Young and buff Mohan is strutting his stuff at a modelling contest. The small-town lad badly wants to be a model in Delhi, but at the point where we meet him, he hasn’t yet lost his innocence and purity.
Clad in shiny and fitting briefs, Mohan is clearly a healthy specimen of manhood. What is your main asset, one of the judges asks him. My smile, replies Mohan, who is played with confidence and heartfelt grace by first-time actor Ashish Bisht.
As events prove, Mohan has other uses for another one of the judges, the wealthy cougar Sonal (Raveena Tandon). She offers money and the promise of a career in modelling in exchange for Mohan’s body while her husband (Sanjay Suri) is away travelling. Had Onir’s Shab stuck to this track, rather than wandering off in different directions, it might just have worked as a morality tale.
Instead, Onir weights down the screenplay with other nocturnal creatures, none of whom has Mohan’s clearly delineated emotional graph. The sullen-faced Raina (Arpita Chatterjee) has a relationship with her French neighbour Benoit (Simon Frenay) while also working at a cafe run by her gay friend Neel (Areesz Ganddi). Each of these characters is given a dull back story that uniformly involves heartbreak and moping over the heartbreak. And sex. Every other encounter has the hopeful frisson of foreplay, only to end in a censor board-approved moment of passionless passion.
Onir’s previous ensemble film, I Am (2010), did a better job of weaving disparate strands together. In Shab, which he has co-written with Merle Kroger, he ties himself up into narrative knots that prove impossible to separate.
Shab seems to want to make a grand statement about ambition, migration, exploitation and sexuality, but its scope is limited by the stodgy dialogue, the mostly poor acting (Raveena Tandon has her moments) and incredible levels of contrivance. Delhi is portrayed as the sum total of a few streets, hotels and restaurants and two neighbourhoods, and the manner in which the characters keep running into each other makes the capital looks smaller than a coffee shop.
The movie seems better suited to Mumbai, but one reason it seems to have been set in Delhi is the variety of seasons on offer. The plot stumbles from summer all the way to winter, although the seasons are not easily discernible from each other since much of the action is set indoors.
The best moments revolve around Mohan, who is given the pretentious name Azfar by Sonal to mark his new identity. Mohan’s gradual acceptance that his well-endowed body is actually his greatest asset develops organically, even though his affection for Raina is a hard sell. Despite being put on display ever so often in a movie that supposedly critiques sexual objectification, Mohan’s struggle to belong and stand out is the movie’s saving grace.