The image above depicts Nikaah's heroine's second (!) wedding night, which occurs while her first husband is still alive (!). Also, the story isn't resolved by a death, imprisonment, or pregnancy. Can this really be a Hindi film? In short, yes, but maybe *Urdu* film would be more accurate.
[Since there aren't a million reviews of this film on other blogs, I'll summarize the plot before I pick it apart. Spoilers below, including a discussion of the ending, marked separately for those who want to be surprised.]
Old college-acquaintances, Niloufar (Salma Agha) and Haider (Raj Babbar) run into one another after a long stretch of lost contact. A poet in school, he's now a gainfully employed writer at a magazine, and he shares some mostly one-sided reminiscences about his crush on her in their university days. But Haider is suspicious when he sees Niloufar, who he knows married into money, dispute a small fee and take a bus home. He follows her and finds that she lives at a women's hostel. Kindly, he approaches her a few days later, asks her to a cafe, and entreats her to tell him of her real situation. She goes on to tell him what happened after his advances were rebuffed. Cue long flashback.
Perhaps we should install some art on the ceiling to make these moments more interesting for us.
Upon graduation, she had married her childhood sweetheart, Nawab Wasim (Deepak Parashar). It seemed a natural match, but right after their wedding night, the Nawab wins a bid to build a five star hotel in Mumbai. They travel to Mumbai together [ostensibly] for their honeymoon, but Niloufar ends up spending most of the the trip alone in their suite or on the breakers outside their hotel while her husband is off conducting business.
The "lucky break" business deal ends up taking the Nawab out of the house at all hours. Perhaps unused to so much responsibility, or just because he's a self-absorbed ass, Wasim repeatedly fails to show up for dinner dates, and movies, and parties. He also doesn't seem to know how to use a phone to let people know he won't be home. Expected to stay home and socialize or keep herself amused all day, Niloufar quickly starts to feel the effects of such an isolated, unreliable existence.
Luckily she has one staunch ally in Iftekhar, who keeps making chai that she won't drink alone.
Whenever Wasim does come home, the newlyweds either fight over his tardiness, or some comment Niloofar has made about his frequent absences to their in-laws, which Wasim takes as a loss of face with his family. Over their first year of marriage, his temper tantrums grow more and more frequent, and her rejection complex deepens. Eventually, when he fails to show up for their first anniversary party, Niloufar breaks under the pressure and goes upstairs (gasp).
Gossipy guests take offense and leave, and Wasim comes home to an empty house and "massive" blot on his social standing. The two have a high-pitched argument, in which Niloufar dares to stand up for herself, telling him she doesn't deserve such treatment and that he doesn't deserve her physical affection.
This doesn't go over well with Wasim, who pronounces the dreaded, "Talaq, talaq, talaq." And just like that, Niloufar is out on the street. Still, she now has an ally and friend. When she is assaulted at her new job, Haider arrives just in time (diffusing the situation with nary a dishoom) and whisks Niloufar away for a good cry-chat on the steps. [Note: this man is like the elusive Rocky-Road of potential suitors.]
What, no covering of my head? You want to talk to me and help me process this?
The rest of the year passes pleasantly, until her ex invites her for dinner on the date of their anniversary. When Niloufar doesn't show, Wasim has his own breakdown (which is very satisfying, I must say). But Niloufar is watching after all, and when Wasim begs her to come back, she walks out. Faithful manservant begs too, but she tells him she knows her path isn't with Wasim any longer.
It's when she tells Haider the same thing that night in his office, that he is finally free to ask, "Could you see your path being with me?"
She can, and they decide to get married. Haider proves to be a polar opposite sort of spouse--attentive and funny and inclined toward playing hooky from work instead of staying out to all hours. They develop a playful relationship, and seem to have a lot of fun together. Still, there is much left to be sorted out.
From the opening "epic" prologue about women and their unfair lot, Nikaah sets out to tell the other side of the story. And not only that, it tries very, very hard not to ruin this goal in the last act.
In fairness, before we go on, I want to be clear that "favorite actor" stepping stones probably won't lead you to Nikaah. For 70's film lovers, Iftekhar can be seen now and then in a magnificent red beard and dark manservant's achkan or expertly brandishing a towel and chai platter. Asrani appears briefly to advance either the comedy or the dramatic stakes, and gleefully takes the the male lead in a magnificent [really kinda feminist] wedding qawwali. But the male leads in the film as a whole didn't excite me at all, I admit. And at first, it appeared my assumptions were confirmed. Raj Babbar and Deepak Parashar demonstrated the liveliness of set pieces spouting poetic dialogues. By the end of the first half, it seemed clear that the relative unknown in this equation, Salma Agha (a Pakistani actress and talented playback singer who went on to win the playback singer award for Nikaah's lovely Dil Ke Armaan) did less acting with far more results.
But it turned out that Nikaah faithfully follows the emotional journey of Niloufar. She barely thinks of the kind, but sometimes ridiculous Haider in the beginning, as her whole life is wrapped up in her first marriage. So, neither do we. But as she gets to know Haider over the second year, he becomes more attractive. And by the third year, he's the perfect contrast to Wasim, and a breath of fresh air for the audience. He comes home early, leaves late, asks her where she wants to go and follows through, and is all together a fun person to actually live with. Basically, this is a rare moment when good writing and casting actually support one another ... as Raj Babbar successfully creates a character the audience can love and even be surprised by. Even, dare I say, a role model.
Why yes, both the men are framed under inscriptions spelling out the name of the Prophet, while the woman is centered beneath the name of God. What does it mean? You decide.
Driving these points home is Nikaah's ending, which at first looks to be a textbook filmi climax (even narrated in a meta fashion in a penultimate scene). But Niloufar isn't going to be punished for remarrying, either by society or fate or human weakness ... even if the set-up looks to do just that. Because of course, Haider mistakenly finds a note from the ex and a melancholic diary entry by Niloufar, puts two and two together, and thinks his wife wants to remarry Wasim ... and he takes it upon himself to give her up.
It's also been a while since I've seen a non-Ma character so expertly use melodramatic religious performance to call out the wayward men in her life.
The woman in question will have none of it. She tells Wasim that she isn't going to be treated like "property," and tells Haider that she won't be given a "gift" she doesn't want or allow him to be a "martyr" for her. In an epic showdown, she tries to leave both of the men. But Wasim saves the day, proving a voice of truth (for once). He notes, rightly, that while he wanted her for his own happiness, Haider is only interested in giving her happiness.
And a film that only wants happiness for its twice-wedded, independent, and childless heroine is definitely a keeper.