I always feel like I’m missing something when I watch Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies. Much of that is due to the fact that I have to rely upon English subtitles that are often poorly translated. In Omkara, the subtitles were so sanitized as to obscure the meaning of conversations made up of crass colloquialisms. In Kaminey, the characters’ speech impediments caused malaprops that surely meant more in the original language than when they were translated into English.
But there’s something else about the way Bhardwaj tells his stories that leaves me a bit muddled. He jumps right into the story, without much explanation of who the characters are or what their relationships are to one another (again, it could be a language issue). While identities and relationships are usually sorted out over time, it adds a feeling of confusion early in the movie: something that might be acceptable in a mystery film, but Bhardwaj doesn’t make mysteries.
I had the same feeling while watching The Blue Umbrella, based on a novella by Ruskin Bond. I’m sure everything was clear if you’d already read the book, but that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for enjoying a movie.
The protagonist is Biniya (Shreya Sharma), a precocious girl who lives in a picturesque mountain village. The town is a stopping point for tourists on their way through the mountains. One day, Biniya meets a group of tourists and trades her lucky necklace for a beautiful, blue Japanese-style umbrella. The blue umbrella stands out among the alpine greenery, and Biniya and her umbrella become the town’s main attraction. Tourists pose for photos with her when they stop at the local snack shop, run by an old man named Nandu (Pankaj Kapoor).
Nandu covets Biniya’s blue umbrella, as do several other adults in town. He tries to trick and bribe her into giving him the umbrella, but she isn’t interested. When the umbrella is stolen one night, Nandu is Bindiya’s prime suspect.
At her request, the cops raid Nandu’s shop, but the umbrella’s not there. Humiliated, Nandu vows to buy his own umbrella. A short while later, Nandu receives a delivery: an umbrella exactly like Biniya’s, only red. He becomes the de facto mayor of the village, though heart-broken Biniya still harbors suspicions about him.
The confusion creeps into the story around the time when the umbrella is stolen. A number of the adults shown as potential suspects have so little screen time until that point that I wasn’t sure who they were. They seem like unnecessary red herrings. The question isn’t whether Nandu stole the umbrella (it’s obvious he did) but whether Biniya can prove it.
Some of the relationships between characters are also initially unclear. Biniya lives with her mother and a man who I thought was her dad; turns out he’s her older brother. Nandu has a young assistant who is, apparently, not his son. None of these are huge problems, but they were distracting. A few lines of dialog could’ve cleared things up without disrupting the narrative flow.
The natural scenery of the village is fantastic, and Bhardwaj occasionally filters the light to give the town a surreal glow. Winter sets in after the umbrella is stolen, and the snow has an unreal blue tint, echoing Biniya’s sadness. There’s a brief, early action scene in which Biniya uses her umbrella to fend off a snake, presented as a comic book come to life.
Overall, the movie succeeds because the story is so charming, as is the girl who plays Biniya. It’s a wonderful parable about the difference between justice and vengeance, as well as the liberating power of forgiveness.