The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 19, 2000
Wide Angle

Of dens, dons and sleaze
By Ervell E. Menezes

IF Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay gave one an insight into the street life and underworld of the urbs prima in Indis, Dev Benegal’s ‘Split Wide Open’ zeroes in on Mumbai’s underbelly with an emphasis on sexual encounters of its people who could be gays, paedophiles or even incestuous folk. Actually Bombay is dropped from the title which could have read "Bombay split wide open."

Laila Rouass in Split Wide OpenSplit Wide Open is also the name of a very popular TV show hosted by expatriate Nandita Mehta (Laila Rouass) and which airs the secret sex lives of Mumbaites. And it is through this show that Nandita runs into the key characters of the film.

Kut Price or KT (Rahul Bose) is a street-smart guy dealing in all kinds of shady businesses, but finds supplying water the most profitable. "Few people need drugs, everybody needs water," is his explanation. Didi (Farida Haider Mulla) his 10-year-old adopted sister sells flowers on the streets and waits for a miracle to happen. Leela (Ayesha Dharker), an America-based student, discovers on her return that her wealthy father (Shivaji Satham) is a paedophile. Fr Bono (Kiran Nagarkar) is a confidante of some of these underworld kids for whom Mumbai is the entry point with no exits.

  Based on a story by Dev Benegal and Upamanyu Chatterjee and scripted by Farukh Dhondy, Split Wide Open meanders along the lives and anecdotes of its principal characters where the common concept is "if you know English (call it August English ?) you don’t have to work hard". It is a question of survival for these creatures of circumstance who, if they have an option, do not hesitate to exercise it. Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and this story has some startling revelations but that is true of any big city.

The film opens with the camera approaching the Mumbai harbour (a la New York and its twin towers in so many Hollywood films) and later has a lady operating a hand-held movie camera and pillion-riding along the diverse streets of Mumbai. She is our heroine who is also the narrator and the host of that popular TV show gathering fodder for her next episode, you think. The structure of the film is clever and director Dev Benegal does a good job, aided of course by the strength of the story and the salacious nature of the subject.

Maybe Benegal could have avoided digressing and the Fr Bono character got more footage than was relevant to the story, but otherwise the film cantres along with a fair mix of form and content as it bares the secrets of a good deal of two-timing Mumbaites. I thought it was better English August which seemed rather pretentious.

Rahul Bose’s exuberance is a bit of a handicap but otherwise he is quite realistic as he gets under the skin of Bombay’s underworld while Laila Rouass is correctly "false" as the ex-patriate with one foot in each country and for whom all the world’s a prospective TV story. Debutante Farida Haider Mulla is impressive but the same cannot be said of Ayesha Dharker or Shivaji Satham who are inconsistent, especially Sathan who is stiff and patronising whereas Dharker is better in the emotional sequences of the second half. Author Kiran Nagarkar is probably there because Benegal’s next film is based on his novel.

But this new trend of English film (though Split Wide Open is sort of bilingual) is healthy though in the process one comes across some bad ones. I remember seeing Birbal, My Brother made by Leila Parulekar in the early 1970s (Leila had a French mother and they owned Sakal in Pune) and commenting on the need to explore the English film market. Well, it seems to have taken nearly two decades for this to happen and it is a good think that "deshi" subjects get enough exposure and when we have no dearth of stories why can’t we make films on it instead of just lifting plots and stories which have no Indian base. As a line in the script of Split Wide Open says "in India, the reality is so much more interesting."

Drive Me Crazy is a typical high-school romance and was released to coincide with Valentine’s day. How this concept has grown in the last decade, thanks to marketing. Why, one cinema in Bombay, even organised a Valentine festival. I can’t say it’s like a Mills and Boon novel because I haven’t read any.

Nicole Maris (Melissa Joan Hart) and Chase Hammond (Adrian Grenier) are next door neighbours but are poles apart. She’s up with the latest fashions. He’s with the latest protest about animal rights. They have their respective dates and Nicole’s dream date is Brad (Gabriel Carpenter), a basketball star.

But it is a game of changing partners (remember that 1960s song with the line and I’ll keep changing partners till I’m in your arms again) till they come to discover the obvious prizes for guessing. Yes, predictable stuff, but then that is a process of growing up and who are we to downgrade these teenage films. They have a clientele and you can be young but once. You may laugh at it when you’re old but then why not enjoy it when you’re young?

This feature was published on March 12, 2000