I finally got around to seeing writer/director Nagesh Kukunoor’s acclaimed 2006 film Dor, and while I’m not familiar with Kukonoor’s other works (Iqbal, Hydrabad Blues), this is one movie I won’t soon forget. Stunning visuals of Rajesthan and Himachal Pradesh set the backdrop for two equally stunning and unique female characters, Meera (Ayesha Takia), and Zeenat (Gul Panag). There are all kinds of pithy phrases to sum up this movie, deeming it a story about the struggle of women, about life in a patriarchal world, etc. But at the end of the day, all I can think to sum it up is, “I liked it better than Fire. It was a more effective lesbian film than Fire.”
And I know what people who have seen Dor are thinking: “Wait, Mala, it’s not a lesbian film!” Well, no. You’re right. It’s textually heterosexual, while at the same time being incredibly girl positive. When I say it’s more effective than Fire, it’s because Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film, to me, suffered from being a little too Western. Eastern sex and sensuality is an ill fit with English terminology. English is guttural, harsh, and Fire, in many ways, is a guttural, harsh film. Even years after I’ve seen it, my main impression is of how it gave me the willies to watch it, not what an iconic film it was. It’s dark, oppressive, showing us the narrow world Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das) live in and how fire must literally light their way to freedom. Dor is a film that trades in air. Wide open skies, expansive sands, and Zeenat, who takes life into herself in great, determined, gulps. And yet its storytelling is quiet, sensitive, tended to with affection and humor and grace. There are things you can say in Hindi that sound beautiful, lyrical, and would sound idiotic in English. There are things that don’t translate. But there are also things that do, like the basic themes in Dor. These are two women who love each other and strip each other bare emotionally because of their common experience. And, to me, that was more breathtaking than watching Radha and Sita make love.
Dor, which literally translates to thread, is a film all about connections. The ties that bind. Marriage, duty, friendship, passion, devotion. Zeenat loves her husband enough to set across the country to save his life. Meera loves hers enough to try and sacrifice joy because she thinks that’s what would honor him — and, oh, Ayesha Takia, a “Bollywood babe,” is just a revelation here, with Meera’s child-like nature and the way she dances with abandon when she lets her guard down. She took my breath away, while Gul Panag’s kohl-lined eyes seemed to see straight into my soul. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a third thread, perhaps the film’s most colorful: Shreyas Talpade’s (Om Shanti Om) whimsical Behroopiya. A nameless vagabond, simply referred to by his profession, “actor,” these wearer of many costumes and many faces turns out to be one of the film’s most genuine characters.
There’s a turning point in the movie, where all three of them run into the sand and take a moment out of time. It’s a “fake” Bollywood number, where they just let go and lip sync, and their faces are filled with such light. “Kajra Re” from Dhoom plays over the scenes, and part of me felt that it should have been “Chudiya Khanak Gayeen” from Lamhe but then I remembered that it’s a bit before Meera and Zeenat’s time. For me, that sequence encapsulated Dor, encapsulated women in India… searching for the precious freedom to dance like no one’s watching. It’s not about burning, not about being tested by fire. It’s about rhythm, about motion, about breathing in and breathing out.
(Make your own Waiting to Exhale joke here.)
With its subtle, sensitive story, beautiful cinematography, and gorgeous characters, Dor, as a film, is a delicate, fine piece of silk and a bright red dupatta all at once.