Retro Review: The Blue Umbrella (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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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.


7 thoughts on “Retro Review: The Blue Umbrella (2005)

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  3. Rebecca Armstrong

    It was an ok movie, but I agree that Vishal Bhardwaj is an annoying director. Like a kid with a new camera trying out all the buttons. And managing to pick the most grating combination possible, because that’s just who he is.

    The confusion you mention is just bad subtitling though. I didn’t see the subtitles, but the relationships are clear from the dialog. The kid at Nandu’s shop is hired help not his son; Biniya is Baiju’s sister, not his daughter. She calls him “Baiju bhaiya” several times, meaning “Brother Baiju”. Maybe they forgot to subtitle that.

    The people shown after the umbrella is stolen aren’t potential suspects. I think they were added for humor. The things they say are common phrases used to console a child when you’re not really paying attention to the child, you just want her to stop being miserable. Any kid growing up in India has heard them a million times already. Perhaps Bhardwaj was trying to be funny. Perhaps he’s saying the adults don’t really care and don’t understand her sadness when her umbrella is stolen. Maybe he’s showing her despair as adults go through the motions of cheering her up when it’s clear they have no clue. Maybe that’s what pushes her to get help from the police constable, which is an unlikely thing for a little girl to do. It doesn’t seem like he’s presenting them as suspects.

    The thing I found the most annoying was Nandu’s accent. Pankaj Kapur is an excellent actor, but here he talks like he has a speech impediment. His vowels are overly broad, his sibilants slurred to the point of lisping. To the intended audience of Hindi speakers, Nandu’s speech is almost unintelligible. I can see no logic for that. It’s true that Himachal is a tribal state, maybe some tribes do speak Hindi that way. But literally everyone else in the movie speaks normal Hindi, so why this one person who can’t be understood?

    I’ve given up finding reasons for stuff like that, I just assign it all to the “Vishal Bhardwaj is an annoying twit, no other reason is needed” category.

    1. Kathy

      This is really interesting, Rebecca! I’m sure I’d pick up on more of the language now, but it’s nice to know the context for the way the adults treat the girl. How funny that non-Hindi speakers are hampered by bad subtitles, and Hindi speakers have to decipher an unintelligible accent. Hooray! No one wins!

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