A tale of a woman (Priyanka Chopra) who goes through seven husbands in her quest for true love.

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Marriage is hell in Bollywood black comedy.

The new film from major Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj opens with a shocker: there’s a gun, a heartbreak and blood on the wall. It’s a visual puzzle that seems to equal suicide, but like so much in this long and twisty melodrama, appearances are deceptive. Based on a short story by Anglo-Indian author Ruskin Bond, Saat Khoon Maaf has a knotty plot, a few songs, romance, sex appeal, an impish and dark sense of humour and a biggish body count (well, six to be precise).

Though it’s basically a drama, Bhardwaj manages to find a way to integrate song and dance and even slapstick comedy into the action, as well as some pretty vicious violence. The story deals with a wealthy Christian-Indian Susanna (Priyanka Chopra) and covers about 25 years of her life. Beautiful and elegant, Susanna has no luck in love. The film is structured in episodes, with each covering the sad and often ugly history of her six marriages. Each time Susanna believes she has met the perfect partner she finds that underneath the surface of a loving, nurturing man there is a heart of darkness. The movie’s plot gimmick is that instead of just walking away from the unhappiness, Susanna finds a way to knock each and every one of her husbands off.

In the great tradition of cinematic thrillers, Bhardwaj finds a way to make the audience complicit in Susanna’s predilection for mass murder. Or to put it another way, each of Susanna’s blokes had it coming, big time, so when she kills them we feel like it’s a case of natural justice (at least at first we do). A lot of Susanna’s troubles revolve around what goes on in the bedroom. Edwin (Neil Nitin Mukesh) her first husband, a handsome soldier, lost a foot in combat; he tortures her by rubbing his stump in her face, which seems to be his idea of fore play. Musafir (Irrfan Khan), a poet and spiritualist, turns out to be a sadomasochist. Jimmy (John Abraham), a rock star with a hit song, is a plagiarist, hooked on heroin and addicted to groupies. Then there’s a dashing Russian, Nikolai (Aleksandr Dyachencko), who might be a spy, but is certainly a bigamist.

Of course, each of Susanna’s husbands is a bold fantasy figure; shallow constructs of 'types’ that have more to do with relationship advice columns in lifestyle mags than anything resembling flesh and blood characters.

In its way, this is a weird movie. The tone swerves from heartfelt emotion to ironic black comedy and back again; just before the interval a title pops on the screen: 'four husbands to go’. Bhardwaj seems to want to be making a movie that attacks stereotypes of romantic fiction and romantic fiction films. He manages to turn Susanna into a mysterious and alienated character, too. Arun (Vivaan Shah), a servant boy to Susanna, narrates the movie in flashback. In the story Susanna becomes his guardian, funding his education as a doctor. Meanwhile, Arun develops an obsessive, possessive fixation on her that lasts into his adulthood. It’s in this part of the plot that Bhardwaj’s direction becomes intriguing. As the story progresses and Susanna advances into middle age, Arun begins to have little sympathy for Susanna’s needs and desires and her lethal habits.

Saat Khoon Maaf
has a couple of last minute plot twists that aim to resolve the film’s seemingly dark morality. In a way that’s satisfying; part of the movie deals with our capacity to delude ourselves, to see only what we want to see. The redemptive ending offers clarity. Still, there’s a lot of power in Bhardwaj’s sense of playfulness. Love, he seems to suggest, is a game played for keeps. It requires total commitment. Or else.

Details

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In Cinemas 18 February 2011,

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