Friday, March 6, 2009


Based on the story of writer Khalid Mohamed's own mother, Zubeidaa (2001) tells of her unhappy life and untimely death in the early years of India's independence. Zubeidaa's story is framed by the attempts of her adult son Riyaz (Rajit Kapoor) to investigate decades later the life of the mother he barely knew.

Warning: spoilers follow.

Zubeidaa (Karisma Kapoor in an excellent performance) is buffeted by forces she doesn't understand and can't control. First her traditionalist Muslim father (Amrish Puri), himself a filmmaker, forces her to give up her aspirations to be a movie actress and marries her off unwillingly to the son of a family friend. The marriage scene, where a grimly silent Zubeidaa refuses to give her assent and her father speaks for her, shows that even the possibility of defiance is denied to her.

A year later, Zubeidaa's husband is convinced to divorce her and return to Pakistan with his father (the authority of fathers can't be contested even by their sons, it seems). Zubeidaa is left with a baby boy and the stigma of being a divorced mother. But to her parents' dismay, she isn't content to spend the rest of her life sequestered at home. At a polo match she meets Maharaja Vijayendra "Victor" Singh (Manoj Bajpai), who after the proverbial whirlwind courtship takes her to Fatehpur to be his second wife. Zubeidaa's short-lived joy is dashed, though, when her father insists on keeping her son, despite Victor's assurances that Riyaz can be raised as a Muslim.

Zubeidaa's romantic fantasies soon collide with the realities of Victor's relationship to his first wife, the Maharani Mandira Devi (Rehka), who is Hindu and the mother of his sons. Zubeidaa chafes under the precedence Mandira must be given and the time that Victor must spend with her. And when Victor decides to contest the provincial elections, he tours the villages with his Hindu consort, and not his Muslim wife.

The film touches on many issues: women's lack of freedom, the wounds of Partition, the second-class status of Muslims in a Hindu-dominated society, the attempt by the post-Partition Indian government to disempower the hereditary ruling classes, the conflict between the traditional and the new. The treatment of these issues by Mohamed and director Shyam Benegal is unusually subtle; there are no heroes, villains, or melodrama, only ordinary people acting out of comprehensible, if sometimes hypocritical or cruel, motives.

Much credit is due to Mohamed, Benegal and the actors for the many telling moments in the film. When Zubeidaa and the Maharani first meet, Mandira criticizes Zubeidaa's sleeveless choli; it's clear to us and to Zubeidaa that although Mandira reluctantly accepts Zubeidaa's presence, she's jealous of her place in Victor's affections. Yet, the next time we see Zubeidaa she has silently changed into a more demure style--her begrudging concession to Mandira's authority within the household. Later, when an angry Zubeidaa creates a scene at the airport by insisting on being taken on what turns out to be a fatal plane flight in place of the Maharani, Mandira's shame and humiliation are expressed in a single lowered glance at those gathered to see them off. The nuanced acting and directing are matched by A. R. Rahman's typically superb score.

The problem with Zubeidaa is its heroine. While her unwillingness to be limited to her traditional roles gains our full sympathy, that sympathy is slowly eroded by her displays of willfulness, childishness and petulance throughout the film. Her rebellion remains little more than simmering resentment that occasionally explodes into fits of pique. In fact, it's suggested that she may have deliberately caused the plane crash that took her life and that of her husband, a suspicion only partly dispelled in the film's final moments. We wait in vain for Zubeidaa to recognize that anything other than getting her own way might be at stake--to grow up, to put it bluntly. She is ultimately a victim not only of a patriarchal society, but of her own self-centeredness.

And so despite the many pleasures that this intelligent and well-acted film offers, Zubeidaa's limitations make Zubeidaa ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. Still, it is very much worth seeing, and makes me curious about the two other semi-autobiographical films on which Mohamed and Benegal collaborated, Mammo (1994) and Sardari Begum (1996).


  1. I havent seen any of these- Zubeida, mammo or Sardari Begun- though I've heard that the last one is brilliant for Kirron Kher's performance. I think I want to see this one to begin with for sure- thanks!

  2. Shweta, thanks for your comment. I also hear that Farida Jalal's performance in Mammo is terrific. I'm looking forward to seeing these fine actresses, who are so often encountered in supporting roles, being given the leading roles they deserve.

  3. It was a pretty brave decision on the part of the film-makers to not make Zubeidaa saint-like, assuming that was a conscious intent and not simply poor storytelling. It sounds like this might be a good second introduction to Karisma; my first was DTPH and, um, no one shows to advantage in it.

  4. ajnabi, I agree with you about Dil To Pagal Hai, although I thought Karisma was one of the least objectionable things about it. She's very good in this--she deserved her Filmfare Critics' Award. As I say, though, the character doesn't develop much. It's a film that satisfies in the details of individual scenes rather than in its overarching story.

  5. I loved this film, especially the music. I think it's one of Rahman's best soundtracks :-) And it's all just so pretty---I love the period ambiance etc. And I thought Karishma was great in it, and she's never been a favoritte...

  6. Bhargav, thanks for your comment! As my post probably shows, my feelings about Zubeidaa were a bit more mixed than yours, but I definitely think that it has some fabulous elements. I just wish its heroine were a bit more self-aware and a bit less self-centered.

    Memsaab, Karisma is great in Zubeidaa, and in a role that isn't fully sympathetic. And Rahman's score is wonderful--amazingly enough, only one song is fully picturized as a dance number. Nonetheless, the music is a pervasive presence in the film, and it's marvelously atmospheric.

  7. Great review Pessimisissimo.

    "despite the many pleasures that this intelligent and well-acted film offers, Zubeidaa's limitations make Zubeidaa ultimately somewhat unsatisfying." - exactly captures my own sentiments about the film. I too found Zubeida's childish rebellions and her failure to grow up rather annoying. Her motivation in the entire film seems to be to rebel against her father! In the end, I felt that she didnt want to accept that her last rebellion was not working out the way she wanted it to - hence the plane crash (I remember being convinced that she did cause it but may be wrong as it was years ago!).

    I havent seen Mammo but Sardari Begum was lovely. It had the right period feel, lovely music and above all a great and well-told story. I was kind of surprised when I found Khaled Mohammed had scripted these films with Shyam Benegal. I only knew of his much-hyped directorial venture - Fiza (also scripted by him) that was highly unsatisfying.

  8. Bollyviewer, thanks for the warning about Fiza--we'll definitely avoid it.

    The plane crash in Zubeidaa is deliberately left ambiguous. There's lots of foreshadowing that suggests that it may have been caused by Zubeidaa, but in the end there's a claim that the plane was sabotaged. I lean more to your view. Zubeidaa's shown herself to be so mercurial and volatile, and so lacking in perspective, that an argument with Victor may well have led to an impulsive (and fatal) act.

  9. ...there are no heroes, villains, or melodrama, only ordinary people acting out of comprehensible, if sometimes hypocritical or cruel, motives.

    Absolutely agreed! I like that you mention hypocrisy as well. This might be oversimplifying it, but most of what's bad seems to stem from it.

    Also agree about the heroine, but guess I'm too forgiving given who the film is said to be based on, and perhaps given Karisma too :) There's no question it would have been a more satisfying movie with a more rational subject at its core, you're right.

    And finally, I've somehow managed to not stop by before. Look forward to more regular visits, you've got a great blog going!

  10. Thanks so much for the compliment!

    Karisma does make her character more sympathetic than she might otherwise have been, and she's beautifully photographed by Benegal. Your post on Garam Hawa and Zubeidaa is an excellent appreciation of both films.

  11. YOu must watch mammoo. One of the best movies every made in Bollywood.

  12. Anonymous, thanks for the recommendation. I've been trying to see Mammo and Sardari Begum ever since I wrote this post three years ago, with no luck. Some enterprising company needs to issue a boxed set of Shyam Benegal's films.