Friday, March 25, 2016

Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921)—Of Family

After giving us the wonderful Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, Shakun Batra comes with his second offing, Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921), which is even more delightful than his first film. Set in the quiet Coonoor, the story is about the Kapoors. Ex-army man Dadu (Rishi Kapoor) lives with his son Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) and daughter-in-law Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah). The couple has two sons. Rahul (Fawad Khan), the elder child, is a successful writer based in London. Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra), the younger one, is a struggling writer, who works as a bartender in New Jersey. Dadu suffers a heart attack, and the two brothers visit the family. However, the family is struggling through not only a financial crisis, but also a relationship crisis among themselves, due to unresolved differences and deep secrets, that threatens to rock the very foundation of their family. In an interview, Shakun, who calls himself a 'Woody, Wes and Wilder Fan' in his Twitter bio, says he loves Hannah and Her Sisters and reunion films, which are loaded with secrets from the past, and what happens to these unresolved issues when they resurface. He takes inspiration from his favorite films and gives us an incredibly heartfelt, and deeply poignant tale on family, and human relationships. 

Shakun, further adds, "But what if I wanted to go big in depth, character and psyche? I wanted to go where the story was more important than the gloss, glamour, and scale. I was not a hundred percent satisfied with Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu. I was sincere, but the film lacked maturity."  I was a bit surprised by the statement because I felt his first film was a much mature film. In another interview with The Boss Dialogues, Ayan Mukerji had said that he liked his second movie Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani more than Wake Up Sid. It is interesting to see the self-reflection by directors on their films, contrary to expectations and opinion. Nevertheless, without digressing, Kapoor Sons definitely has the same common shades as Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu. In fact, the lead character is Rahul, and even the family is named Kapoor in both films. Both the films deal with children having issues with the expectations of parents. The 'perfectly average' Rahul in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, who felt like a loser, where on coming second in a competition his parents admonished him that he did not win a silver medal, but rather he lost a gold medal, finds resonance in Arjun in Kapoor Sons, who felt like a runner-up, and second-best all his life. Ratna Pathak Shah plays the mother in both films. The cheerful Riana in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, affectionately called Ri, carries much deeper wounds in herself where she could not become a ballet dancer. The effervescent Tia in Kapoor Sons affectionately called Ti, dealt with her own grief of losing her parents. It is only befitting that the successor of Ri, played by Kareena Kapoor, is Ti, played Alia Bhatt, who has been popularly called the new Kareena Kapoor. The lovable granny in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu and the equally lovable Dadu in Kapoor Sons have the same traits. Both the films had a Kuch Kuch Hota Hai reference at some point, and like Karan Johar's second film, it's-all-about-loving-your-parents Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Shakun Batra's second film incorporates a message on the same theme. His second film has not only gone big in depth, character, and psyche but also big on emotions.
The shadow of death looms everywhere in the film, but in addition to death, the film underscores the characters' wish to leave a memory, and their ability to hold onto those memories. Death is certain and reminds us of our mortality, but memories are immortal. Dadu does not want to be cremated after death, rather he wants to be buried, in a way leaving behind a place to visit him after his death. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film happens when Arjun and Tia are on a date in a graveyard, a place where the last remains and the last memories of people are buried. When Tia asks Arjun what he would like to be written on his tombstone, he says, "Aakhri baar likh raha hun, ho sake to kahaani yaad rakhna." He is writing the last time, so, if possible, try to remember his story. Tia is stunned at his perceptiveness that for a minute, she does not say anything. I had expected that he would say something funny like Phoebe in Friends said that hers would read buried alive, but Arjun says such a beautiful line, again hinting at memories after death. A writer continues to live in his works, long after he is gone, and the fact that Rahul and Arjun are writers, it points to this theme of leaving a story and remembering them through that story. Tia, too, clearly remembers the last time she spoke to her parents, and she regrets that she could not say goodbye to her parents. All through these years, she has also held onto her heritage house, and never sold it.
The film is infused with family photographs, that are also a reminder of the memories. Dadu's dying wish is to have a picture clicked with his entire family. The family bonds with each other while singing Chand Si Mehbooba and looking over old photographs, that help them discover the good times of the past. At one point, Harsh is looking at the pictures of his honeymoon and says that they were in Gulmarg, but Sunita corrects him that it was Sonmarg. He, then, remembers the time he had to placate Sunita. The first thing that Rahul and Arjun do when they go into their rooms, is to look at their old things; Arjun is disappointed that his room is not kept the way he left (like another Friends episode where all of Monica's stuff is destroyed in the rain, while Ross' is safe). In many scenes, Arjun clicks pictures from his cellphone. He clicks Rahul's picture when he is smoking; later, when Rahul bangs the car, he poses to get his picture clicked as if that too is a memory worth remembering. No surprise that Arjun's friend is a photographer. Later, Rahul is looking at the pictures on the wall of the house. In a later scene, Arjun also looks at Tia's house, which is full of her pictures with her parents. After Harsh's death, a life-size cutout takes his place in the family picture, quite symbolic that he might have gone, but his presence in their life is eternal, and his cutout picture epitomizes this presence. There is another touching scene in the film where Sunita caresses Harsh's pillow and his clothes after his death. Whether it is a pack of sweet cigarettes of Tia, or a bunch of Barely Legal adult magazines of Arjun, or the number of times that Dadu remembers he has watched Ram Teri Ganga Maili, these people hold on to every memory of theirs. Un yaadon ko main sau crore ke liye bhi na bechu. Nostalgia is a significant part of their lives, and the thing about nostalgia is it makes one feel young and old at the same time. As the ever-so-wonderful Haruki Murakami writes, "People's memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn't matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They're all just fuel." Likewise, the memories they carry are an important part of the lives of these people.
At one point, Rahul says that everyone is scared of something or the other. Tia says that she is scared of flying, while Rahul says that he is scared of rats. Later, we find out the reason as to why she felt scared because she lost her parents in an air crash and she did not even have the chance to say one last goodbye to them. It is because of the traumatic experience that left a scar on her that she is still afraid of flying. But we also get an idea as to why Rahul is scared of rats. He carries a deep secret within himself and he is trying to hide that secret from his family, and since characters in the film have a disposition similar to those belonging to an English film, Rahul's fear of rats could be surmised to the fear of someone 'ratting' him out of his secret.
A thesis can be written on the changing portrayal of homosexuality in a Dharma Productions film. Films, such as Kal Ho Naa Ho and Dostana, depicted a stereotypical portrayal of alternate sexuality. Although it was a caricature with none of the real characters actually gay, the films have been landmark because they helped bring the conversation of a taboo topic to the mainstream. I remember reading somewhere that the Kanta Ben gag in Kal Ho Naa Ho helped many gay men explain to their parents the truth about themselves. In Student of the Year, the school dean was gay, but more than the dean, there were very visible homoerotic tones in the two lead characters, Rohan and Abhimanyu. In other films of Dharma Productions, such as Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania and Shaandaar, there were again references to homosexuality, particularly, in the latter, where the coming out of a character was almost a non-event because everyone in his family already knew about his sexuality. However, Kapoor Sons portrays homosexuality in a beautiful way; there are no caricatures, there are no stereotypes. It is befitting that Rahul—the lead character and the poster lover boy of many a staple romantic movie, from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham—plays another role of a lover boy, but this time, he is in a relationship with another man. If Rahul can romance all the ladies, it is only natural, that Rahul can love a man. None of the three reigning Khans, who can make the entire film industry dance to their tunes, or, for that matter, any mainstream actor, has done a role of a homosexual, but as if it is some kind of poetic justice, that another reigning Khan, named Fawad, from a supposedly conservative country, does a role, such as this one, with such confidence and aplomb. The word Fawad means heart, and, is also referred to as someone who keeps his love to himself yet loves enormously. As they say, things don't happen by accident, they happen for a reason. Destiny loves to play its games.
There was something about the inherent loneliness of Rahul that made me care for him. It is not that he did not try to tell the truth about himself to his family. Earlier, when he came from London, he tells his mother to come and visit him so that she can see with whom he stays. Main kis tarah rehta hun, more importantly, kis ke saath rehta hun. It was his first hint to tell his mother, but she immediately started pestering him for grandchildren. He tells Arjun that he will take his place in one second because he cannot change something about himself. When he tries to tell to Arjun while talking on their bed, Arjun is already asleep. Ek baat batau Arjun jo maine kisi ko nahi batai. His family members either don't hear him, or don't see what he is trying to convey. When he tells his mother, he says, "Aapko mere jhoot bolna ka gham hai, ya meri asliyat ka. Lekin jo main hun uske liye main kis tarah maafi maang lu. Main perfect label ke bachhe se thak gaya hun." When he finally tells Arjun about it, Arjun replies that he does not know what to say to him. He says his whole life is a lie, and he does not expect anyone in the house will understand him. He is burdened by the expectations of being the perfect son of his mother. Thak gaya hun main apne aap se bhaag ke, aap se bhaag ke, logon ke dar se. I just want you to love me for who I am. In a beautiful touch, even the book he has written is titled Freedom Fall, as he wants to break free, and wants to be who he is. His coming out was the first step he took towards his freedom, and it was deeply moving. I wish I could read his book to know if his writing reflects his claustrophobia. In the end, his mother accepts him and even asks him about his friend. I hope Rahul finds the happiness that he really deserves. Fawad brings an abundance of grace to Rahul, and of course, a little bit of sweet Urdu accent always helps. I am now firmly in the I-Heart-Fawad Khan camp. Like the famous brother-sister Surf Excel ad of Daag Acche Hain, Rahul made me very protective of him, and I will fight for him. There are millions of people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, and I hope this would give some courage to people because in the end #LoveWins.
On the other hand, Arjun is the brother who always felt he was not good. He was never the favorite child of his parents. He, too, wants to be a writer like his elder brother, but he is not sure if he can be one. He wants to be a full-time author but is now a part-time bartender. He does not have enough money to book a ticket to India. He calls himself the second best and the runner-up. He came to terms that, perhaps, there is something missing in him. He never completed anything in life and moved from one thing to another. When he comes back from New Jersey, the things in his room are not the same while Rahul's room is maintained like before. When he leaves shoe marks on the floor, his mother asks if he made the mess as if he is the cause of everything messy. His favorite dishes are not made. Even the airlines lose his baggage. Arjun thinks he is an underachiever and is diffident. In this way, Arjun was very much like Rahul from Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu. Rahul felt like a loser and a failure. He thinks that life's problems are dumped onto him. When he breaks off with his girlfriend, he thinks that the problem might be with himself. At one point, in that film, Rianna tells Rahul that he is perfectly average, so he should feel good about it. There are some characters that have stayed with me over the years, such as Rahul from Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, and Sid and Deepa from Dil Chahta Hai. Rahul from Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu is one of the characters that I have seen closest to myself on the screen. Likewise, I saw a bit of myself in both Rahul and Arjun from Kapoor Sons. The wish to be a writer, the burden of expectations, the feeling of being a loser, the lack of self-confidence. And, yes, Arjun writes bakvaas Bollywood blogs, so that is one more common thing. I bawled like a baby in the last fifteen minutes, because sometimes, insecurities of your own life take over you. I am sure both Rahul and Arjun will stay with me for years to come.
There is a lovely scene in the film where one of the pipes in the family's washroom starts leaking. A plumber is called to fix the leaking pipes and put M-Seal. The family is constantly fighting among themselves in the scene, and the characters keep rushing to the bathroom to help the plumber fix it. The leak was so much about the family itself, with a bucket full of secrets now starting to overflow. They brushed away the leak for too long but it has now reached a tipping point, and the family needs to deal with it. They are all looking for a means to closure. The father has to end the burden of the loan, but also find a way to end his secret extramarital affair. The mother has to deal with the closure of a secret that can threaten the relationship between her sons, and also find a way to move on to pursue a catering business rather than constantly bickering every day with her husband. The elder brother is looking for a way to 'fix' the ending of his book, by fixing the plot points, but he has also found a way to let his family gain acceptance of another secret about himself. The younger brother says he has not completed anything in his life, not even his graduation, and he, too, has to find an ending for his book to prove himself and make big, but he also has to deal with the fractious relationship with his brother, and his parents. After a happy night, Sunita and Harsh talk about being happy again. Everyone wants a happy ending, says Rahul. Vahi khushi kahaaniyon me talaash karte hain. There is no guarantee of a happy ending in real life, says Arjun. But to reach any end, there has to be some closure, and it can be reached through acceptance and redemption. In The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini writes, "There is a way to be good again." The Kapoors have taken steps towards redemption, and they will slowly find a way to be good again.

It is hard to write on Kapoor & Sons without using the word dysfunctional. Like it was hard to find a review of Finding Fanny without the word quirky. Dysfunctional families have been present in India since times immemorial. Even the greatest story ever told—The Mahabharata—is based on a dysfunctional family with feuding brothers. The mother Kunti had different levels of affection for her two sons, Karan and Arjun. In Kapoor & Sons, there is another pair of Karan and Arjun, with parents showing different levels of affection for one son over the other. Such families were always there, perhaps, it is just the frequency of such films, has been much higher recently. More than last year's family drama Dil Dhadakne Do, Kapoor & Sons reminded me of Piku. The constant bickering, the scatological jokes, the larger message, even some scenes are reminiscent of Piku a lot. At one point during the end, Rana says to Piku, "I am not saying tum galat ho. Maybe this is the way forward. Isi ko log development bolte hain. Par apni roots unko agar ukhad do, toh kya bachega." The roots is not only referring to the ancestral house but also our parents and grandparents. We can leave them and put them in old age homes, but Piku chose to stay with her father and did not abandon him. As Piku also says, if there was somebody else in her position, she would have done the same because we cannot judge parents. In Kapoor & Sons, during the ending moments, Dadu calls Rahul and Arjun and says that everyone makes mistakes, and whatever happens, one cannot abandon the family, like Piku's message. In an earlier moment in Piku, Rana helps 'fix' the water pump with Piku sitting next to him, and Budon giving them updates, "Dheere dheere aa raha hai," filled with metaphors. In Kapoor & Sons, too, the scene with the plumber, who is there to repair the leaking pipes, is also filled with metaphors. Sometimes, an outsider helps us provide a perspective.
Needless to say, the performances are excellent. Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah are excellent in their roles. Rishi Kapoor is also good, though his make-up felt a bit out of the place. (Is it some coincidence that two lead characters are actually Kapoor in real life?) Alia Bhatt is truly a pleasure to watch on screen. Sidharth Malhotra is competent and charming. Fawad Khan was the performance that worked the best for me. My favorite scenes were the ones between Arjun and Rahul, where they share a certain camaraderie and candor, like the way Rahul nudges his leg on Arjun's head, or the way Arjun makes fun of Rahul's driving skills.
I, totally, enjoyed Kar Gayi Chull, and it is such a catchy song. I laughed out loud at some subtitles. Anu Malik became Justin Bieber, Byomkesh became Sherlock, and Karan Arjun became Beavis Butt-head. But the best thing was the story itself where each character gets enough space to leave a mark, be it Boobly, or the plumber. Much has been written on the reason for choosing Coonoor, but I never felt it was out of the place for a Punjabi family, given that Harsh worked in a bank, it is quite common for bank officials to get transferred, perhaps, they made it their home. Or, perhaps, it has something to do with Dadu's Army background. I could not get the reason for 1921 though, considering Dadu is 90 years old, so he should have been born around 1926, but I am sure I might have missed something while watching it. I was curious as to how can Arjun work in the US as a bartender without having a full-time job. As far as I know, unless you are a citizen, one cannot work part-time unless, of course, he was working illegally. 
The film's final confrontational scene happens in the rain as if all the past sins of everybody were washed in that cathartic rain. All their secrets came out together in the manic downpour bringing a certain breathlessness with it. In the end, the photograph is taken in bright sunshine, as there is some atonement of the past, and there is some hope for the future. As Saathi Re's lyrics say "Phir wohi barsaat hogi, aur ashq saare dhul se jaayenge, roshni din raat hogi, aur sab jharokhe khul se jaayenge." The rainfall will happen again, and all the tears will get washed away. Light will be there all day and night, and all the windows will be open. 

Like any Dharma film, the film opens with a tribute to Karan Johar's father with the words, "We miss you." In the film, Dadu is in love with Mandakini from Ram Teri Ganga Maili, a film made by Rishi Kapoor's own father, as if that was another meta-Kapoor Sons. The film's message delivered by Dadu to his grandsons, that everyone makes mistakes but that does not mean that we abandon the people in our family. It means being there for them in both their high and low moments. We need to accept them with their flaws, because, how much we try, we cannot change our family. Blood is thicker than water. Like Wasim is always there for his brother Boobly to support him in his bodybuilding competition, however, silly it might look. Like Arjun learned the true value of family after the death of his father. Like Tia regrets saying those harsh words to her parents. Dead people receive more flowers than the living ones because regret is stronger than gratitude. As the beautiful title of Arjun's book says, We All Live In A Cloud. Sometimes, this cloud is dark giving away to a downpour; sometimes, this cloud is white like a cotton ball in the glorious sun, and occasionally, it will be both when there is the rain and the sun together, giving us a gorgeous rainbow with colors, much like the bittersweet shades of life itself.  

Other Reading: 
1. On Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (link)
2. On Piku (link)

Dialogue of the Day:-
"Aakhri baar likh raha hun, ho sake to kahaani yaad rakhna."
—Arjun, Kapoor Sons (Since 1921)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Paheli—Of Ghost And God

Amol Palekar's Paheli is a gorgeous film. It is based on a short story called Duvidha written by Vijayadan Detha. It has also been made into a film earlier by Mani Kaul. It is a story set in the deserts of Rajasthan. Lachchi (Rani Mukerji) gets married to Kisanlal (Shah Rukh Khan). Kisanlal is mousy and is afraid to speak his mind in front of his domineering father. On the first night after his wedding, Kisanlal does not consummate the marriage and tells Lachchi that he is leaving for pardes for five years. Lachchi, who had been looking forward to a blissful married life, is heartbroken when she learns this. However, after he leaves, a ghost who had been mesmerized by Lachchi's beauty comes back, taking the appearance of Kisanlal. Everyone thinks that Kisanlal has come back, but in reality, it is only a ghost. The ghost does not lie and tells Lachchi that he is not her husband but a ghost who has only taken the form of her husband, and she can ask him to leave if she does not want him to stay in her life. The film's title apparently reflects this paheli, though the word duvidha is more befitting as it means dilemma, while the word paheli means a riddle. Lachchi does not take much time to resolve this duvidha, and she readily accepts the ghost because, in her life, no one ever asked her wish, and here is a ghost who will only stay if she wants him to be. The one who took marriage vows to stay with her for seven years did not stay with her even for seven days, so she chose the ghost. Lachchi and the ghost Kisanlal lead a happy life without thinking of the future. But, eventually, the future becomes present in a few years, and the real Kisanlal returns, leading to another paheli where Kisanlal's family members and the villagers have to find the real Kisanlal. A gadariya (Amitabh Bachchan) solves this paheli to identify Kisanlal, leading to some interesting turn of events.
There is a lot to love in Paheli. The women in the film support each other, while the men try to put other men down. Throughout the film, the women in Lachchi's family support her, be it her friends, her sister-in-law, or her mother-in-law. When they find out that a ghost had fathered her child, they do not disown or ridicule her as is generally seen in such stories. Instead, they console her by saying that if they could not identify their own son, how can they expect that she would know it is a ghost. In the beginning moments of the film, Lachchi's friends are teasing her about her first night after the wedding. They sing to her to not give in to her husband's advances, but she tells them, "Jagne ki raat ayi hai, dekha karati thi sapana, sapane ko akhir apana, kehne ki raat aayi hai." She had dreamed of this night since long, and now, her dream is becoming a reality. That a bride, who is traditionally portrayed as demure and coy, is not shy to celebrate the upcoming consummating of her marriage is something that even films set in the modern era are hesitant to portray. The women want to enjoy life like Lachchi wants to eat a bunch of ber, while the men try to suppress their desires and run away. It is Lachchi who tells her husband to take her veil off on the wedding night, and she is the one who wants Kisanlal to make love to her, while he runs away, saying that it is not a good idea to ignite the passion for a single night. Kisanlal goes away the next day, unable to say no to his father. Likewise, Kisanlal's father's brother runs away when he loses a camel race, while his wife carries on with her life with strength, indeed, much more than her husband. The women even portray their anger in their own ways when the men do things they don't like, like Lachchi expresses her unhappiness by banging the plate when the ghost helps their family win a race through some tricks. In 2010, a gem of a film called Mirch was released and then forgotten. The screenplay involved three short stories, each set in ancient, medieval, and modern times. One story was based on a queen, played by Konkona Sen Sharma, who is married to a much older king, played by Prem Chopra. To get her sexual desires fulfilled, the queen dupes the king in a ridiculously hilarious fashion and makes love to another man in front of her husband. The other stories in Mirch had similar sexual themes of female desire. Sometimes, it makes me feel that over the years if our films have become more conservative. Stories set in ancient times were more liberal in their portrayal than those specified in today's time. Notably, another Rani film and one of my favorite films, Aiyyaa, talked about female desire and the female gaze. Likewise, Paheli, too, is an essential film in this regard that treats its women much ahead of time. 
At one point in the film, when the ghost and Lachchi make love, it rains heavily, and then a glorious rainbow appears. It is as if the parched desires of Lachchi have been fulfilled. Was the rain only in Lachchi's mind because Kisanlal's uncle wonders why was there such a noise, and the ghost replies that it was rain? The uncle wonders whether it rained in the desert or was it the effect of hallucinations of chillum. In one or two more such instances, the film makes us wonder if there is some paheli we need to figure out on our own. 
At another point in the film, Kisanlal asks the ghost about his real identity. The ghost replies, "Aurat ke dil me jo preet hove, vo hu main." He is the yearning that resides in a woman's heart. In the end, the ghost is trapped in the bag by the gadariya, but he manages to escape. In the original story Duvidha, the ghost is captured in the bag and is thrown away. The ghost is a metaphor for the woman's heart. In Duvidha, the woman goes back to her husband, and her wishes have been suppressed, but Paheli, changes that end and again makes the larger point of women having the ability to live with their desires. The ghost is an ideal 'man.' He respects Lachchi's wishes. He is madly in love with her. He never lies to her. He wants to help others. He helps build a well for the villagers (as Mohan Bhargava in Swades). He feels things and laughs uncontrollably when he is tickled. He wants a daughter and not a son. He thinks from his heart. He is absolutely perfect, but he is not human. On the other hand, Kisanlal thinks more from his mind and suppresses his desires. It is not that he does not love Lachchi, but he cannot express his love to her. He even thinks twice before writing a letter to her. There is a Freudian element to Kisanlal and the ghost. Kisanlal has the mind, and the ghost has a heart. In some ways, both of them complete each other. Hence, it is pretty interesting that they merge to become one person in the end. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Suri and Raj were the personas of Kisanlal and the ghost. Early in the film, Kisanlal's father tells Kisanlal that God is a businessman, like him. He keeps track of the breaths of living beings, the movement of the winds, and the count of stones on the earth. Kisanlal is always counted as a businessman; even on his wedding night, he remembers that he forgot to add the expenses of coconut. Later, the puppets tell us that even Gods have sinned in the past. Kisanlal is named after a God; thus, in the end, Kisanlal—the man—becomes a representation of God and the ghost. He acquires the characteristics of both of them and becomes a complete man. 
The one other thing that constantly came to mind while watching Paheli was that it is similar to a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. Paheli was released in 2005, and till then, Sanjay Leela Bhansali had made four films—Khamoshi, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, and Black. However, some of the scenes in Paheli are reminiscent of Bhansali's films after 2005. There are vivid colors, lovely mirror images, flowing fountains, sublime top shots, and beautiful peacocks everywhere in the background—all signature elements of a Bhansali film. However, the scale is not as grand as in a Bhansali film.
Top Shots
The puppets were fabulous, as if giving action to the famous line from Anand, "Hum sab to rangmanch ki kathputliyan hain jiski dor us upar wale ke haathon main hai. Kab, kaun kahan uthega ye koi nahin jaanta." Instead of humans depicting stories through puppets, we see puppets showing through humans. Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah voice the puppets and bring a context to the proceedings as the sutradhaars. At an earlier point, the puppets say that, generally, a ghost enters a man, but it is the first time, when an insaan has entered into a ghost, referring to that Lachchi has entered into the ghost's mind. Traditionally, a ghost is portrayed as a blood-sucking demon. Still, this ghost is not a vampire but a good Samaritan; more importantly, it has qualities even better than a human. The film never adheres to some of these clichĂ©s and veers away from the stereotypes.
Rani and Shah Rukh deliver terrific performances. Rani as Lachchi is lovely. There are so many close-up shots of Rani's eyes, and she conveys a lot through her kohl-lined eyes. Seeing any Rani film makes me realize how much I miss seeing her in films. Rani as Lachchi is another great feminist role in her envious filmography. Lachchi makes us ask questions about the meaning of marriage. Is your husband only a man with whom you take the seven vows, or is he a man with whom you share every detail of your life? Shah Rukh brings the contrast between Kisanlal and the ghost really well. There are apparent differences in the personalities of Kisanlal and the ghost, and Shah Rukh executes them excellently. It is one of the classic romantic roles that he is known for. Juhi Chawla as Gajrobai delivers such a terrific performance in a short role. It felt odd to see Juhi, who has been paired opposite Shah Rukh as a lead in many films, play a role quite elder to Shah Rukh. There is a lovely scene when she is breaking the cotton, and Lachchi comes and tells her to come to the temple, but she says how can she wish for someone to come back who has gone of his own volition. Juhi conveys the loneliness of a woman whose husband has run away beautifully. She also understands the pain of solitude when Lachchi's husband leaves her the next day and thus, forms a bond with them based on their shared loneliness. And, not to forget, Rajpal Yadav as Bhoja is terrific. He gets completely in the skin of the character. 
One of my favorite books, Cuckold by Kiran Nagarkar, is based on the story of Meerabai's husband Maharaj Kumar, who is jealous of her wife's love for the blue flutist Krishna. He wants his wife to love him and not Krishna. The dilemma is that if his wife's paramour was a mortal, he could kill him. If he was a devil, he could exorcise her of one, but how does he fight a God. "You can exorcise the devil, but how do you rid yourself of a God." At one point, Maharaj Kumar dresses up as the blue flutist Krishna hoping to get some love from his wife. He says, "To combat a God, one must become one, or at least masquerade as one." This is what happens in Paheli. The ghost masquerades as the husband, and then he becomes the husband by merging with him. And, the interesting thing is that the protagonists in both Cuckold, and Paheli, are a human, and supernatural being, and both of them are related to Krishna in some way. Perhaps, this is another paheli that we need to solve on the strange cosmic connections that never cease to amaze us. 

Dialogue of the Day:
"Dhan insaan ke ke liye hai, ya insaan dhan ke liye."
Maharaj, Paheli

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.