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A sensual and mesmerising Tabu was unforgettable in MF Hussain’s Meenaxi: A Tale Of Three Cities: Throwback

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Owais Hussain, son of the legendary MF Hussain assisted MF when the latter directed Gaja Gamini. After that, when MF directed Meenaxi—A Tale Of Three Cities, which was released on April 2, 2004, it was rumoured that his son had held the reins for most of the film.

Somewhere in the middle of this seamless tale—or was it the beginning of an end, or perhaps the end of a beginning– Tabu playing an elusive creature of fugitive desires in Jaisalmer, steals into Kunal Kapoor’s room on tiptoes with the express intention of making her feelings manifest.

But Kunal is shy and apprehensive. “You here at this time of the night?” he looks uneasily over his shoulder.

Meenaxi’s face falls, like a thousand blooming flowers descending in slo-mo from a branch that, not so long ago, was waving proudly into the sky. That scene where the woman, at the risk of her own reputation, steals into the arms of passion, seems like MF Husain’s tribute to Devdas.

As far as Meenaxi is concerned it is the end of love. But for the author Nawab (Raghuvir Yadav) it is also the cue for a new beginning. He can now take his heroine into another dimension, another continent, another chance for Tabu to showcase her enchanting enigma.

Meenaxi – A Tale Of Three Cities dwells on the critical and ageless debate on the intricate relationship between the creator and his creation, between the artiste and his art, and the painter and his brush. Between the brush and the brush-stroke there lies a universe of feelings and emotions, many inexpressible, almost as elusive as Tabu’s mysterious eyes which wander beyond the flaming frames of the screen to gaze at the very essence of love and existence.

The first of the 3 Tabus who colonize MF Hussain’s tale of three cities is a perfume seller in Hyderabad. As cinematographer Santosh Sivan dodges autorickshaws and commuters in cluttered Hyderabad to zero in on Meenaxi, the camera becomes the conscience of Nawab, the author searching for the perfect heroine for his next novel.

Perfection being the grandest illusion of art and life Nawab finds Meenaxi, the wily, pushy, slightly crude but deliciously seductive ittar seller in the way that Hussain looks for imperfection in art. Meenaxi shines way beyond his earlier somewhat scrambled stab at direction, Gaja Gamini. Both Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi have confessed they didn’t know what they were doing in Gaja Gamini.

Tabu may not be as graceful and nimble-footed as Madhuri Dixit. But she carries the weight of the film’s basic debate on art, life and illusion with a fertile facility which transports Hussain’s vision into the realm of the poetic. The three segments are not mutually exclusive in the way of, say Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker. Characters overlap, collide and coalesce to the point where borders between feeling and manifestation, thought and expression seem to become joined in dance of life.

Deliberately, MF Hussain makes his characters talk in unusually loud voices. In one sequence he personally appears at a Irani restaurant (Subhash Ghai, move over!) and winces the minute the first Tabu, the ittar-seller, opens her mouth to nag the writer Nawab. Her raging passion to alchemize her ordinary life into art through Nawab’s pen is also every aspiring artiste’s craving for immortality through his art.

It is that craving which comes across in Tabu’s remarkable presence. To call it a performance would be belittling what Husain and she have set out to achieve in the frame. As Tabu travels from one time zone to another she transports us to another world where maya (illusion) seduces and caresses reality. True, her Czech accent in the last overture is strained. But then, this is a film of heightened realism where the characters are entirely emblematic. Their value not in what they speak but what they hold back for a time what never comes.

The soundtrack and visual texture elevate the film to a work of endless enchantment. The now-you-see-her-now-you-don’t quality in the three-tiered protagonist’s personality makes her a creation of caprice like no other in Hindi cinema. The overt and aggressive manner in which the songs-and-dances come on indicate a celebration of life in swirling blues opulent oranges and ravishing reds.

Only a painter could infuse such a steep sense of aesthetics into the narrative canvas. The frames are opulent and yet not crowded. Every song-and-dance is heartstopping in its mixture of melody and emotions that yield a lingering and lush lyricism .

Admittedly parts of the film are enormously self indulgent. Though all the three cities Hyderabad, Jaisalmer and Prague are living throbbing characters in Hussain’s scheme of life and art are beautifully framed in the scheme of the narration, portions of the visuals appear touristic On the other hand, the sheer energy and passion of the 88-year old creator’s mise en scene makes you sit and savour every stroke of look in the narration.

When the third Tabu, Maria in Prague shyly tells Kunal that she walks with and not rides her bicycle because she needs company, you want time to freeze so you can savour the mystery and poetry of her confession. A sequence such as the one where Nawab’s document goes up in flames, exudes a startling aroma of a burnished creation ripened to just the extent where the fruit doesn’t fall off the tree.

Sweet melodious, tender and seductive Meenaxi is at once a celebration of abstractionism and a mirror into the heart of a woman who is as haunted and haunting as Meena Kumari in Bimal Roy’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, as enigmatic as Rosy in Vijay Anand’s Guide and as voluptuous and famished as Smita Patil in Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika.

Indeed, Tabu, Santosh Sivan and AR Rahman are the three heroes of the film. You want to clutch Meenaxi A Tale Of Three Cities close to your heart for these three, and also for MF Hussain’s dextrous transposition of the painter’s skill on celluloid whereby every stroke of the brush engenders an atom of poetry.