Sachin Kundalkar's Aiyyaa is one of those films that make me feel happy just by thinking about it. I start laughing by myself when I recollect some of its scenes. The film has been universally ridiculed by one and all, but it is one of my all-time favorite films. It is a highly under-rated film. There is a lot to admire in Aiyyaa, and whenever I watch it, I see a new perspective.
Aiyyaa is the story of Meenaxi (Rani Mukherji). She is a Maharashtrian mulgi. She works at a college. Her family wants her to get married as soon as possible. She has a mother, a father, a brother, and a grandmother in her family. She has a heightened sense of smell, and is drawn to Surya (Prithviraj), a student studying arts. She follows him whenever he is around as she cannot take control of her senses in presence of the hypnotizing smell.
Rani Mukerji as Meenaxi is terrific. Meenaxi is a woman who wants to work so that she can buy her own small place where she can live by herself. The piles of garbage and its hideous smell is a metaphor for the suffocation she feels in her life. She wants to escape this. She does not want to do an arranged marriage as she thinks love is important before getting married to someone. It is a great feeling to see someone who is so madly in love with someone that she will go into uncharted territories to get her love. Whether it is the men's toilet, the red-light areas, or the dingy alleys of an industrial zone teeming with drunk men, Meenaxi tries to follow her heart. She would even go buy drugs in the middle of the night to prove that her lover is not a drug addict. Though sometimes, she does cross the boundaries like the time when she secretly goes to his room and steals his shirt and a photograph, which could be interpreted as stalking. Surya's smell provides her a relief from the garbage smell, and helps her understand and explore her deeper desires. Sometimes, one has ot fight to get their love, and she does every effort. She learns Tamil so that she can communicate better with him, and can tell him to keep the first button of his shirt open. She runs away from her engagement because she wants to spend her life with someone else. She wears his shirt just to feel closer to him, which I think is quite charming. She has unfettered belief in Surya that he does not take drugs. She says, "Gore nahi, mujhe kaale log pasand hai," which is not to say that she is racist; this was a satirical remark on Indian fascination for white skin. There is a terrific scene in the end when they both talk about how low percentage they got in Class 10th. The way she counts in Tamil and mixes Aiyyaa and Aiyyoo, the way she kisses his picture, the way she secretly blushes thinking about him, the way she smells his painting, the way she smells him, Meenaxi is endearing, you feel for her, and you want that she gets everything.
Meenaxi says that her favorite book is Alice In Wonderland, and that she has read it at least hundred times, and sometimes, she feels it is as if her own story. Aiyyaa is like Alice In Wonderland. Meenaxi is Alice. Meenaxi's wonderland is her dreamland where she keeps on going, where there is a lot of space for herself, and where there is no garbage, and everything smells beautifully. Mynah is the White Rabbit, who was always in a hurry as if on a stimulant. She also dresses as one later in one of the songs, and she keeps on drinking alcohol from her bottle Jumbo. Her father smokes four cigarettes at a time, and repairs old telephones and he is like the Caterpillar. Her grandmother, with golden teeth, who cannot see and yet can see everything is like the always grinning Cheshire Cat. As the Mad Hatter said to Alice, "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad," it is true for the film itself where every character is mad. All characters have their own idiosyncrasies. In fact, the board outside their house has 'Insaanon Se Saavdhaan' written on it. Like the iconic blue dress of Alice, most of the time Meenaxi is also dressed in blue color. During the end, Meenaxi's father says, "Is it a dream or reality?" which gives another indication of a wonderland. Recently, I went to listen to Salman Rushdie who said Alice In Wonderland is his favorite book. He made an excellent point on it and said that the book actually has many darker themes, more suited for adults. In some ways, Aiyyaa also has a much deeper theme as compared to being only a comedy film as it is touted. It talks about hidden desires of a woman. Two years ago, Vikas Bahl's Queen (link) also explored the theme of Alice In Wonderland, where Rani wore a sweatshirt that had 'Alice In Wonderland meets the White Rabbit' written on it. Queen also explored the hidden desires and dreams of a woman named Rani. It is funny how coincidences work sometimes. Both the films have a 'Rani' connection, too. Aiyyaa is an Indianized Alice In Wonderland.
Rani's other suitor is Madhav (Subodh Bhave). He is a wonderful, wonderful person, and certainly one of the best characters in the film. He is thoughtful, and as Meenaxi says, he is the first person who ever asked her opinion on how she feels about things. He loves movies of Farooq Sheikh and Deepti Naval, in which people communicate through eyes rather than through words. He has a poster of Chashme Buddoor in his room, and sings Tumko Dekha Toh Yeh Khayal Aaya. He maintains a garden of roses on the roof of his house. When he finds out that Meenaxi is in love with Surya, he takes her to her room, says nothing at all through his mouth, but says everything with his eyes, and gives her a hug. One can't help but feel absolutely sorry for him. But the wonderful thing is when Meenaxi patronizingly says that they will always be friends, he chides her that he does not want to hear these Rose Day-type dialogues, and he wishes her the best in life. I am sure he would get over her soon, and find someone who he truly deserves. He is a gem of a person. The film could have chosen the easier path, where Madhav could be one those silly boys who came to see her but he is genuinely nice and 'husband material'. Unlike for instance in Dil Chahta Hai, Shalini was engaged to Rohit, who was a possessive and a jealous boyfriend, but she loved Akash. The choice was clear from the beginning, and the film perhaps, chose the easier way given the unlikeability of Rohit's character. Madhav, though, will have to deal with heartbreak not because he is silly, it is just the way life works. The smell of his garden of roses is not sufficient to attract him to Meenaxi.
Baradwaj Rangan writes, "Is the film’s terrain not so much fantastic as Freudian, with id and ego represented by Suriya and Madhav, respectively the unconscious dark (and dark-complexioned) desire and the pull of practicality?" It is a fantastic point, but I tend to see Surya and Madhav as a statement on the two types of cinema—mainstream, and art house. Surya is like those Tamil commercial movies, with larger than life props, and men with perfect bodies. The song Dreamum Wakeupum is a reference to that kind of films. At one point, Meenaxi says Surya is like Guru Dutt, but once he will go out of college, he will become Aamir Khan. In contrast, Madhav is like the art house parallel films of Farooq Sheikh, where everything is communicated through eyes, there are no designer clothes, and what matters are feelings, like in his favorite film Chashme Baddoor. Men do not have perfect bodies. In fact, we do see Madhav's body when he is changing his clothes, and is nothing like Surya's brawn perfection. At one point, both Surya and Madhav are coming towards Meenaxi. Both of them carrying a bag, but in different styles, and both of them wearing clothes that reflect their personality. It is this dilemma that Meenaxi has to resolve, and just like in reality, where most commercial films win the box office and the popularity; here, too, Surya wins and Madhav is left to find someone else who wants him.
At one point in the film, Meenaxi sees Surya perched on a wooden pillar. He sits quietly, and is half-naked, wearing a pair of black shorts and a black vest. It is as if he is some kind of a statute. I was always confused by the meaning of the scene. The writers of Aiyyaa have said the film focuses on the female gaze. A female gaze is a cinematic trope where a work is presented as from a female perspective or reflects female attitudes. For instance, the song Dard-E-Disco in Om Shanti Om showed the chiselled body of Shahrukh Khan. In Aiyyaa, Surya is represented using a female gaze. He is objectified in the film's songs. Meenaxi imagines making love to his perfect body. We see the story from her viewpoint. It is, then, that this statue scene makes sense. We see Surya reading books by Michelangelo, and Raphael. Michelangelo's David is considered as an epitome of the perfect male human body. Surya sitting half-naked was perhaps a metaphor for Michelangelo's naked David, with Meenaxi able to see him as the object of her 'female gaze' here, and at many other places in the film. The concept of female gaze is also there in Mynah, also called as Gaga Bai, who is obsessed with John Abraham, and is not shy to talk about his body. It is, thus, entirely befitting that the film's major star is one of the top actresses, and the film's title credits open with her name.
Mynah in Pink Bunny Costume
Lijjat Papad and Pink Bunny
Lijjat Papad Commercial
Aga Bai has shades of Kama Sutra. It has great choreography. However, there are some scenes in it which are almost soft porn. There is a sequence where the Surya puts petrol in Meenaxi's bike, and it is so raunchy, that I start laughing. One has to see that sequence, but in all honesty, I did not mind it all. It is great fun, and when we are subjected to the most hideous skin shows, I quite enjoyed this song with double meanings. But again, there is nothing wrong in a woman enjoying her secret fantasies.
Sava Dollar is lavni-style dance, and Rani is again superb in it. The song is a great parody on the Bollywood. At one point, she is seen endorsing a range of products, from toothpaste to cement. And, the latest confirmation of one's status symbol in Bollywood is getting an invite on Koffee With Karan, which the song also shows. But my favorite song in the film is the delightful Mahek Bhi. Sung by Shreya Ghoshal, the song appears whenever Meenaxi thinks about Surya. I really like the lyrics, when it says, "Mahek bhi kahani sunati hai, sunlo agar. Hawaaon ke zariye batati hai, samjho agar." Even the fragrance tells a story, if you story, and it tells it though the winds, if you try to understand. It is so true, that there is a story in every smell.
I laughed out at Mynah's antics. She takes inspiration from Lady Gaga, whether it is her necklace of pen-drives, whether it is Armani and Gucci bags in Hindi, or her set of unreleased films, Anita Date is superb as Mynah.
There is a particular focus on the use of colors in the film, especially yellow and blue. There are books of Michelangelo, Raphael, Atul Dodiya, Sachin Khandekar, and a portrait of Dali. What is interesting is that Surya's specialization is 'Faces'. My favorite scene is the one when he is admiring her face from the back of a one-sided mirror. There is a Raja Ravi Verma reference,too, where Meenaxi's mom is standing in the same pose as Verma's painting next to her.
I was particularly intrigued by two things. In the dream sequences from Tezaab, Chaalbaaz, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, or later from Dil, Meenaxi always wears big sunglasses in them. Was that a way to help distinguish the dream from reality where we cannot see her eyes? This is interesting to note because her grandmother is always in sunglasses and as her father says, she cannot see anything, but yet she can see everything. Was wearing sunglasses a sort of indication? I am not sure. I also liked the use of blue colors in Surya's paintings, but as this explains, "Surya's canvases are always daubed with blue, almost as if to underline his hectic, angst-ridden world—student in the morning, struggling artist by day and supervisor of his late father's business at night."
Not only Alice In Wonderland, the film also shows Meenaxi reading famous Marathi author Prakash Narayan Sant's Zumbar. From whatever little Hindi text that is available, the book is about a kid named Lampan and his feelings and his thoughts, on the lines of R.K. Narayan's Malgudi Days. If only, I knew Marathi, I could understand better about it (link).
Isn't that Guneet Monga?
It is a remake of Sachin Khundalkar's national award winning Marathi film Gandha, a collection of three short stories connected by a sense of smell. The first story Lagnaachya Vayachi Mulgi, and Aiyyaa is a remake of that part. While the original film was praised, I feel this film has been unfairly panned. It has a lot to think and a lot to enjoy. I will be instantly friends with someone who loves Aiyyaa, and would go Wakda. We should form an Aiyyaa fan club.
Other recommended reading:
1. Link—A great article on the palette of colors in Aiyyaa.
2. Link—An excellent article of feminist themes in Aiyyaa; splendidly written.
Dialogue of the Day:
"Kaisi zaalim duniya hai, naa reality me jeene dete hai, na sapne me jaane dete hai."
P.S.—My friend M, who reads every post of mine, wants me to write that she is the most awesome person in the world. So, there it is, M. I wrote it :D