Life in a…Metro is more an exploration into sex, lies and relationships in a big city than a true expose of the average Bombayite’s life. Writer/director Anurag Basu’s dark tapestry of relationships is good in bits but stops short of being truly impressive. All the high dudgeon does not add up to a sufficiently moving experience. The whole is not as good as the sum of the parts, in other words, but the parts are definitely interesting in themselves.
The movie revolves around six people interlinked in a web of sex, lies and love. Shikha (Shilpa Shetty) is stuck in a repressive and lonely marriage with Ranjit (KK Menon). They invite people over often to fill up the silences and haven’t had sex for years. She meets Akash (Shiney Ahuja), a divorced theater actor with self esteem issues and falls in love. Ranjit meanwhile has been having an affair with lonely, dysfunctional Neha (Kangana Ranaut) who works in his office. Rahul (Sharman Joshi) works in the same BPO as them and is in love with Neha. An ambitious man keen to win “the race”, he has hit upon a unique path to progress—he lets colleagues and bosses use his apartment for sexual liaisons in return for professional recommendations and out-of-turn promotions.
Shikha’s sister Shruti (Konkona Sen Sharma) is hitting 30, a virgin and desperate to find love. She meets Debu (Irrfan Khan) through a matrimonial site but rejects him because he doesn’t quite fit the bill. But due to circumstances, she ends up working in the same office as him and the two become friends. Shikha’s Bharatnatyam teacher, Shivani (Nafisa Ali) receives a visit from ex-lover Amol (Dharmendra) who left her 40 years ago. He is ill and has come back to spend his last days with her.
This then is the strange, dark, slightly decadent world of Metro. Relationships are fraught with the unexpected and love has more to do with compromise than with chasing a rainbow. As Debu tells Shruti in one scene: “Relationship guarantee card ke saath to aati nahi”. Indeed, the six relationships in Metro come with no guarantees. Each character follows the tugs and pulls of their own particular conscience, fate or instincts—whatever that may entail—and lives with the consequences, even if they are not always what we would have wished for them.
The city itself is used largely as a backdrop to the drama. In one scene, Neha sits on the window sill of a high rise flat, brooding about the wrong decisions she has made in the past. Cars twinkle by like fluorescent ants on the road below. Shruti quietly, naturally, places an ashtray on the ledge outside. This is something that Neha does often then—and despite being aware of her self-destructive tendencies, Shruti is not too worried. The city’s heights are as integral to it as its lights.
This is used effectively in other scenes as well. Neha is often shown at a height: as she lies with Ranjit in post-coital languor on a bed next to a large, glass-paned window, or lifting her arms to the rain as she stands on the terrace of his apartment building.
Shikha, on the other hand, measures out her live in train schedules. Bombay’s local trains, stations and bus stops are the milieu for her romance with Akash. It’s interesting that the relationship retains innocence while it remains here, in the outdoors (barring one scene in a cinema), and takes on darker, ‘illicit’ tones when they move indoors to a friend’s apartment. Emotionally stuck in a repressive marriage, Shikha is ironically characterized by movement. A frantic rush to and from places, perhaps in search of the elusive thrum and throb of life that she cannot find at home.
One of the more memorable scenes involves Debu and Shruti sitting on the rocks near the sea, surrounded by shopping bags. She has been helping him shop for the woman he will be marrying in two days. It is the first time they talk frankly about their equation (since it is not really a ‘relationship’)—he asks her why she rejected him. Poignant because this is traditionally a lover’s haunt and they are talking about rejection.
Bombay’s loneliness is present. But also, something that is even more characteristic of the city: its lack of privacy. In a city with too many people, where does one go to have sex? Any free apartment, usually. This forms a pivotal theme in the film and an important plot construct. It also gives rise to situations that range from funny to seedy to downright outrageous. Rahul’s neighbours admire (envy?) his sexual prowess because they constantly hear moans through the thin walls of the apartment. In one scene, Shikha and Akash are about to make love at a friend’s apartment when the friend comes home. Mortified and scared, she runs to the other room and finally escapes through a window while Akash uneasily fields questions.
Sex is, of course, an important theme in Metro. Debu and Shruti’s relationship is a clever example of different attitudes towards sex. While Debu looks more conventional—even geeky—he is more frank about his sexual urges. Shruti has stricter ideas about how these should be expressed. In Basu’s logic, they’re probably good for each other, a nice case of opposites complementing each other. Honestly, I am not sure how this would work in real life but Irrfan Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma are both so touching, so funny, so endearing somehow, that I’ll go along with any happy ending for them.
In Ranjit and Shikha’s loveless marriage, sex is loaded with different values. While he regularly has sex without guilt or need to justify it as love, she can’t bring herself to have sex even when she does fall in love. It’s disturbing that she doesn’t see the irony. When she confesses her (almost) transgression to Ranjit, he throws a tantrum. It doesn’t occur to her to complain about his two-year affair.
Neha’s dalliance with Ranjit may be perceived as her using sex to advance her career. But the one peddling sexual favours most effectively is Rahul. Neha has concerns about being ‘used’; Rahul doesn’t seem to have such concerns but clearly, he is as much a victim of needs and power as she is. In one scene, he gets a call late at night when he about to turn in, an impromptu request. He spends the night wandering the streets so that others can use his bed.
The slew of actors in this ensemble cast turn in solid performances. KK Menon is competent, Shilpa Shetty elicits sympathy, and Nafisa Ali and Dharmendra essay their roles with feeling and dignity. Sharman Joshi handles his role very ably and proves that he can carry off drama as well as comedy. But the stars of the show are clearly Irrfan Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma who are honest, touching, and as usual, completely convincing. Shiney’s part is too small to require much and the weakest link is Kangana Ranaut, who has made a career out of playing the dysfunctional damsel.
Basu has commendably avoided the melodrama and cliché that is usually synonymous with Bollywood. I say commendably not because I have anything against quintessential Bollywood but because this minimalist style works much better here. However, there are some holes in the script and definite lapses of logic in some places. The characters affect you while you are watching them but are unlikely to live on in memory. It’s not a movie that you would want to watch repeatedly but as an honest look at the ways in which love moves in a metro, it works.