Hindi: chhoti haziri, vulg. hazri, 'little breakfast'; refreshment taken in the early morning, before or after the morning exercise. (Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, 1994 )
23 March 2013
Film Review: Sona Spa cannot live up to its dreams
Sona Spa starts out with a winning premise: the increasingly common urban malaise of lack of sleep — and a strange, rather fantastic solution. “Subah jaagte hi man mein sawaal uthta hai – kya neend poori hui? (As soon as you wake up in the morning, the question arises in your mind – did you get enough sleep?),” pronounces the suave Baba Dayanand. And if the answer is no, what should you do? No, don’t resort to sleeping pills or alcohol, don’t waste your precious time and money, says the Baba from his deep blue television screen, eyes boring dangerously into you as he enunciates his ‘S’es as sibilantly as Kaa the python did to Mowgli the man cub in The Jungle Book: “Aap S-s-sona S-s-spa mein aaiye, jahaan ladkiyan aapke saath nahin, aapke liye soyengi.”
The question of why it is girls who must do the sleeping “not with you, but for you” — and the corollary: why the “you”, the client who has disturbed sleep, must necessarily be male — is the film’s first stumbling block. That gendered division of labour is so crucial to the film’s sensual/sexual dynamics that writer-director Makarand Deshpande does not even think to provide us a reason for it.
Instead we are catapulted directly into the strange half-lit world of Sona Spa, where invariably attractive young women are paid handsomely to sleep ‘on behalf of’ invariably male clients, after having ‘bonded’ with them. That oddly sentimental moniker of ‘bonding’ – which seems to refer to a mystifying process of shoulder-clasping and looking-into-each-other’s-eyes shot as if underwater – turns out to be a lead-up to the film’s real subject: the sleeping subconscious that awakens in our dreams. The girl who has bonded successfully with her client sleeps his sleep – and dreams his dreams. As Baba Dayanand might put it, the girls at Sona Spa do not give you access to their bodies – you give them access to your mind.
Sona Spa’s central narrative revolves round two very different young women—loud, bratty rich kid Rucha (Shruti Vyas) and well-behaved Hindi-speaking Ritu (Ahana Kumrah) — who happen to arrive together to seek work at Sona Spa. Separately but simultaneously, we see them enter into the minds of the somewhat unsavoury men who hire them. Both girls have their own troubles, too – troubles as starkly different as their backgrounds. The motherless Rucha has had a disturbed, drunken adolescence, and her rich businessman father spends sleepless nights in dance bars. Ritu’s parents are in coma from a car accident, and her elder sister is failing to grapple with that trauma while also dealing with a dictatorial fiancée. So both Rucha and Ritu have non-monetary reasons to believe in sleep work – but neither is quite prepared for the torturous, violent dreams their monetary clients will bring them.
Naseeruddin Shah’s appearance is limited to that television-plug cameo as Baba Dayanand, and a piercing visage that looks down on the sleeping girls from the walls of Sona Spa. There are two other women around: a playfully filmi sex-worker turned sleep-worker who goes by the appropriately M.F. Husain-inspired name of Meenakshi (Nivedita Bhattacharya) and the spa’s placid, unbelievably non-avaricious manager, Indu (Pooja Pradhan).
Deshpande, who is a critically acclaimed playwright and theatre director with a significant body of work, first wrote and produced Sona Spa as a play, and the film’s cast uses most of the actors who worked on the theatrical production. Nivedita Bhattacharya’s Meenakshi is wonderfully good, her frothy, flirtatious adaa laced with a believable undertow of yearning – she deserves more film roles. Pradhan’s work is half-done by her appropriately high cheekbones and implacable hostess manner. Kumrah and Vyas are perfectly cast, too, and make up for the occasional rough edges of their performances by never seeming anything less than sincere. The melodramatic intensity with which spoilt-brat Rucha eventually embraces Ritu (Kumrah), a girl she had dismissed at first sight as a “behenji”, is made believable by their heartfeltness.
Shailendra Barve’s background score sets the quasi-dreamlike mood nicely, and the effortless luxurious twilight zone of the spa is successfully achieved by Nitin Chandrakant Desai’s production design. Director Deshpande does a fairly decent job of keeping the film’s many plot lines and characters from getting tangled up. But the film is often choppy and contains several annoyingly self-indulgent sequences – especially the sex-and-violence dreams dreamt by the women for the men. Sona Spais hard to applaud, but one must give it some credit for a sincere, occasionally thought-provoking speculation on our inner lives. After all, as the marvelous Meenakshi says in the film, “Jitna saaf, utna maaf.”