7 Sins Forgiven: Berlin Review

Kill Bill meets Kind Hearts and Coronets for two-and-a-half enjoyable hours of luridly melodramatic Indian escapism.

This star-studded sixth feature by Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj is a cocktail of passion, sex and violent death, spiced with local color and laced with wicked humor.

BERLIN — Greatly expanded from on a four-page story by septuagenarian Anglo-Indian author Ruskin Bond, 7 Sins Forgiven, co-written by Hollywood veteran Matthew Robbins — one time a close collaborator of Lucas and Spielberg — is a cocktail of passion, sex and violent death, spiced with local color and laced with wicked humor.

Audiences seeking cutting-edge cinema should give this wild Indian revenge-romp a wide berth but there are many others who will savor this star-studded sixth feature by Vishal Bhardwaj (responsible for 2009's well-received Kaminey -- The Scoundrels). The film surprisingly failed to click at domestic box office during its pre-Berlinale January release. It should fare better on DVD and on television and deserves consideration from film festivals keen to counterbalance austere fare with unapologetically old-fashioned crowd pleasers.

Though hailing from Mumbai, shot in wide screen and featuring a small handful of elaborate, lip-synched musical numbers with lush music by Bhardwaj himself, this is no stereotypical Bollywood extravaganza. Instead it's a novelistic affair constructed in classical Western-cinema traditions as a series of illustrated flashbacks, narrated by pathologist Arun Kumar (Vivaan Shah) as he ponders the tumultuous life of his recently deceased mentor and (unrequited) semi-Oedipal love, Susanna Johannes (Priyanka Chopra).

The well-heeled Susanna rescued the bright orphan Arun from poverty when he was a child. She sponsored his education abroad, during which time she was making her way through a series of husbands.

"I was destined to be with all the wrong men!" she wails, as we see via episodes set over the last four decades of Indian history, unobtrusively linking Susanna's partners with various stages of the nation's progress from the Raj to today's awakening superpower.

The ill-fated husbands are played by well-known faces from Bollywood and beyond, including Indian cinema's reigning beefcake John Abraham (as a hedonistic rock-star), Slumdog Millionaire's Irrfan Khan (as a Muslim poet who reveals a sadistic streak in the bedroom) and veteran Naseeruddin Shah (as a "miracle doctor" of mushroom magic), father of the promising Vivaan, making his debut here.

Far from a scheming "black widow," beautiful Susanna is painted (by Arun) as semi-hapless victim of circumstance, her suitors dispatched by her loyal, ever-smiling but lethally resourceful servants (Harish Khanna, Shashi Malviya and Usha Uthup, scene-stealing from the sidelines). 7 Sins Forgiven is thus built around a series of weddings and funerals, Susanna's mixed Christian/Hindu background – with a brief conversion to Islam -- allowing Bhardwaj and his collaborators to throw in an eclectic range of religious references (including droll, repeated uses of the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”) in disarmingly breezy style.

These culminate in the operatically twisty climax, which features a not-so-surprising revelation about Susanna's supposed demise, and a truly jaw-dopping one about the identity of her final husband -- and dance-partner -- which wraps up proceedings on a note of amusingly outrageous audacity.

A former Miss World turned Bollywood superstar, Chopra (reteaming with Bhardwaj after Kaminey) makes the most of a prime showcase role as the alluring Susanna, aging from post-teenager to a 50-plus with assistance from make-up artist Greg Cannom, who performed similar duties on David Fincher's The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button. Fincher had, of course, previously essayed his own sin-catalogue with Se7en. While Bhardwaj's tale has no pretensions to that kind of seriousness, his sly movie nevertheless emerges as cleverer and more transgressive than first appearances would suggest.
Venue: Berlin International Film Fesetival (Panorama)
Vishal Bhardwaj Pictures; UVT Motion Pictures
Cast: Priyanka Chopra, Vivaan Shah, Neil Nitin Mukesh, John Abraham, Irrfan Khan, Aleksandr Dyachenko, Annu Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah
Director/music: Vishal Bhardwaj
Screenwriter: Vishal Bhardwaj, Matthew Robbins
Based on a story by: Ruskin Bond
Producers: Vishal Bhardwaj, Ronnie Screwvala
Executive producer: Ajay Rai
Director of photography: Ranjan Palit
Production designer: Samir Chanda
Costume designer: Payal Saluja
Editor: Sreekar Prasad
Sales: UTV Motion Pictures, Mumbai
No rating, 148 minutes