Sometimes even a rough build of a fresh concept is better than the nth polished and honed iteration of a done-to-death theme. Writer-Director Makarand Deshpande's Dänav (reviewed on this site here), although rather unwieldy, half-finished and even tacky on occasion, was interesting to me because it told a fresh story with strong dramatic quotient. Hence my attraction to see his new offering Sona Spa, although I suspected that it would suffer from many of the same shortcomings that plagued Dänav. You could say I saw the film under rather personalized conditions: a very decent screening in a desolate cinema hall. It speaks for the amount of interest the lay public has in this star-bereft enterprise (unless you count Naseeruddin Shah, and we'll talk about that soon), but from a selfish point of view it makes for near-ideal conditions for appreciating a film of this sort.
So how does Sona Spa compare to its predecessor? For one it is technically a lot more polished, with even some stylish cinematography and editing touches thrown in. There are still rough edges: the writing and acting can be rather gauche, there is some cheap language and sexual references thrown in possibly to add market value to the film (that obviously didn't work) and the use of computer graphics generated imagery is miles behind what most other commercial film industries of the world use. But compared to Dänav which had absolutely no style, this is progress. Alas, technical progress seems to have come at the cost of conceptual freshness and dramatic intensity.
The basic idea behind the titular Sona Spa is that it is a place where you can pay to have your sleeping hours transplanted into someone else. Confused? In essence what this means is the person sleeping on your behalf will for that period receive your state of mind with all its cares and tensions and in return transfer their state of uninterrupted blissful rest to you. Do not bother to ask for even basal level rationality behind this concept as the film is not interested in doling out any explanations in that regard. Even the spa as such is a hugely incongruous establishment, with a complete lah-di-dah approach to running background checks on its customers, inexplicable financial circumstances and the sort of liberal employee policies for its “sleep-workers” that the rest of us can only (heh) dream of. Rucha (Shruti Vyas) and Ritu (Aahana Kumra) are two girls from filthy-rich and middle-class backgrounds respectively that take up employment as sleep-workers. Each comes with their own emotional baggage. Emotionally fractured spoiled brat Rucha is looking for a cure for her insomniac father, while humble affable Ritu wants to earn money for her (wait, is this another point of contrast?) comatose father's hospital expenses and help a sister struggling with a recurring nightmare. In turn they are set up with “clients” for whom they must sleep. The catch is that in the sleep-state they receive the dreams of their clients and these can take a turn into perverse sexual or violent territory.
This is an excellent concept in outline and I would have loved to see some daring strides taken. But there are problems with the manner in which the concept is dealt with here: Here, dreams have no randomness, no disorientation factor, they are presented in a manner as mundane as memories or flashbacks. It is as though the writer is afraid of confusing the audience, not a good sign. The second aspect is that after teasing with the perverse elements of the dreams, the story makes no effort to explore the acute and chronic effects that it can have on the minds of the sleep-workers. Instead, it rather quickly wraps the dream-cycle with trite moral lessons and happy endings. This is very unfortunate pussy-footing. A film like this was never going to garner a significant audience, it would have made more sense to just cast aside any notions of garnering popularity and make the best of the idea instead of watering it down. And yeah, somewhere in between is that all too abused symbol of unspoiled innocence, the retard.
I am perhaps being unreasoning if I say that you might still give this watch. I liked it more than the much slicker Inception, although that's possibly because that one had too much fan-hype surrounding it. I also feel good about a Hindi movie that's at least a novel idea and not just an ego massage for the Great Bollywood Incestuous Mafia. There are, if you can ignore the disappointments and the gauchery, moments where the film strikes a chord. Aahana Kumra as Ritu gives a very solid, empathetic performance, and like I earlier said, it is visually more polished. As for Naseer, while he features heavily in the posters and marketing, he is not even playing a role in the conventional sense. He portrays the Baba who has established the spa and within the film is only seen in televised ads proclaiming its benefits.