Ethan (Hrithik Roshan), a magician, suffers an accident that renders him paralysed. As he struggles to live with his condition, he falls in love with his nurse Sofie (Aishwarya Rai).
A melodrama that never says in two words what it can say in ten, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Guzaarish balances its blubbery sentimentality with some beautifully-realised images to heart-warming and generally likable effect. This elaborate weepy tackles the hot-button issue of euthanasia, and its giddying production design makes for continual backlit scenes of billowy curtains, dewy eyes and declarations of undying love in the face of death. But its earnest excesses are part of its undeniable charm.
Guzaarish sits within the same 'suffering-artists’ genre as Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside (2004) and Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007); Bhansali and co-scripter Bhavani Iyer have taken as their inspiration the Brian Clark script (based on his own play) for the 1981 John Badham film Whose Life Is It Anyway?, which featured Richard Dreyfuss as a quadriplegic sculptor fighting for the right to end his life. But a visualist like Bhansali needs to work with more than simply white hospital walls; he indulges in flights of staged fantasy and faux-magic for no other apparent reason than to fill the screen with visual wonders.
The film tells the story of Ethan Mascarenhas (Hrithik Roshan), a quadriplegic who was once the country’s most lauded magician. He takes on the hardship of his day-to-day life with a positive spirit and a stunning nurse, Sofia D’Souza (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). A virtual recluse, he transmits from home a radio show that inspires millions, His popularity makes it doubly confusing for those around him (and the audience), when he announces he wants to end his life voluntarily, 14 years after the accident (or was it?) that left him crippled.
Over the course of the long film (though, at 126 minutes, relatively short by Bollywood standards), Ethan takes his fight for the right to die to the courts, aided by long-time friend and lawyer Devyana Dutta (Shernaz Patel) and against the wishes of his medico, Dr. Nayak (Suhel Seth). Along he way, he trains a magical protégé, Omar (Aditya Roy Kapoor), a handsome but immature young man who becomes like a son to the tormented Ethan.
Bhansali directed Devdas (2002), one of India’s first international breakout hits, so much is expected whenever a new film of his arrives. He stumbled with his previous film, the gaudy and insufferably whimsical Saawariya (2007), but manages to rise above his own overly-stylised pretensions in Guzaarish, grounding his thematic exploration with honesty.
Roshan milks every scene for the maximum emotional effect; his wide-eyed scenery-chewing and maniacal laugh is reminiscent of Nicholas Cage at times. (He’s a dead ringer for character actor Dennis Boutsakaris.) All other actors play to the back row as the script demands on most occasions; only Rai Bachchan (adopting her married moniker) aims for a more subtle, nuanced performance and maintains an air of dignity throughout (notwithstanding her air guitar efforts in the obligatory dance scene). Purists may baulk at the degree to which the characters speak English, though this decision from Bhansali reflects the film’s setting, the international tourism hub of Goa.