Jatt and Juliet is the first Punjabi movie I started, and the first Punjabi movie I ended, but there was a 5 year gap in the middle there. I rented it right when it first came out, after hearing all the buzz about how it was setting records and breaking out of the regional market. And then somehow I just didn’t get into it, and I turned it off half way. But I re-started it last night, and made it all the way to the end, and turns out, I love it!
A while back, I wrote about how certain rom-coms have this wonderful ability to show the relationship built from the ground up, two people growing and changing together until they meet in the middle. DDLJ, obviously. But also Jab We Met, Socha Na Tha, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, and a handful of others.
A big tip off for when you are in that kind of romance, is when the two characters are introduced separately and seem to have nothing in common and will never work as a couple. 90% of the time, that just means the characters will have a big love song moment later and suddenly be in love out of nowhere. But 10% of the time, it means that the film will very slowly inch them closer, until coming together just makes sense.
(Love Dil, but that romance really came on suddenly, didn’t it?)
I, unfortunately, did not realize that Jatt and Juliet was going to be the 10% kind of movie the first time I watched it. All the way to intermission, it kind of looked like it would be just a series of unconnected humorous incidents, mostly a comedy film, and then at the last minute our spicy hero and heroine would suddenly be in love. Which is why I stopped watching it 5 years ago. Well, that and because the white character was so awful!
I don’t mean awful like “evil”, just a very unrealistic take on a young north American woman, played by a truly terrible actress. Since the main plot of the film (at the 40 minute mark) appeared to be running a scam on this supremely unpleasant to watch person, I decided not to continue. Turns out, that was just like 25% of what was happening, and I would have known that if I just kept going!
(She made what’s-her-face from Lagaan look good, that’s how bad she was)
Setting aside the romance, the scam on the white woman was part of a bigger concept of male-female relationships which it took me a second to get used to. That is, that our “hero” was looking at marriage and who he would marry as a business proposition, that he was putting himself out there on the marriage market as a prize. Basically, he was being the “girl” in this situation.
I can’t tell from having seen just this one movie whether this is because of the dowry system and so on in the Punjab, which makes a good groom into a hugely desirable object, someone who just waits around to be sold to the highest bidder, or if it is because of this particular situation in which he is selling himself for a green card. But either way, it meant that our white young woman character actually had all the power in this case, and therefore it was okay for our hero to scam her a little. At least, that’s how I am excusing it. Another possible excuse for it is that the whole movie is just joke so it doesn’t matter, but that doesn’t really fly, because the rest of the movie had some real emotions in it that weren’t a joke at all.
Right, the real emotions! Which means I also have to talk about the real plot! So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Like I said, the whole first half feels like just a straight up comedy as we watch our hero and heroine run a variety of scams and deal with an assortment of issues. The only loose connection between everything that happens is that our hero and heroine are both trying to get to, and then stay in, Canada. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of concern with character development or relationships or long term conflicts.
Diljit is a farm boy who dreams of going to Canada and becoming rich and marrying a white girl. So, kind of shallow. And also kind of smart-but-not-intelligent. He can’t speak English, but he can figure out a way to scam someone else into filling out his English form for him.
Which is how he meets our heroine, Neeru Bajwa! By telling her he hurt his hand and needs her to fill out his form. She doesn’t believe him at first, finally falls for it, and then sees through it pretty quick, but has already filled out his form. It doesn’t feel like she is a born sucker, more like this is one of the few times someone has been able to trick her.
Although, she is maybe a little bit intelligent-but-not-smart. Or maybe smart-but-unaware? Before she meets Diljit, she is introduced packing for her trip to Canada and working around her mother’s objections to her packing jeans and more Western clothes instead of modest attire, and various reasons that she shouldn’t go to Canada at all since she is getting married soon so it is pointless. Even if at this point she is telling her parents, and herself, that she just wants to go to Canada to study and will be completely happy to come home and get married right after, pretty sure that the audience is supposed to pick up that she isn’t exactly the type to fit into the “good traditional Punjabi girl” role, what with the big eagerness to live overseas for a while and wear t-shirts and jeans.
Plus, she scams someone just as quickly and easily as Diljit does, helping an old woman hitchhike by doing a bait-and-switch with herself as the bait. What I love about this bit is that we immediately see that she is a different kind of heroine, not ashamed of her attractiveness to the opposite sex and not afraid to use it. But also not overly interested in exploiting it, she doesn’t want a bunch of compliments or anything, she just wants them to do what she wants them to do and then get on with her life.
Anyway, of course, they end up sitting next to each other on the plane. But there is no big layover romance, ala Chalte Chalte or Hum-Tum, they just continue to dislike each other. Oh, that’s another thing I liked! Neeru is inarguably attractive, and aware that she is attractive. And Diljit is aware that she is attractive too. But there is never a sense that her appearance has over-whelmed his ability to see her as a person as well. In fact, it is kind of nice that he dislikes her so much, it just means he is paying more attention to her mind (which he doesn’t like) than her body (which he does).
(I don’t understand these songs. If I just got off an international flight, all I want to do is stretch out my legs, eat carbs, and sleep. Not go on an epic song and dance journey through the city)
After arriving in Canada, they both run into problems. Diljit almost goes to the wrong address and loses his job, plus the only job he can get is working in the kitchen at an Indian restaurant. Love this bit, by the way. The restaurant totally looks like a real Indian restaurant. Not the fake fancy hotel expensive type places you usually see in movies. I mean, there are some restaurants that look like that, but there are a lot more that are just storefronts in strip malls out in the suburbs, and I love seeing something like that onscreen.
Meanwhile, Neeru with her wealthier family and greater sort of professional sense and planning has plenty of money saved up to rent a place and support herself. Only, she doesn’t have as much street smarts, so she ends up having the whole wad of cash stolen and is just as desperate for a cheap place to stay as Diljit.
Which is how they end up sharing a rented suite in the house of a Punjabi woman who married a Canadian. Which is also how they meet that poor terrible actress white lady, their landlady’s stepdaughter. And, when they get behind in the rent, Neeru is the one to come up with the idea that Diljit could romance the daughter in order to get them rent forgiveness.
Before I talk about that though, I need to talk about the Bechdel test. Do you know about this? It’s from a cartoon by Allison Bechdel (see below). It’s a pretty simple test for whether films have well-rounded female characters.
Most Indian films very much DO NOT pass this test. Which doesn’t mean they necessarily have weak female characters, or are anti-feminist, but it also doesn’t mean that they are. A big part of it, for Indian films, is that the films need to reflect society. And in Indian society, getting married, and therefore talking about men, is a huge part of life for women. I’m not even talking about the “ooo, your fiancee is so cute!” conversations in romances, but the aunties talking to the mothers about potential grooms, planning weddings, talking about who their son should marry, all of that would fail the Bechdel test. But is also an accurate representation of life for a woman, so you don’t necessarily want to say it is “anti-feminist” for just showing reality.
Where the Bechdel test is useful is something like, well, Hum-Tum. Rani studies abroad, moves to Paris, opens her own successful business there, and then decides to move back to India. But the only conversations she ever has with her mother are about men. And the only time she seems to talk to someone besides her mother, it is Saif, a boy. Which doesn’t mean that Hum-Tum is a bad movie, or Rani’s character in it is weak, it just means that it doesn’t have the most rounded female character.
Anyway, Jatt and Juliet passes the Bechdel test with flying colors! Neeru is introduced talking to her parents about why she wants to study in Canada. Yes, part of that conversation is about her fiance, but he is just one of many issues. Once she arrives in Canada, she looks for housing, makes friends at school and, later, finds work. All without talking about, or with, a man.
Even better, this part of the film where Diljit and Neeru are mostly pursuing their own thing, also gives us plenty of non-Reverse Bechdel conversations. That is such a confusing statement. What I mean is, there are very few conversations between two male characters NOT about a woman. Diljit’s landlady is a woman, he works for a woman, he talks to his father about his mother, he talks to his friends about his romantic prospects (going back to that gender reversal where marriage is the biggest thing on their minds). And, of course, he talks to Neeru about another woman, the landlady’s white daughter.
Again, we haven’t even gotten into the real romance part of the film yet. But we are building a firm foundation, seeing how Neeru is out in the world, what her behavior and expectations and beliefs are like. Seeing the same for Diljit, but with the addition of what his romantic expectations and dreams are. And, most importantly, seeing Diljit and Neeru communicate about those romantic expectations. The “romance” with the white landlady’s daughter is not Diljit set against the women of the world, running a scam on them all; this is Diljit and Neeru working together to scam one particular woman, and Neeru getting a very clear idea of his expectations and attitudes.
Can I take a moment here and talk about how much I like Diljit and Neeru as individual characters/actors? Diljit, for one thing, so handsome! I know it is euro-centric of me, but he is just so tall! They are all so tall! Even the father actors and comic relief characters, nice tall well-built men! It’s like a whole world of Dharmendras! And at the same time, Diljit isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself. He provides his own comic relief, he’s not just the perfect hero all the time. Kind of reminded me of Akshay in that way.
And for Neeru, loved her look! And she actually is Canadian in real life! Which is cool. And maybe that is why her look is so good? Maybe it’s not just a Punjabi actress thing, but her in particular? I mean, what I liked about it is that she dressed and did her make-up and acted like the desis I went to school with. Not the super traditional “good girl”, with the big kohl on the eyes and the salwars (like Kajol in the second half of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai); but also not the super sexy Westernized type with the mini-mini skirts and tiny tank tops and crazy pink lips (like Rani in the first half of K2H2). She wears jeans and knit tops, has her hair long but styled, and wears mascara and normal lipstick, like anyone else. Like I said before, there was a strong sense that she knew how attractive she was and didn’t mind showing it, but she wasn’t obsessed with it either, and she didn’t think just being pretty was enough to get her through life.
(See how tall he is! And how confident and awesome with good make-up she is!)
I loved that she wanted to make it on her own and finish her Canada program, even when things went wrong. That she never had a moment of breaking down in tears or begging for help from someone. That self-pity just plain wasn’t part of her personality. Anyway, all of that is in the first half, and it is nice, but it didn’t feel really remarkable until we got to the second half, which is when the romance kicks into gear.
There really isn’t a lot to do to make the romance blossom in the second half. Really, they just had the two characters spend even more time together. That’s it. No big moment when something changed, no huge contrivance to throw them together romantically. They both lose the apartment, Neeru finds another place to stay with the help of her new friend from school, but needs a job to help pay rent. So she starts working at the rival restaurant to where Diljit works. Both restaurants are about to lose their bank loan, so Neeru and Diljit work together to bring the owners back together, and then actually work together in the kitchen helping to run the restaurants. There are nice moments along the way, he borrows salt from her kitchen, she asks his help locking up, they bump into each other at temple. But nothing that is strictly speaking romantic. It’s just people spending time together and getting to know each other better.
The Canada setting is also super important for this bit, because they are both cut off from their usual friends and family and place in society. Neeru is able to reveal her independence and self-reliance more than would be apparent to someone who just knew her back in India, living in her parents’ house. Diljit is able to reveal his fragility and need more than he would back in India, where he is constantly bragging to his friends and family. It’s the magic of a vacation romance, but more so because they are dealing with real problems, not just vacation life. It’s the same effect Aditya Chopra managed in DDLJ by having the vacation go wrong and forcing Shahrukh and Kajol off into their own world where they were tested as a couple. Or what Anil Sharma managed in a much darker way in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha by setting his romance within the Partition riots.
I can’t even point to one particular turning point in their relationship, but by the time it peaks, when Neeru falls in the kitchen and Diljit has to help her home, I was 100% convinced that this couple was in love. I knew Diljit was going to insist on helping her home, and she would resist but eventually give in, and that there would be awkward glances and sighs when they touched, all of that. Without the film needing to spell it out for me in a big “I love you!” scene. Because all their other interactions did such a good job of setting it up that of course they loved each other.
And then the ending is just plain fun. Of course, she is going to go back to India to get married. Of course, Diljit is going to finally realize his feelings at the last minute and fly home to stop the wedding. I was touched when the restaurant owner couple told him to go bring her home, and he took their blessings as he went, that bit surprised me. They didn’t need to put it in, but it was a lovely little coda to the Canada section, showing how immigrants build their own families and stick together no matter what, a little moment of the depth under the comedy.
I always appreciate it when they do something a little different with the “rush to the wedding” scenes. Not “different” like Kyun Ho Gaya Na, that twist always makes me want to throw something at the TV because it is RIDICULOUS! But just a little different, without undercutting all the emotional lead up to the wedding scene, like in Neal ‘n Nikki, or Lajja. Having all that build up, then him going to the wrong wedding, followed by arriving at the right wedding “too late”, and finally the reveal that the groom was in love with and married someone else too, that was all very nicely done. Also, he bumped into the groom at the movies, so we got to see a bit of Don too!
(More turbans! And this song has a little bit of foreshadowing for the twist in the climax)
And then my favorite joke of the whole movie, he can’t get to her because her house has too many balconies and they keep popping out on separate ones. Ha! It’s both a great sight gag, and a nice little nod to the “Juliet” in the title, what with the whole “balcony scene” thing from Romeo and Juliet.
Anyway, I really liked it is what I am saying. And I assume Jatt and Juliet 2 is not a “sequel” in the traditional sense, but just another movie with a similar tone? If so, excellent! I will watch it also!