Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Alice(s) in Wonderland

At one point in Lenny Abrahamson's Room, Joy says to her son Jack, "You know how Alice wasn't always in Wonderland?" Jack replies, "She fell down down down the hole." Joy, then, compares herself to Alice, "Well, I'm like Alice. I wasn't always in Room." Written by Emma Donoghue, and based on her own novel of the same name, Room is the devastating story of Joy and Jack who have been kept kidnapped in a room by Old Nick for over seven years. Joy was abducted by Old Nick and routinely rapes her. Joy and Jack have no contact with the outside world, except a skylight window at the top of the room. Brie Larson won the Oscar for the best actress for her deeply moving portrayal of Joy in the film. After the nominations were announced, in an interview, Brie said, "I can't even believe it. I am just sitting here in complete and utter shock over all of this. I feel like I'm in a very bizarre Alice in Wonderland dream right now." It is interesting to note the use of Alice in two completely different situations, as if it life imitating art, or art imitating life. Over the years, Alice in Wonderland has become such an iconic symbol of pop culture, perhaps, as significant as Shakespearean classics. Numerous adaptations of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland have been made. Written by Lewis Carroll, the story has continued to enthrall adults and children alike, since it was first published in 1865. It is filled with literary, philosophical, and scientific themes, such as growing up, and identity crisis, among many others. Some have even speculated that is based on drugs. I wondered if there have been characters in Hindi cinema based on Alice. Although there is no adaptation of Alice's story, except an animated series that aired on India's government owned-channel in the nineties, recently, there have been a few films that used Alice's story as an important subtext for its lead characters. 

Vikas Bahl's Queen is a terrific story of Rani played by Kangana Ranaut who gets jilted by her fiancĂ© a day before their wedding. Heartbroken, she decides to go on her honeymoon alone to Paris and Amsterdam. It is there when is she on her own for the first time in her life, she comes of age and learns to let go of her past. At some point in the film, when Rani is in the hostel in Amsterdam, she is wearing a sweatshirt on which is written 'Alice in Wonderland meets the White Rabbit', as if telling us that Rani is indeed Alice. This is her wonderland where Rani, like Alice, has fallen down the rabbit hole. Like Alice, Rani meets many characters on her journey, who are completely different from her world. She meets Vijaylakshmi, a single unmarried mother who has copious amounts of sex with strangers. Rani, later, makes a trio of friends—Taka, Olexander, and Tim—each of them from a different country and even stays with them in the same room, completely unthinkable for her in her home. She meets Ruksar, an Urdu speaking girl working in the red light district of Amsterdam to make her ends meet. Rani also meets an owner of an Italian restaurant with whom she has her first lip-to-lip kiss. These people bring a new perspective to her, and teach her something about life. And, just as Alice in Wonderland dealt with the theme of identity and growing up, Rani discovers her own self while on her journey. She does not need a man who does not value her. She can lead her own life, and be happy. She has escaped from the cage and found her wings to fly. Jugni udi, naye naye par liye, O pinjara khol. 

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. Aiyyaa is the story of Meenaxi played splendidly by Rani Mukerji. Meenaxi is a typical Maharashtrian mulgi. Her family wants her to get married as soon as possible, although she wants to fall in love before getting married. She has a heightened sense of smell, and is drawn to Surya, a student studying arts in the same college where she worked. She follows him as if he is the Pied Piper whenever he is around as she cannot take control of her senses in presence of his hypnotizing smell. At one point in the film, Meenaxi tells us 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. If we think about it, Meenaxi is indeed Alice. Meenaxi's wonderland is her dreamland where she keeps going, where there is a lot of space for herself, where there is no garbage, and where everything smells beautifully. Her Lady Gaga-inspired friend Mynah is like the White Rabbit, who was always in a hurry as if on a stimulant. Later, Mynah also dresses as a bunny in one of the songs, and she keeps on drinking alcohol from her bottle Jumbo. Meenaxi's 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 blue dress of Alice, most of the time Meenaxi is also dressed in blue color. In the final moments of the film, Meenaxi's father asks if it is a dream or reality, which gives us another indication that perhaps this is some sort of a wonderland. 

In both Queen and Aiyya, the reference to Alice was explicit but there are other women of strength that can be likened to Alice. In Gauri Shinde's English Vinglish, an entrepreneurial housewife Shashi, played by Sridevi, is ridiculed by her husband and her daughter for her lack of English skills. She travels to America all alone, and enrolls herself in a class to learn English. America becomes her wonderland that provides her the freedom and the opportunity to learn English, and eventually, win the respect of her family. In Imtiaz Ali's Highway, Veera, played by Alia Bhatt, undertakes a spiritual journey to escape the sheer pretentiousness of the society that makes her feel so claustrophobic that she finds succor in a man who abducts her. She comes out from the shell and is amazed by this wonderland, where she can see feel the wind on her face, sleep under the sky, play with water, feel the plants, and simply be her own. In Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, based on a wedding in a family in Delhi, one of the beautiful side stories in the film involves the maid of the house Alice and the wedding planner Dubey Ji. Alice is dreamy like Alice In Wonderland and dreams of slipping into her mistress' shoes some day. As Lewis Caroll wrote, "Which way you ought to go depends on where you want to get to," here's hoping to see more Alices embarking on an adventurous journey and entering into uncharted territories, because for us, it will be our chance to see the wonderland through them.