There’s a good reason why epic love stories are almost always set in ancient times. Something about how we can only conjure these bygone eras in our imaginations allows us to fully buy into the grandeur, magnitude and theatrics that usually characterize these sagas. It’s rare to successfully make that level of passion and scale hold up in a modern day framework. While director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and writer Gulzar are particularly good bets for storytellers who can try — the former blurred the lines between past and present in his BAFTA-nominated “Rang De Basanti,” while the latter has been penning screenplays and song lyrics since 1960 — even the duo can’t quite make it work with “Mirzya.” The film’s contemporary setting does little to enhance the age-old tale at Mirzya’s core or make it approachable for current audiences.
The film unfolds in two separate worlds; one, featuring armor-clad, bow and arrow-wielding horsemen, is clearly meant to represent the original Punjabi legend of Mirza Sahiba, the popular tragic romance between a skillful archer and his beautiful lover. The other world places that story within the context of 21st century Rajasthan, in which childhood sweethearts reunite as adults, only the young man, Monish (Harshvardhan Kapoor), now works as an employee of the prince, to whom his beloved Suchitra (Saiyemi Kher) is engaged. Shifting intermittently between the two realms, “Mirzya” is almost like the cinematic version of our high school copies of “Romeo and Juliet” — unabridged version on one hand, a present-day rendering on the other.
However, in this case, much of the story gets lost in translation as it travels through the ages, and the result is a level of drama that seems grossly inflated for the context of its time.
For one thing, the incident that sets off the rest of the story — a young Monish shoots the grade school teacher who beat Suchitra for lying about her homework — is much too implausible to pass as the trigger for an entire film’s worth of consequences. Further, while giving one’s life or killing another for love may have been standard protocol in the era of Mirza and Sahiba, jealous princes and vials of poison are simply misfits where Monish and Suchitra’s narrative is concerned.
Uneven performances do little to alleviate the unshakeable feeling that everything about this story is out of place; while supporting characters (namely, Art Malik as Suchitra’s father) go overboard on the dramatics, Kapoor and Kher, both in their debut performances here, have nowhere near the level of passion to persuade us that the love between Monish and Suchitra is as all-consuming as it’s supposed to be. With barely any dialogue between them, they struggle to portray a solid connection, and their tepid interaction is particularly unfavorable for a tale meant to be anchored in their desire for one another.
Where the lead actors fall short in making a mark, Pawel Dyllus’s cinematography generously compensates. From the icy panoramas of Ladakh’s frozen lakes, where the Mirza Sahiba story occurs, to the sweeping shots of the palatial bungalows and boundless desert dunes showcasing modern-day Rajasthan in full splendor, the entire film is exquisite to look at. While the visuals are striking enough to hold our attention, Mehra does get heavy-handed with unrealistic CGI, including exploding fireballs and an unnecessary scene involving a panther attack that, once again, distract from rather than enrich the overall impact.
But the best part of the film, ironically, is the treatment of the musical numbers, a department that’s usually the downfall of many Bollywood movies. Instead of temporarily suspending the plot for four minutes of inessential gyrating, the nine songs in “Mirzya,” performed by an ensemble of palace performers strongly reminiscent of a Greek chorus, work to comment on or explain the events taking place. Musical trio Shankar-Ehasaan-Loy’s compositions alternate between haunting and high-powered, infusing folksy Rajasthani melodies with strums of the acoustic guitar and jazz-inspired flute notes — the one area of the movie where the blend of old and new works beautifully.
And yet, neither the scenery nor the score can make up for the fact that despite having two narratives taking place simultaneously, the film underestimates the scale of the romance it seeks to portray and overestimates its ability to deliver. Dazzling but disjointed, ambitious but unconvincing, “Mirzya” stumbles under the weight of its own epic aspirations.
“Mirzya” wil be released in limited theaters on Friday, October 7.