Zubeidaa is a story of a young man Riyaz's (Rajit Kapur) quest to recover the memory of his mother Zubeidaa (Karisma Kapoor), a mother he never knew. Brought up by his grandmother from the age of three, all knowledge of his mother was kept away from him. Troubled by the scant knowledge he has of his mother, Riyaz sets about trying to piece together her life from the memories of those who knew her. Extremely talented and beautiful, Zubeidaa is the only daughter of Suleman Seth (Amrish Puri), a film producer in Mumbai. Zubeidaa's dreams and aspirations are never on her father's priority list.
Zubeidaa's happiness more often than not, falls victim to her father's completely unjustified domination over her life. Suleman Seth is instrumental in cutting short her burning ambition of becoming a film actress. Suleman Seth is also responsible for giving Zubeidaa the biggest jolt of her life by forcibly getting her married to a boy whom she does not even know properly, leave alone liking him. The repurcussions of this were severe and as far as Zubeidaa is concerned the mental agony born out of this forced wedlock appears almost intolerable.
Behind every dark cloud lies a silver lining, they say and this is exactly what happens in Zubeidaa's life. Her life takes a turn for the better and life a whiff of fresh air, romance makes unexpected entrance in her life in the form of Maharaja Vijayendra Singh (Manoj Bajpai). Sparks fly and both fall head over heels in love but this so-called path of love is not devoid of social thorns.
Before her husband divorced her, Zubeidaa produced one son (the one who's looking for her in the present tense). Not long after her divorce, against her father's wishes she starts dating a maharaja. When the maharaja wants to make her his junior queen, Zubeidaa's mother demands that she give up her only son to be raised by the grandmother.
Zubeidaa stupidly agrees to do this and ends up as a concubine in a complicated and eventually unfulfilling marriage.
I only wanted to watch this because it was recommended on Baz Luhrman's Red Curtain Trilogy. Ugh. This just dragged on and on. Zubeidaa was a spoiled brat and she should have played that up more. Not a good Bollywood Musical by any standards.
Shyam Benegal is an international award winning film director who made his name in the 1970's with films, such as Anker (1974), that focus on controversial subjects involving the examination of fraught, complex social and cultural relationships. These films tend to concentrate on the lower rungs of Indian society. Zubeidaa is a refreshing update in this mode of film-making, as Benegal transfers his name-making qualities to a subject at the higher end of society.
It is the story of a young man, Riyaz, who goes on a journey to discover what has happened to his mysterious mother, absent for as long as he can remember. What he discovers is reenacted in scenes set not long after independence, as the naïve but headstrong young Zubeidaa is scandalized by her romance, and subsequent marriage to Prince Vijayendra Singh of Fatehpur, head of a grand Hindu ruling royal family. As a middle class Muslim divorcée with a child by another man, her relationship with the Prince is naturally complicated by socio-political and religious factors.
But not only does she become entangled in the politics of the royal circle around the Prince, particularly in her relationship with the Prince's first wife, Mandira Devi, she also gets caught up in the larger politics of India. The film is set during a time not long after Independence, a time of change and uncertainty for the traditional ruling class of India, which still laid claim to about a third of the country.
Though it is clear that this film is much more than royal watching, having such a subject naturally supports a lavish treatment, which Benegal ably supplies, as well as making the film's content rich in nuance and resonance, handling its mature romantic storyline gracefully, and skilfully embedding it into its larger historical context.
The characters are generally very well developed with empathy and without judgement or cliché. The acting matches this. Karisma Kapoor captures the strength and naivety of Zubeidaa with aplomb, and Rekha is authoritative and understated as the enigmatic Mandira Devi.
The only problem I have with the film is Zubeidaa's grown son, Riyaz. Riyaz is imperative to the film, since the viewer follows him on his journey of discovery. Seeing great characters through the eyes of other characters is a useful fictional device, most successfully utilised in Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway's character is revealed by his journey in discovering Gatsby. However, in Zubeidaa, Riyaz stays enigmatic while discovering his mother, and even, at times, comes across as anodyne, feeling more like a biographer looking into an interesting episode in history, not a son trying to find his mother. Rajat Kapoor, playing Riyaz, does not manage to rise above his character's failings. And so, unfortunately, the film ends up feeling incomplete.