A visual tour de force, Abhishek Kapoor?s exquisitely crafted Fitoor holds on to the soul of Great Expectations and imbues it with the spirit of Bollywood without letting the essence of one dilute that of the other.
But that is not to say that Fitoor is an unblemished miracle. It isn?t.
Halfway into the first half, an impressed art impresario lauds the male protagonist?s work, but she hastens to tell him that it needs ?presentation, scale and context?.
Fitoor ticks the first two boxes emphatically. It is packaged brilliantly. It also has epic sweep. But in respect of context, it falls well shy of perfection.
The screenplay sets the classic Dickensian tale in captivating Kashmir but is unable to justify the choice of location beyond projecting the hauntingly desirable heroine as a metaphor for a paradise torn between conflicting forces.
Despite that failing, Fitoor succeeds in turning a literary classic into a contemporary cinematic feast for the eyes and the senses.
It alternates between the dark and shadowy and the bright and painterly as it captures the many moods of nature in Kashmir.
The timeless plot of an orphan who makes it big thanks to a mysterious benefactor is, of course, too well known to deliver surprises. It is the treatment that holds the key.
The script (Supratik Sen and Abhishek Kapoor) puts just enough spin on the familiar tale, especially in the second half, to keep the audience guessing.
Like the book that it is loosely based on, Fitoor is a first-person narrative by the male protagonist, Noor (Aditya Roy Kapur).
He is an impoverished, artistically inclined Kashmiri boy whose life takes a dramatic turn when an aristocratic spinster Begum Hazrat Jaan (Tabu), who has scores to settle with the world, employs him in her household.
But Noor?s journey from his humble background to the imposing mansion, and thence to the pinnacle of the art world, is just as much about his growing obsession with the Begum?s daughter Firdaus (Katrina Kaif).
An air of foreboding hangs over the story right from the outset. In the very first line of Noor?s narration invokes doomsday.
?Qayamat bhi kya cheez hai,? he declares and takes the audience back a decade and a half to reveal the circumstances in which he met Firdaus.
Noor loses a dear one in a bomb blast ? and this is by far the most disturbing sequence in the film. It is bound to catch the audience by surprise.
At one point in the film, the hero admits to the girl he loves that he felt an explosion of bombs over his head the first time he set eyes on her.
Violence is all around Noor. Both the physical space he inhabits ? it is often in the grip of severe winter ? and the analogies he uses reflect his preoccupation with the harsh realities of his life.
Ruddy chinar leaves become the leitmotif of his art and his unattainable beloved turns into his muse. It is her life-affirming face that begin to dominate his canvases.
Noor is hopelessly smitten by Firdaus, but the latter has other ideas. It is her own sense of where she belongs and the exhortations of her antsy ammi that stop her from reciprocating the hero?s love.
Fitoor is much more an ode to love, longing and loss than just another boy-meets-girl romance propped up by routine narrative tropes.
Its stress is squarely on the toll that time and destiny take on lives. It offers views of the past and present, and even stray allusions to the future, in its portrayal of desire and rejection.
The Valley?s woes only tangentially mirror the turmoil inherent in the meetings and partings of the lovers.
Fitoor benefits immensely from its strong literary feel enhanced by solid, assured storytelling.
What is most admirable is the manner in which the film sticks to its chosen tenor ? marked by controlled and effective drama ? right until the very end.
The director extracts a dazzling performance from the star of the show ? Tabu as Begum Hazrat Jaan.
This figure is a reworking, and elaborate extension, of Charles Dickens? Miss Havisham, a character that has been played on the big screen by the likes of Anne Bancroft and Helena Bonham Carter.
Tabu makes the moody Begum her very own, interpreting the volatile character?s gradual descent into insanity with a superb sense of balance.
Not a step she takes nor a gesture she makes is out of place.
The lead pair of Aditya Roy Kapur and Katrina Kaif might seem at times to pale a touch in comparison.
But overall, both Aditya and Katrina stay within their limitations and match Tabu?s intensity in the crucial scenes of the film.
Do not expect great momentum from Fitoor. It has its share of slow-moving passages.
Instead of taking anything away from the drama, these sluggish moments, more often than not, are mood-enhancing.
Fitoor gives Firdaus a Pakistani suitor (played by Rahul Bhat, in a special appearance), and ?doodh maangoge toh kheer denge/Kashmir maangoge toh cheer denge? creeps into the story without much apparent logic.
In another scene, Noor declares that politics and art can never be separated. But the film shows no further inclination to take the story beyond the particular and into the universal.
But these are but minor hiccups in what is a highly watchable film shot with impressive flair by cinematographer Anay Goswamy.
Both the editing (Deepa Bhatia) and the production design are also of the highest order.
Lyricist Swanand Kirkire and music composer Amit Trivedi combine to deliver wonderful numbers. The director uses the songs imaginatively to heighten emotions, and not as routine set pieces.
There is so much to admire in Fitoor that it is easy not to be put off by its ponderous pace and lack of contextual detailing.
Go for it because there might not be too many better films than Fitoor this year.