When watching a film adaptation of one of the greatest novels of all time, what is it that you should look for?
Is it faithfulness to the source material that’s more important or should that be reserved for consistency with the source material’s overall themes? If the movie places the story in a different context — a different time, place, and people — do the original themes still matter as much? Shouldn’t the entire point of an adaptation be to present viewers a different side of the picture?
These are the thoughts I’m grappling with as I try to make sense of Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor, a commendably ambitious but ultimately lukewarm Bollywood take on Charles Dickens’ classic bildungsroman, Great Expectations.
The story begins in ‘90s Kashmir, standing in for the marshes of Kent, England in this story. We’re told that it’s 15 years ago from what we assume to be present-day; however, later on, a character played by Rahul Bhat makes a reference to Javed Miandad’s last ball six at Sharjah (in 1986) being 25 years ago, which indicates that the latter part of the story is set five years ago.
Not that this makes a difference, of course. Kapoor’s film is set in a timeless world where the only, often-jarring indicators of modernity are computers and mobile phones. The wintry landscape of Kashmir blends seamlessly with the stark, minimalism of Delhi's posh art galleries, which eventually gives way to quiet, tree-lined streets in central London. Yes, Fitoor is frequently gorgeous to look at, with cinematographer Anay Goswamy using wide shots, filtered external lighting, and fluid camera movements to memorable effect. The production design looks immaculate. Even the background score, by Hitesh Sonik, largely aids the film instead of dragging it down.
A beautiful canvas, then, to tell us the story of Noor (Aditya Roy Kapur), an orphan who assists his artisan brother-in-law at a modest workshop in Srinagar. He makes elaborate sketches and patterns in secret, revealing a talent beyond his means. A job with his brother-in-law at a mansion (this movie’s Satis House) brings him into close contact with the ethereal and frosty Firdaus (Katrina Kaif) and the enigmatic and mysterious Miss H—I mean, Begum Hazarat (Tabu).
(From left) Katrina Kaif and Aditya Roy Kapur in a still from the movie
Great Expectations is about several things and Fitoor does well to establish some of its spins on the novel’s overarching themes right away. Noor is the archetypal social aspirant, looking to make it mostly to win Firdaus’ heart, while the Begum represents the self-serving bourgeoisie. However, in this case, he doesn’t care so much about becoming a gentleman (as is in the novel) as much as he wants to be a successful version of himself.
Unlike in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider, militancy and politics in Kashmir are merely plot-points here, rather than contributing to a full-fledged backdrop. Given that the same story could’ve worked just as well in many other settings, it made me wonder whether this was simply a ploy to make the film look beautiful.
Fitoor takes a multi-layered classic, dilutes its themes of imperialism and social hierarchies, and chooses instead to interpret it in a more Bollywood-esque manner. But that isn’t what’s wrong with it. Ultimately, what prevents the film from truly soaring are the undeniable chinks in its otherwise attractive armour
As this movie’s Pip (Dickens’ protagonist), Kapur retains the wide-eyed wonder of Noor the boy, even after he grows up to be an impossibly hunky young man. To his credit, he looks the part and his performance is credible on certain occasions, such as when he smoothly replies in Urdu to questions asked to him in English by snooty Delhi art-enthusiasts. In others, such as a crucial scene in the second half, when he discovers the reason for the change in his fortunes, his acting appears a little too studied. Occasionally, the movie uses him as eye-candy, thrusting his chiseled torso upon the audience (not that it’s displeasing to the eye in any way) to distract us from any other shortcomings.
Tabu’s Begum is, predictably, the best thing about Fitoor. The screenplay, by Supratik Sen and Kapoor, gives her character plenty to chew on. At first, her off-kilter interpretation of this iconic role comes across as a bit jarring, saddled as she is with clunkers like ‘Yeh ishq nahin aasaan, Noor miyaan’, but trust an actress of her calibre to pull it off anyway. Towards the end, as her tragic back-story comes full circle, she gets a great opportunity to truly showcase her abilities.
Tabu, in a still from the movie
Equally predictable is the worst thing about the movie: Kaif’s disastrous, one-note performance. Her stilted Hindi delivery, muddled accent (how does someone who grew up in Kashmir and then studied in London sound… American?), and unimpressive histrionics are a massive blot on this film.
When will studios realise that star value needn’t and shouldn’t come at the cost of the basics? Thank heavens the rest of the cast is consistently better than her, with special mention for the young actor who plays Noor’s best friend, Aarif (he even looks a little like a young Alec Guinness, who played the same role in David Lean’s 1946 version).
The screenplay takes a number of liberties, which brings me back to my earlier question about faithfulness. In the novel, an escaped convict named Abel Magwitch is central to the plot; here, that character is reduced to a half-hearted cameo by Ajay Devgn that barely registers. Many other characters and plot-points are either changed or completely absent.
Should that count against the movie? My best attempt at answering this question is that whatever the aim is, it must be shown convincingly as per the film’s setting.
So, Fitoor takes a multi-layered classic, dilutes its themes of imperialism and social hierarchies, and chooses instead to interpret it in a more Bollywood-esque manner. But that isn’t what’s wrong with it. Ultimately, what prevents the film from truly soaring are the undeniable chinks in its otherwise attractive armour — evidence that Kapoor was aiming to make a much better movie.
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