Chinmayee Surve) where she wishes her son not to have a loveless marriage like hers, is so effectively written and enacted I felt I was watching a film far greater than any in the love genre.
I finally came away from the film with the thought that there was nothing new in the romance in Malaal. There is never is. It is in the way Meezaan looks at the love of his life that Malaal will keep you invested for far longer than its two hours of playing-time.