By the time the title credit goes up in digital flames after being struck by a flying arrow, it should be clear to viewers that “Mirzya” is no subtle exercise in style. A broad, brash Bollywood romance, juggling Punjab folklore with more contemporary Shakespearean allusions in its two-tiered narrative, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s film is so busy in all respects — from its structure to its song score to its poster-paint palette — that one barely has time to make sense of it all. Beneath its absorbing wealth of visual and sonic information, however, an essentially simple tale of love across the class divide grows too diffuse and distracted to stir the heart, while its two parallel stories — separated by centuries, as well as a tonal and aesthetic disparity — never coalesce into a satisfactory mythic dialogue. Despite international festival berths in London and Chicago, potential for a “Devdas”-style crossover is minimal.
“We are all links in a long chain,” a character observes aloud at one point in “Mirzya” — in case viewers hadn’t identified the implications of spiritual connection across the eons between the film’s two narrative strands. To be fair, it does take a while for the film’s shape to reveal itself, particularly as its modern-day section is itself chronologically divided. We begin, however, in the indeterminately distant past: A hailstorm of more fire-bearing arrows introduces a highly designed, dialogue-free drama of loaded glances and slow-mo standoffs between a remote, beautiful princess, a dashing archer on horseback and the vaguely marauding army pursuing him.
This effects-heavy mini-epic effectively adapts a segment of the ancient, culturally embedded Punjab folktale “Mirza Sahiba,” in which two young, star-crossed lovers are fatally denied a union by their opposed families. The story gets a more extended, albeit looser, riff in the present-day action. Separated from each other when one commits a rash crime in adolescence, childhood friends Suchitra and Monish grow up into very different worlds. The former (played in adulthood by the striking Saiyami Kher) becomes a privileged society belle, betrothed to wealthy hotelier Prince Karan (Anuj Choudhry); the latter (newcomer Harshvardhan Kapoor, son of Bollywood superstar Anil) settles for life as a lowly stablehand, though when fate reunites the two on Karan’s palatial estate, the heart wants what it predictably wants.
That there’s a glancing resemblance between “Mirza Sahiba” and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” hasn’t escaped the notice of screenwriter (and songwriter) Gulzar, who tosses a few of the Bard’s quotes in for good measure. Even with that additional frame of reference, however, the central romance never attains the air of etched-in-stone legend to which it aspires; the life-and-death stakes are there, but the people involved — while uniformly ravishing to gaze upon — are too wanly sketched for this melodrama to pump much blood. (Veteran stars like Art Malik and Om Puri get little room to flex in one-dimensional elder roles.) Only towards the finale, meanwhile, do the historical and contemporary romances begin to work in emotional sync, from their opposite generic poles of fantasy-imbued war saga and high-gloss lifestyle soap; for much of the two-hour-plus running time, the former interludes register more as a decorative affectation than a narrative counterpoint.
In the absence of greater reserves of feeling, then, it’s as pure, lacquered spectacle that “Mirzya” is most enticing. The quality of the digital effects isn’t always sleek enough to sell the stark, Tarsem-esque stylization of the period sequences for which Mehra appears to aiming, but it’s an arresting approach all the same. The contemporary sequences, meanwhile, are alive with hot, flashing color and motion — particularly those set around a blacksmith’s alley where the legend of Mirza Sahiba is expounded, in a somewhat under-developed framing device. Polish cinematographer Pawel Dyllus seems to coats each frame in an appropriately sultry glaze of sweat. Gulzar’s song score is typically expressive and pop-savvy, though some numbers are thrown away in a flat, non-diegetic context; the wordless period stretches, in particular, could stand to be a little more musically adventurous.