7 Khoon Maaf may not be the ambitious masterpiece that Vishal Bhardwaj hoped, but it is easily among the more challenging and conversation-worthy pieces of cinema Bollywood has produced in recent times. Like Bhardwaj and his film, I couldn't quite get my thoughts to cohere to form a full review, so here goes:
1. Maqbool remains my favorite Bhardwaj film, and I can understand the general wave of disappointment with this film. It's not an easy film to like (and appreciate) and there is certainly truth in the claim that this is VB's weakest work to date. Still, a weak VB effort is better than what 90% of the directors out there are capable of making. And anything with this much ambition and complexity needs to be appreciated on a much deeper level.
2. The central role required an extremely versatile actress, capable of expressing genuine insanity at the right moments. Unfortunately, Priyanka Chopra is not that actress; she simply doesn't have the skills to provide the complex shadings that this role requires (her line reading of "I'm going to drink his blood" in the trailers had already made me suspicious of her ability to pull this off). One of the reasons for this could be that the character of Susanna is frustratingly opaque. Is this merely bad screenwriting or is it deliberate: we always see her filtered through the POV of someone who admittedly never understood her (a possibility bolstered by the fact that the only time Susanna's motivations make complete sense are when the film awkwardly shifts to her own voice-over towards the end). The only inkling that we do get into her psychology is when Ghalib narrates the incident where Susanna shot the dog on her way to school -- and even then she remains an enigma. Perhaps she is incapable of being understood by the rest of the world. Still, great actresses can fill in the gaps and elevate under-written roles which Chopra never does. It's a very good performance, great even in parts, but despite the changes in body language and make-up, Chopra is unable to sell the character arc completely.
3. Each of the six "episodes" have something to recommend -- the "John Abraham as rockstar" chapter remains the weakest though -- but the Musafir (Irrfan Khan), Vronsky (Aleksandr Dyachenko) and Keemat (Annu Kapoor) ones are easily the best. It helps, of course, that all three actors are excellent in their respective roles, especially Khan, who is handed one of the rare characters in the history of mainstream Bollywood with an affinity for S&M. Thankfully, he has the range to convey both the mystique of the poet that he portrays and the horror of the transformation he undergoes every night while he is in bed. Dyachenko is supremely entertaining, while Kapoor is appropriately disgusting. Bhardwaj is one of the rare directors who allows his actors brief moments of madness -- remember that fake shoot-out scene between Bhope and Mikhail in Kaminey? Here we get only a few seconds of it, but Harish Khanna absolutely kills in his mimicry of a mad dog!
4. Are we supposed to take the six husbands and their murders literally? I'm not so sure, and I have more than a sneaking suspicion that there is a lot of metaphor at play here. Almost all of them are stereotypes and each one of them seems to have a character flaw of his own. Are these individual problems supposed to be viewed as a representation of masculinity as a whole? Is Susanna merely killing these husbands or is she trying to get rid of these traits from all men? Is it simply a quest for Susanna to find the right soul mate, one without flaws, a quest which eventually leads her to her seventh husband?
5. Despite all the flaws (the scene which plays as the end credits roll is an epic misstep), few directors are capable of understanding the aesthetics of filmmaking the way Bhardwaj does. He may always be adapting from literary works, but he understands that cinema is a wholly different medium -- both visually and aurally, the film is superb. That cut from the menacing night to the white cat in snow will easily rank among the best shots of the year (and how about that splash of blood in the opening sequence for an unforgettable image!). The background score seems to have a life of its own (as was the case with Kaminey's sensational score), and at least two of Bhardwaj's songs are exceptional. As a director, he may not have been able to make everything work together in the end, but he absolutely nails the mood and tone of individual plotlines.
6. I'm still stumped regarding the use of actual historical events in the background during the course of the film. If this was just a novel way to convey the timeline, it seems unnecessary and if it has a deeper meaning or subtext, it hasn't been revealed to me after two full viewings. Any thoughts would be welcome.
7. Which brings us to the big question, of course: The seventh crime. We know that her seventh "husband" is Jesus, as we see Susanna becoming a nun at the end of the film and accepting Jesus as the only man in her life. The scene which immediately follows shows her confessing her "seven crimes" -- a number of possibilities have come up in discussions and I think two of these can be easily dismissed: It's definitely not Aunt Maggie's death (too literal) and it's certainly not the murder of the dog (too ridiculous). There are two that make enough sense to be equally possible. The first theory suggests that perhaps Susanna is referring to her own metaphorical "murder", where she kills her old self and accepts her new life as a nun. We also see Arun mentioning this to his wife in the last scene ("She is dead for ever"). My own reading of the film makes me believe more in the second theory: that the seventh crime is actually the crucifixion of Christ. As a nun, Susanna realizes that Jesus died for our sins and that all human beings are responsible for his death. It seems to be more in keeping with her constant search for God throughout the film, right from the first marriage and indicates, perhaps, that she has finally realized the gravity of sins committed by her during her life.