Like the novel on which it is based, Abhishek Kapoor’s prestige picture Fitoor does not lack ambition. The director of Rock On! and Kai Po Che! is thinking big as he creates a narrative that is loosely drawn from Charles Dickens’s nineteenth-century novel, Great Expectations. The film explores a broad terrain: politics, art, and the human heart.
Fitoor begins well. In snow-covered Srinagar, young Noor offers a fugitive militant food and warm clothing. Next, Noor accompanies his brother to the mansion of Hazrat Begum (Tabu), where he meets and loses his heart to her haughty daughter Firdaus. As the children spend time with each other, they stack up a life’s worth of memories. Noor plots his way out of his impoverished world to become an artist of reckoning.
The 131-minute movie begins its slow slide when Noor grows up. A mysterious inheritance from an unnamed benefactor takes the adult Noor (Aditya Roy Kapur) out of Srinagar into the chic art world in Delhi. Noor finally has a gallery interested in his scrawls and installations, and when he meets Firdaus (Katrina Kaif) again, he thinks that he might finally be her equal. Firdaus’s red mane matches her mother’s, but she is as cold as the Kashmir snow, having decided to follow the path chosen for her by Hazrat and marry an influential Pakistani politician (Rahul Bhat).
This is the closest that Fitoor gets to being an allegory for the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination, which, as per the period in which the narrative is set, should have been blazing outside the gates of Hazrat Begum’s lair. The decision to locate the film in Kashmir, rather than any other snowy locale, must surely have been deliberate. Fitoor makes faint references to the pro-independence movement, and when Noor is asked for his views on the subject, he replies as a child would: I want everything to go back to what it once was.
Noor is talking about Firdaus, but Kashmir’s real lost world is far too complex and tragic to be reduced to a romance.
The art of seduction
Written by Kapoor and Supratik Sen, Fitoor jettisons the themes of class and social hierarchy that shape the fate of the protagonist Pip in Dickens’s great novel. Alfonso Cuaron’s glossy film adaptation in 1998 had similarly reduced the book’s themes to a love story between two mismatched people. Like Noor, that movie’s hero is an artist who gains fame in the art world, and Kaif’s socialite is not unlike Gwyneth Paltrow in her blow-hot-and-cold feelings for the man who forever remains a boy.
Fitoor’s plot has no central motor to power it through its twists and turns, and no discernible big idea to replace the critique of privilege and entitlement. Despite being residents of one of the country's most politically volatile states, the characters are largely bereft of ideology. Class is barely an issue in a film in which beauty and wealth are held up for worship rather than critical examination. There is no evidence that Noor’s dazzling new world is actually hollow from within and stacked with invisible entry barriers. The costumes and accessories are lovely, the art design and locations scream of lavish budgets, making the whole production glimmer like one of Hazrat’s baubles. Anay Goswami’s fabulous camerawork creates unforgettable vistas, especially in Kashmir. But the swooning images, graceful tracking shots and imaginative use of reflective surfaces only add to the seduction, rather than questioning it.
If the central tension is between the star-crossed lovers, neither Roy Kapur nor Kaif is capable of expressing it. On the surface, Kaif appears to be the perfect actress to play Firdaus. She has the hauteur and the glacial beauty to suggest a spectral figure who exists only as Noor’s dream object.
But Fitoor saddles Kaif with more emotionally heavy moments than the actress of limited means can handle. Her equally miscast co-star also struggles to convey his inner turmoil. The scenes between the pair are dead on arrival, and there is no mistaking them for anything but two wooden oars rowing in different directions.
A more humane Havisham
However, the mismatch between ambition and realisation doesn’t always fail Kapoor. A welcome take on the novel is the humanising of its version of Miss Havisham, the mentally unstable heiress who messes with Pip’s head and ruins the future of his love, Estella. Tabu’s pitch-perfect Hazrat Begum has none of the evocative deterioration described by Dickens. She is no “waxwork and skeleton”, and her madness emerges very late in the movie. Unlike Havisham, who never leaves her mansion, Hazrat shows up at Noor’s art opening in London, where she surveys the damage that her machinations have wrought with a ruthless eye. Tabu shines in all her scenes, but the London takedown is particularly delicious.
Kapoor goes halfway towards creating a convincing depiction of the high-powered art world – Lara Dutta has a smooth cameo as Noor’s gallerist – but old-fashioned Bollywood misinformation about the way these things actually work catches up here too. As Noor gets drunk at an auction, the artists Thukral and Tagra, playing themselves, remark sadly: "There goes a great artist." But there is little in Noor’s creations to suggest greatness, and surely artists of the calibre of Thukral and Tagra know better and have seen worse?