Ek Hasina Thi (Once There was a Beauty)

Director: Sriram Raghavan
Year: 2004
Running Time: 2 hrs and 25 minutes

Not too long ago I read an interview with Ram Gopal Varma in which he stated that he was going to focus more on producing than directing from now on. This is a shame since he has become one of India’s most interesting directors and has begun to take Indian popular cinema into wildly new directions – but on the other hand if the films that he oversees are of the quality of Ek Hasina Thi this may be a good thing. These young directors that are mentored by Varma may well be the future of Indian cinema. Though Varma only produces this film, it has a lot of his trademark characteristics - fast pace, fluid camera work, edgy story, no musical numbers, gritty realism and stars his usual muse, Urmila. Many lament this cinematic turn to the West that Varma represents – his use of realistic violence, unglamorous settings, unromantic storylines and a lack of musical numbers – but there should be room in India for both kinds of films. There has always been a parallel cinema in India that was non-musical, but these tend to be socially conscious films that never play well at the box office. Varma is really the first director to make popular films with few to none musical interludes.

EHT plays out so well – a sleek tense narrative that soon grabs you by the throat and never lets go. It begins as a standard Bollywood romance – handsome fellow meets single woman and charms her into submission – but it soon takes a nightmarish turn into darkness and revenge that are deliciously appetizing. Urmila Matondkar is quickly turning into Bollywood’s most interesting actress. She built her fame on her fabulous figure and little girl face in a series of plush Bollywood musicals, but recently just said in effect to hell with that – I want to take on challenging roles and see what kind of an actress I can be. Starting in 2003 with a role of a terrified possessed wife in Bhoot followed by dramatic roles in Pinjar and Tehzeeb, Urmila has wowed the critics with her range and willingness to go downscale and shed the sexually inviting image that she had. She is wonderful here – first as the starry eyed girl falling in love to a woman consumed by hatred and an unquenchable desire for revenge. A few of her looks had goose bumps running down my arm.
Sarika (Urmila) works at a travel agency and lives innocently by herself in a very middle class existence. One afternoon Karan (Saif Ali Khan) drops by to make some plane reservations and begins a flirtation with Sarika that slowly over time begins to pick up steam. Though Sarika becomes enamored with him, the viewer tends to be much more skeptical – how does he happen to be there to rescue her both times she runs into trouble with some low grade characters and the way he snaps one of these fellow’s arms comes much too easily. She receives a call from an out of town Karan asking her whether she would be willing to put up a friend of his for a few hours between flights – she agrees of course. This fellow gets a call and immediately rushes out – leaving behind his suitcase – hours later she sees his face on the television – he was just shot dead while attempting an assassination. Soon the police are all over her like a wet sticky rough blanket.
The police investigator is played by Seema Biswas and the interrogation is like a rabbit punch in the face. Seema comes over with sympathy etched all over her face – good cop/bad cop? – sort of – as Seema soothes her first and then slowly begins bending her finger back in immense pain – “jail is no place for crying”. Karan – through a lawyer – pleads with her not to bring up his name as it will ruin him – it is all a terrible mistake - don’t worry the lawyer will easily get her out of this situation. She believes him right up to the sentencing and before she knows it she is shoved into a little dank cell with hot and cold running rats. And a large lesbian who takes a dislike to her. But one thing keeps her going and makes her tough as a broken nail – she wants to get out – she wants to find Karan – she wants to kill him – but not too quickly. She gets her chance and in a slyly clever way gets more revenge than anyone would have thought possible as she turns Delhi into a killing zone, but leaves the best for last.
There are no songs besides one during the opening credits and one played as she follows Karan around town – but they really aren’t missed in this taut thriller. A good film is a good film and EHT is simply a well-written, well directed, well acted film and nicely shot movie. Rumors began during filming that it was a remake of the Hollywood film Double Jeopardy, but except for the facts that it is about a woman who is framed, goes to prison and then comes looking to make things even – there is really no similarity - but even if it there is at a high level much of the pleasure of EHT is in the small details, the street level/prison gritty milieu, the wonderful group of character actors and such great pacing that the 2hrs 25 minutes just fly by.

My rating for this film: 8.0