Manoj’s (Ajay Devgan) trying journey to Calcutta effortlessly sets the tone of the film; the discerning viewer will immediately become clued in to the fact that a masterful filmmaker is at work. Director Rituparno Ghosh’s focus on the incessant rain, Devgan’s melancholy expression, and Debojyoti Mishra’s hauntingly evocative score effectively conjure more atmosphere and subtext in the first few shots of “Raincoat” than most films are able to invoke in their entire running time.
And all of this is accomplished without dialogue. As with all great filmmakers, Ghosh excels in his ability to show rather than tell. The opening shots gently acclimate audiences so that they may attend to the right details as this gem of a film unfolds; we’re being told to savor the subtext of each shot - to read between the lines, as we will soon be forced to decipher truths by carefully examining lie after lie.
Such an emphasis on subtext is crucial in a complex film like this. The storyline, a towering achievement in originality and inspiration, involves an afternoon encounter between two estranged lovers. The synopsis certainly appears simple, but is actually anything but.
Manoj is desperate - out of a job, in debt, and utterly lost in life. He’s traveling to Calcutta to borrow money old acquaintances in order to start a small business. But that’s not his only motive in visiting the city. He’s also intent on seeing Niru (Aishwarya Rai), his childhood sweetheart. The two parted ways 15 years ago, trading in their idealistic love for practical ends - money, stature, and the like.
When the two finally meet one rainy afternoon, they find each-other mere shadows of their former selves. But in order to maintain appearances and protect their egos, they lie to one another repeatedly - Manoj about a successful career, Niru about marital bliss, and so on. How, as the afternoon continues, the truth finds its way to the forefront of the interactions between Manoj and Niru forms the crux of this delightful romantic drama.
A story so layered with subtleties and nuances could not be told without an uncompromising directorial voice, and Ghosh proves with this film that he has just that. The Bengali auteur does not succumb to a single commercial Hindi cliché; he keeps his film small, self-contained, and completely natural. The narrative structure is simple - a series of interactions in the present intercut with a number of flashbacks. Most of the film even takes place in a single room, but from within that room, we understand the protagonists’ entire world; their past, their present, and their inevitable future.
Credit for the realization of Ghosh’s vision must be shared with his fantastic crew. The production design (Indranil Ghosh), cinematography (Aveek Mukherjee), and score (Debojyoti Mishra) are absolutely outstanding - and all contribute to the effortlessness of the storytelling.
But the film would fall flat without articulate lead performances. Both lead roles call for the actors to give two performances; one as a down-and-out loser and the other as a fictional success. Fortunately, both Devgan and Rai rise to the occasion and give absolutely spellbinding performances, proving beyond the realm of speculation that they are actors first and stars second.
After a number of underwhelming performances, “Raincoat” marks a return to form for Ajay Devgan. In his brilliant and consummate performance, he conveys volumes of pain, frustration, and confusion with ease. An early scene in which Manoj breaks down crying in a bathroom is easily one of the most poignant scenes of the year, all thanks to Devgan’s inspired portrayal.
With her performance in “Raincoat,” Aishwarya Rai finally proves that she is incontrovertibly among the finest acting talents in India today. Rai’s career-best work here is a step above her terrific turns in “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,” “Devdas,” and Ghosh’s own “Chokher Bali.” It’s impossible to imagine, given the excellence of Rai’s captivating work in the film, any other actress attempting to inhabit Niru’s character. From a passionate young lover to an empty, depressed housewife, Rai conveys each expression in each of her scenes with the utmost conviction and finesse.
Rituparno Ghosh’s “Raincoat” is one of the finest cinematic meditations on the nature of love, pride, and selflessness ever committed to celluloid. With its extraordinarily original script, splendidly simple storytelling, and award-worthy performances, the film stands tall not only as one of the best films of the year, but as one of the greatest romantic films to have ever graced the Indian screen.