LEELA. Director: Somnath Sen. Players: Dimple Kapadia, Vinod Khanna, Deepti Naval, Gulshan Grover, Amol Mhatre. Music: Jagjit Singh. Lyrics: Gulzar. English/Hindi. DVD (Cinebella)
Leela moves like a well-paced television serial, which is good since television seri-als is exactly where director Sen got his start. Adding to the expanding trove of cutting-edge films that capture the Indian-American experience (American Desi, Chutney Popcorn), Leela floats a seamlessly provocative, taboo-breaking May-September romance that puts refreshing spin on some not-so-usual expatriate sentiments.
In the world inhabited by Leela (Kapadia), a sunny day can always be counted both in India as well as in California, where Leela moves to teach a course in comparative cultures. Leaving behind a poet-husband (Khanna), Leela willingly embraces her new surroundings. The sunny exterior of Leela’s married life, however, harbors a secret Leela shares with her single-mother new friend Chaitali (Naval). To complicate matters, Chaitali’s son Kris/Krishna (Mhatre), a student of Leela, becomes sexually obsessed with his new instructor.
Even though Hollywood gave May-December romances mainstream respectability ages ago, the phenomenon is relatively new in India. Hindi-language Indian entries (Lamhe, Meet Mere Man Ke) have suffered at the box office for having storylines that featured inter-generational romantic alliances.
Therein lies the conundrum that benefits Leela. It uses a mostly English script that switches to Hindi only for the songs and for narration of Leela’s letters to India. In doing so, Leela accommodates that rare, genuine reflection on an unusual relationship while allowing certain purists plausible deniability by having the story told in English. Seeing foul-mouthed teens, marital philandering, and sexual hanky-panky through the so-called “NRI” filter may also further this sense of detachment, which may help Leela’s success in India.
On the one hand, the Kris vs. Krishna tug was previously regurgitated in American Desi. You know that just because Kris insists on being called Kris early on, he will eventually insist on being called Krishna, scoring an “important point” and cementing his transformation into “normalcy.”
Also, while Cinebella’s DVD (the label recently also released “Bollywood Hollywood” on legit DVD) boxes decent surround sound and natural looking skin tones (check out how almond-colored Kapadia’s hair really is), the disk faults at subtitling. Instead of subtitling the entire film, the disk only provides English subtitles for the Hindi part of the script.
On the other hand, Leela boasts sumptuous cinematography that mixes Indo-ethnic chic with American southwestern flair. The direction is first-rate while musically, Singh and Gulzar round up a must-listen-to song pack that includes stirring ghazals, folksy marriage songs, and a Gujarati-friendly New World garba.
Kapadia, who dipped her toes into intergenerational waters in 2001’s “Dil Chahta Hai,” nails the role of a seemingly content woman on the verge of practically everything. Both Naval as the fairweather friend and Khanna as the distant husband, provide credible support to Kapadia. Grover suits up nicely as Chaitali’s former husband while Mhatre’s man-child Kris/Krishna wonderfully and continuously churns his sexual preoccupation by deft handling of some not-so-innocent scenes.
It is sheer pleasure to see Indian-Americans walking such sexually unusual and realistic tight ropes. Leela’s unconventional premise empowers ex-pats in a way few films have done previously. The biggest shock is not that these characters are given free exercise over their sexual angst. The biggest shock is that—what do you know—the result is not the end of the world.