Filmfest DC begins today with "Raincoat," a sultry, seductive romantic melodrama by Indian filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh. The choice to open the festival with "Raincoat" is an altogether appropriate one, given this year's focus on Indian and Chinese cinema, and given the desire to expand filmgoers' vision of India beyond Bollywood stereotypes.
Bollywood fans will recognize the movie's two attractive lead players, but there ends any similarity between the maniacally energetic musicals Bombay has become known for and this quiet, languidly paced drama. As a postscript in the closing credits makes clear, the inspiration for "Raincoat" lies more in the tragic ironies of turn-of-the-century American literature than the lurid song-and-dance morality tales India has become famous for throughout the world. (To be more specific about that inspiration would be a definite spoiler.)
Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai as former lovers who reunite for one rainy afternoon in Indian filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh's romantic melodrama.
If anything, "Raincoat" gives its two superstars, Aishwarya Rai and Ajay Devgan, a chance to stretch beyond anything they've done before, at least for American audiences. The stunningly beautiful Rai, last seen in the wackily misguided "Bride & Prejudice," resembles a "Petrified Forest" era Bette Davis as Niru, a rich young bride living in lonely dishevelment in a shabbily refined section of Calcutta. Devgan, who has not been as widely seen here, plays her former lover, Manoj, who pays her an unexpected visit on a rainy afternoon during monsoon season. Shy and bespectacled, he nonetheless seethes with a magnetism that makes it easy to see why he is considered a major heartthrob in his native country.
Most of the action of "Raincoat" takes place during Niru and Manoj's reunion, and Ghosh choreographs their encounter with such care and attention to physical and psychological detail that it often seems to be happening in real time. As the two catch up, reminisce and put up exaggerated fronts for each other's benefit, it is gradually revealed that neither is quite what he or she is pretending to be; meanwhile, the rain beats a soporific tattoo on Niru's shuttered windows, lulling the movie into an almost hypnotic state of suspended time and place. By the time "Raincoat" concludes in an elegant, bittersweet twist, Ghosh has immersed viewers in a hothouse world that is at once archaic and contemporary, claustrophobically specific and romantically universal. "Raincoat" turns out to be a simple fable at heart, but one that offers a glimpse of a much wider world within its deceptively simple narrative lines.
Raincoat (112 minutes, in Hindi and English with subtitles) will be shown tonight at 7 at the Lincoln Theater, 1215 U St. NW. Director Rituparno Ghosh will be at the screening, and a gala reception will follow. Admission is $40. For tickets or more information, call 202-628-FILM or visit www.filmfestdc.org.