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22733deb7b1f31e67667abbfa63d8bb9-1CHAMELI. Director: Sudhir Mishra. Players: Kareena Kapoor, Rahul Bose, Rinke Khanna. Music: Sandesh Shandilya. DVD (Venus).

In four short years and with not that many box-office hits, Kapoor has risen to Hindi cinema’s top rungs rivaled by only Aishwarya Rai, Preity Zinta, and Rani Mukherjee. In her best-acted role to date, Kapoor simply shines. Spun off of a classic two-strangers-on-a-stormy-night motif, Chameli is a wonderful interchange between nighttime moodiness and tensions, both sexual and otherwise.

Escaping from a symbolically heavy and unrelenting Mumbai downpour, a snobby investment broker (Bose) finds shelter in the same rundown barrio where a streetwalker, Chameli (Kapoor), also finds refuge. As the night rumbles on and the two are forced to interact, their hardened exteriors slowly begin to crumble. Fleshed out through run-ins with contacts from their respective worlds, the banker and the call girl find surprisingly touching remnants of their selves they assumed had been lost long ago.

Bose, who is often serio-comically mistaken to be gay onscreen (Bombay Boys, Mumbai Matinee) is best when he plays the disoriented fish out of his familiar pond. Playing off of Kapoor’s strong presence, Bose again finds his niche here (and yes, maintains form by becoming the object of affection for a transvestite).

Director Mishra’s consummate attention to details—the bright down-market saris that become Chameli’s nighttime calling card, a carefully-framed gay-themed sideline, the look of resigned oppression weighing down upon the faces of slum dwellers—adds much color to an already multi-hued metropolis. Venus’s decently transferred DVD boasts vibrant colors against the rain’s distant rumble. Flooded by bittersweet backward glances and deliberately paced, small-budget Chameli is a satisfying antidote to entries with far bigger budgets.

Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.

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