Itâ€™s one of the most subtle, moving scenes in Revathyâ€™s â€śPhir Milenge.â€ť The suspense is nerve-wracking, and Tamannaâ€™s (Shilpa Shetty) anxiety is palpable. Something has gone terribly wrong. Initially, Tamanna brandishes a shield of denial; you can almost hear her mindâ€™s voice saying, â€śIt cannot possibly be anything too serious.â€ť But her assurance erodes fast. The doctor informs her that she has tested positive for HIV. Something inside her breaks, and sheâ€™s a mess of emotions. Sheâ€™s enveloped by frustration and hopelessness, but thereâ€™s a simultaneous sense of intense resentment and anger.
As Tamanaâ€™s feelings are not articulated with words, one would expect them to be difficult to decipher. But they are as clear and apparent as possible - all due to the sheer strength of Shilpa Shettyâ€™s spirited and consummate performance.
About two years ago, in my review of Harry Bawejaâ€™s â€śKarz,â€ť I wrote the following of Shettyâ€™s performance; â€śHer performance here is an improvement over her earlier work, but she still has a long way to go before critics and audiences can really take her seriously.â€ť
At that point, Shetty was still in the running only because of her stunning looks and her repeated willingness to appear in thankless supporting roles and one-song-appearances. If she was involved in a project, it was safe to assume that a) the role didnâ€™t require much, and b) the film would feature at least one gratuitous song-and-dance routine. Since it was all audiences really cared to know about Shettyâ€™s contribution to any film, later in that same review, I made sure to mention that â€śâ€¦as usual, Shilpa looks breathtaking and her dance skills are displayed well.â€ť
In the time between then and now, Shetty never quite got around to proving herself. She continued to appear in poorly-defined roles that provided little scope for acting, and eventually became more famous for a controversy involving her parents than for her film projects.
Then, after a brief hiatus, she resurfaced this year in a blink-and-you-miss-it role as Salman Khanâ€™s love interest in Puneet Issarâ€™s â€śGarv.â€ť Unsurprisingly, her role was that of a night-club dancer, and she only really appeared in the film in and around the song sequences.
That was an awful film, and it featured garish performances from nearly everyone involved. I recall trying desperately to justify my spending three hours watching that travesty. The only redeeming element I could think of was Shilpa Shetty.
In the two or three scenes she featured in, Shetty conveyed more than her co-stars did in roles that spanned the entire film. The most compelling element of her performance involved her use of her eyes. She hid a hint of embarrassment there; a sense of resignation about her profession was apparent. But she also managed to suggest hope and optimism - of a future with Khanâ€™s character, of eventually abandoning her job.
It may seem that Iâ€™m giving more credit to her work in â€śGarv,â€ť than it deserves, but having seen â€śPhir Milenge,â€ť I maintain that her short role in that film was one in which her talent transcended the weaknesses of the script. It may also appear than Iâ€™m spending far too much time discussing Shettyâ€™s career, but that too is justified, as â€śPhir Milengeâ€ť clearly marks a turning point in her heretofore lackluster filmograhy.
â€śPhir Milengeâ€ť presents a Shilpa Shetty redefined. Her superlative performance in this film gives audiences a window into Tamannaâ€™s heart and soul. There is no trace of an â€śitem-girlâ€ť beginning to take on serious roles; as a woman fighting for dignity in a society that fears and condemns her, Shetty definitively demonstrates that she is an exceptional actress capable of outstanding work. She plays her character with a kind of quiet grace, nobility, and sincerity that many of her contemporaries could not dream of conjuring.
Take, for instance, the scene in which Tamanna meets her lawyer, Tarun (Abhishek Bachchan), and he declines to shake her hand. The beautiful Ms. Shetty expresses volumes of pain with just her shifting eyes and disturbed body language. In that moment, Tamannaâ€™s essence is shaken, and Shetty makes it known without externalizing too much; we get an even more acute sense of her pain because we see how she fights to conceal it. The actress creates many such understated levels of meaning in Tamannaâ€™s mannerisms; and, in doing so, makes her character all the more sympathetic and genuine. Shettyâ€™s attention to detail is spellbinding, and the level of artistry and ingenuity she demonstrates throughout the film never falls short of brilliant.
Such sensitive moments abound in Revathyâ€™s well-written, thought-provoking script. The narrative, loosely inspired by Jonathan Demmeâ€™s â€śPhiladelphia,â€ť chronicles Tamannaâ€™s internal and external struggles as she copes with her contraction of HIV; after getting the virus, Tamanna is unduly persecuted and ostracized by many of the people around her. When she looses her job as a result of her affliction, she enlists the help of Bachchanâ€™s compassionate lawyer in an attempt to restore her dignity.
Bachchan turns in a touching and forceful performance as the lawyer; he is as gentle as Tamannaâ€™s empathetic friend as he is fierce as her champion in court. His turn in this film is consistent with his fantastic work in â€śLine of Controlâ€ť and â€śYuva.â€ť The rest of the supporting cast from Mita Vashisht (as the opposing lawyer) to Naseer (as Abhishekâ€™s mentor), is also first-rate. The lone underwhelming performance comes from Salman Khan, whose limitations as an actor often become conspicuous when he attempts demanding dramatic roles. Though his role as the man who gives Tamanna the virus is short and underwritten, Khanâ€™s bland histrionics fail to lend his character even the slightest drop of conviction.
The trial that makes up the crux of â€śPhir Milengeâ€ť is as much about Tamannaâ€™s self-image as it is about her standing in society. As it proceeds, Tamanna and her relationships with the important people in her life change dramatically - and itâ€™s these catharses that director Revathy intends for the audience to attend to and understand. And, propped up by fantastic performances and an uplifting script, the director realizes her goal with awesome success.
The heart of that success, undoubtedly, is Shilpa Shetty. Her endlessly-intriguing performance carries the film; she embodies its pathos, its resonance, its message. After a performance of this caliber, neither critics nor audiences can afford not to take Ms. Shetty seriously - as doing so would be to waste one of the finest acting talents in the industry today.