I finally watched Patiala House, after missing it in theaters 5 years ago and never really getting around to seeing it since then. I was original watching it thinking it would be an interesting comparison with Sultan (both sports movies with Anushka), but it turned out to be so good that I wanted to give it a full post. Even though we are in the middle of Salman Sultan week and it might get kind of buried. Because, wow! This is a legitimately powerful movie!
Where to even start with this? I guess with the stuff that doesn’t work? What little of it there is. Which unfortunately just makes it stand out even more, because it feels so clunky in the middle of this really nicely done film.
One thing that doesn’t work is the perfect way every single person in Patiala House has a hidden dream. Sure, I can believe that the teenager has a white boyfriend, or that Hard Kaur’s character secretly dreams of becoming, well, Hard Kaur. But when we start going through “and I want to be a filmmaker!” “and I want to be a chef!”, it starts to feel a little contrived.
The ending also doesn’t work. At least, the big parts of the ending, some of the small character moments were still really nice. But a lot of it felt kind of like “well, it’s time to wrap up the movie, so suddenly we are going to make everyone come to a big realization. And it’s a Hindi film, so there had to be a big speech and a bunch of slow motion and meaningful callbacks”. But even if the ending as a whole was a little too easy, the smaller parts of it landed really well.
The ending also bothered me a little, because it kind of went too light after dealing with a lot of kind of serious things. So, the reverse of the complaint above. The ending-ending went too big and heavy and sudden, and then the part right after it, the sort of epilogue, went too short and light.
There were also a few story lines that it felt like they kind of dropped or ended too abruptly, including the romance story line. And there were a few character beats that only worked because the actors pulled them off and gave them a weight that wasn’t there in the script. There were also a few confusing bits of backstory, things where I would have appreciated a couple more lines of dialogue explaining who is related to whom and how long ago certain things happened, stuff like that.
Generally, what it felt like was that someone wrote a really beautiful script about the immigrant community in England and how the different generations dealt with being a minority, and then the script doctor came in and said “okay, this is good, but we need to add comedy, and a big dance number, and a huge speech at the end for no reason.” So we ended up with Chak De, India stuck onto Dil Bole Hadippa.
(It’s Dil Bole, right down to the inexplicable yet catchy end credits song)
So, that’s what didn’t work. What did? Well, A LOT of stuff! Starting with Akshay Kumar! You know, Aamir gets a lot of credit for “acting”, and so does Ajay sometimes, and occasionally Shahrukh or Salman (depending on the movie). But I am beginning to realize Akshay doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being so much more than just an action star! He just blew me away in Airlift earlier this year, and again in this. And what’s really amazing is that he makes these deep good roles with really deep performances, smattered in between regular action guy stuff in the same year! How does he manage to go so far into a character, and then pop out of it and do a light-hearted action role the next day? It’s stunning.
When I first heard the casting and character for this film, I thought “well, that’s ridiculous, Akshay is way too old to play a young Cricket star and unmarried son”. But, that’s where his performance is so brilliant. His character is stunted, by trauma and depression and abuse, he has been frozen at age 17. And that’s how Akshay plays it, like a shy scared 17 year old boy in a grown man’s body. The way he holds his head, the way he avoids eye contact, the way he goes all stiff and awkward around people, it’s a young man’s behavior. He hasn’t sacrificed his youth for his father, he has sacrificed his adulthood, losing the possibility of taking on the confidence, experience, and power of a grown man because of his father’s actions. It wouldn’t work as well if he looked younger, it wouldn’t feel quite so “wrong” if he wasn’t clearly supposed to be a grown man, but was stuck in a younger role.
That’s what makes the romance so wonderful. We find out early on that Anushka had a crush on him when he was a teenager, and now she has returned to the neighborhood, years later. To find him still a teenager, still shy and stiff, but full of promise and hidden depths. While everyone else just sees what he lacks, what he isn’t, Anushka still sees what he could become if he is willing to try. And as he grows in confidences, she falls more and more in love with him, turning into the shy and nervous one while he becomes the confident charmer he was always meant to be.
(Also, the soundtrack is fan-freaking-tastic. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for the win, once again)
That’s the other thing with casting Akshay, it feels wrong to see him be the shy 17 year old boy, not just because he is clearly a grown man, but because he is a grown man that we have seen achieve amazing things onscreen and off. Like Anushka, we look at him and see the potential for what he could be, and the waste that he isn’t it yet.
Casting Dimple as his mother has the same effect. She may be the grey-haired faithful wife, but we know there is so much more there. We are waiting for her, finally, to break free and reveal her hidden depths and fire. It’s too bad it doesn’t come until way at the end, and is kind of rushed, but it still works for the rest of the film, because the whole time she is standing in the background of scenes, I am thinking “wait, what’s Dimple doing? What does she feel about this? What will she do next?” A character that could be a one-dimensional forgotten wife (like Amitabh’s poor wife in Sarkar) is so much more alive just thanks to who is cast and our audience assumptions about her.
Rishi, on the other hand, is playing straight into our assumptions. Cheerful, charming, loud, and unwilling to listen to others. Exactly how he comes off in interviews. And like half of his film roles. There is a tinge of darkness to it, the same darkness that he would let out in full flower a year later in Agneepath, but it doesn’t quite go all the way with it. It also doesn’t quite go all the way into the light. I wanted just one scene of Rishi being the hero that his whole family saw him as, showing us why he was so revered and loved, instead of just showing us the petty tyranny all that love had lead him to enjoy.
Which, I guess, it’s now time for the SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER part, so I can talk about that petty tyranny.
At it’s heart, this is a story of what it takes to survive as a stranger in a strange land. It’s a universal story in that way, no matter what kind of immigration it is, there is always that first generation that has to fight the battles and smooth the way for the next. For instance, in Chicago, my ancestors might have been part of the beer riots, a mostly forgotten movement in the 1850s when the non-German mayor tried to shut down the beer gardens in the city, the gathering places for the massive German immigrant community, and thousands of Germans marched on city hall to get the laws changed. But that was over a hundred years ago, and now I get to reap the benefits of their struggle by being, well, “normal” in America. No one even thinks of Germans as immigrants any more.
(My people! So proud)
A hundred years later, the transition from rioters marching on city hall to comfortable business people and pillars of the community is almost invisible. There were those little moments when people lost their language, when they changed the spelling of their names, a million tiny incremental shifts to assimilation.
That’s what this movie wants to show us, the pain of those little shifts, how there was a price to pay for them just as there is for the early big changes. Akshay’s character is the one who has to fight both battles, the early one in the streets, and the later one in living rooms and kitchens. But I do wish we had gotten just a little more of early Rishi’s battle as well.
We open with Akshay telling the story of his family. His earliest memory, at a birthday party, with peace and hopefulness, the kindly old “uncle” of the family, a lawyer, bringing in a new immigrant he had just helped with his Visa. This is clearly the earlier generation of immigrants, the pioneers who came with peace and hope and joy. But in this sequence, we see all of that go away as skinheads attack the party and, while the rest of them cower inside, young Rishi (different actor, which is too bad, I would have still believed Rishi as a 30-something young father and I would have loved to see him do this scene) grabs a pot on the stove and runs after them. Akshay summarizes this as “he could hear their jeers, but he couldn’t hear our sobs”. As in, he was so focused on attacking the enemy, he couldn’t see the pain of those he left behind.
But, see, I don’t know if that is the case for these early defenders. We go on to see a quick parade of people walking to their door, asking for help, since Rishi is the only one brave enough to stand up for the community at this moment (I did a bit of wiki’ing, it really was a baaaaaaaaaaaaad time to be a desi in Southall in the early 80s. Some random killings, riots, fires, not good stuff). And we also see how the “uncle” who helped the early generation of immigrants, the ones who came with peace and hope, was killed in the violence and Rishi stepped in to take his place, leading the community down a much more aggressive path.
Which is interesting, because didn’t the same thing happen between the fifth and sixth Gurus? I mean, it really happens at some point in all religions/communities. They are founded with love and optimism which attracts new members, and then at some point they have to start codifying things and dealing with the outside world and generally getting serious about things.
We see Rishi’s actions through the eyes of his son, whose life he destroyed as part of his campaign, but we don’t really see the people he saved. We see a couple of quick snatches of fiery speeches, but we don’t really see why he was needed. There is no sense of what would have happen if he hadn’t risen to the occasion. Of him ever feeling fear or weakness or fatigue that had to be overcome so he could continue the fight on behalf of others. He is just an unstoppable force of anger and aggression.
But, there had to have been something more, right? Something which drove the community to need a man like him, some great evil outside from which only he could protect them? I wonder if perhaps part of this story was a sacrifice to the box office. Fear of offending the British market, perhaps? Even in the flashbacks, they are protesting “Racism” and they fight skinheads. But, what about the politicians who were cranking up the anti-immigrant rhetoric? What about the massive riots? What about the economic exclusions? Why is it that the family huddles together under one roof, and only works in businesses they own? What drove them to this? What are they afraid of?
(This. This is what they are afraid of. Really, not a good time in Southall in the 80s!)
The only small hint of what kind of danger there must have been outside their doors is the very visible scar Akshay carries from that period, the loss of his Kesh. That one scene carries the weight of the whole story of that period, his mother deciding to cut it without consulting her husband, and her husband not objecting. Now, decades later, his hair is still aggressively short, while his younger siblings and in-laws and cousins all wear their own variation, from a full turban to a head cloth to a simple slightly longer cut and slightly unshaven look. That’s what tells us what it was really like to grow up in England a Sikh in the 80s. For his mother to be so scared of outside forces that she would cut his hair, and for his father, that great warrior, to be so scared for the safety of his son that he would allow it. Needless to say, this is also a story I have read often in America since 9/11.
That was Akshay’s first scar, but there are others. That’s what I was talking about above, how he seems stunted somehow. He had something he loved, something he was good at, which gave him back the sense of belonging and community he lost as a child, and his father took it away from him, because it wasn’t “their” community. But, he couldn’t be a part of “their” community either! That safety and happiness had been destroyed for him by what he witnessed as a child. So now he was left betwixt and between, neither fully British nor fully Sikh.
The something he was good at was Cricket, but really it could have been anything. It wasn’t about the sport, it’s not really a “sport” movie, it’s about having a dream, a place where he could excel and regain the confidence he had lost, and then having that yanked away from him because it didn’t fit with the vision his father had for him or their community. It was this double loss that truly destroyed him, and that is what none of his younger siblings/cousins can really understand.
There is a strong generational divide between Rishi and Akshay, but there is also a divide between Akshay and the younger people of his generation. They know the pain of having their dreams pulled away from them because they are forced to live in a little armed encampment within a greater world. But they don’t know the pain of the reasons they had to retreat to that encampment. Akshay is the only one who fully experienced both eras, who felt the hope they used to have and what it was to lose it. Even if Akshay is our main character to suffer in this way, we do get little glimpses in the other stories.
I mentioned that it feels awfully convenient that everyone in Rishi’s house has their own little hidden dream. But in the mix of the convenient “a rapper! a chef! a filmmaker!” dreams, there is one that is much more grounded. A son-in-law of the house (I think?) and his pregnant wife and their young son (a son still proudly wearing his kesh) who is broken down after losing his money and his business because of the trickery of a white man. He no longer trusts his own judgement, he will willingly bow down to Rishi’s sense of things and live within the boundaries that Rishi sets for them all. The dream he wants, and his wife wants, isn’t anything terribly big or fantastic. It is just to feel free to be a man again, to make his own choices and live on his own. And he and his wife are the only ones who are also old enough to remember the “bad old days”, to have that extra sense of fear and caution because of what might just happen to them again.
And then into all this comes Anushka, like a breath of fresh air! I mentioned how she can see Akshay for the 17 year old he was, the one with promise bubbling up under the surface. That’s very well done. The rest of it is a little too convenient. And also doesn’t quite add up. Like, literally doesn’t add up. She was young with Akshay, went “away”, came back “recently” with a 12 year old kid, but seems to have picked up all the threads and movements of the neighborhood almost immediately? I mean, it barely works. Figure she is about 4-5 years younger than Akshay, left at 18 when he was still in college, and is now back with a kid she inherited when he was 3. And, since everyone knows everybody in the neighborhood and no one leaves, I guess she would be able to slip right back into the community. But it is still kind of a work around just so she can be both the “exciting outsider!” and the “familiar old friend”.
(See how she’s accepted both at the upstairs respectable old folks party, and the fun young folks basement party? A bit if a stretch if she’s been gone for a decade and returned under mysterious circumstances)
I do really like how they handle her son. At first it felt like kind of a cheat to make it clear that he is not, in fact, her biological child. That’s what it feels like, she is clearly in charge of him, but at the same time clearly a little over-whelmed and they are so close in age that in many ways they are more siblings than mother-son. All very familiar feeling from stories of single teenage mothers. But the “real” story ends up working better, that he is the son of her friend and roommate, abandoned by his mother, and Anushka stepped in and did what was needed. Just like Rishi did for his community back in the 80s, just like Akshay is trying to do now, you do what you need to do when you need to do it.
That’s the theme which doesn’t quite land as well as it could, but is still so strong that even a little off the mark, it is still awfully powerful. That Akshay has been stunted, not allowed to take on his position as the head of his generation, but that very rejection of his position was the sacrifice he made for them. If that makes sense? That he turned into his father’s “dog” as they often call him, in order to save the rest of them from that fate. And the real tragedy is that none of them even see it, they think he is a coward and a nothing, they don’t see that he is what his times and circumstances forced him to be. And now he has to shake off his fear and misery and be brave to save them again.
The theme of Akshay finally being recognized as the “elder” he is, and respected by the people he sacrificed for, that’s the bit at the end that really really landed for me. Akshay and Anushka and Anushka’s son, and Akshay’s siblings and cousins have all been conspiring together to get him on the British cricket team, and to keep it a secret from Rishi. Slowly, with the support of his family and Anushka and his cricket team, Akshay has regained his spirit. Just in time for his father to kill it again by insisting that he leave the team and return home.
(I know it’s silly light weight popcon stuff, but I LOVE this song)
Akshay does as he is asked, as always, but then at his sister’s wedding (the preparation for which has been running in the back ground this whole time), when it comes time for her to throw the rice behind her as she lives her home, the priest calls Akshay up as her eldest brother to hold the cloth to catch the rice. And Rishi sends him back and calls forward another son (or cousin? Seriously, I am very confused by everyone’s relationships in this house!). And that is the last straw, Akshay finally declares his freedom, and encourages everyone else to speak up and share their unhappiness as well. And, of course, they are all cowards and don’t. This bit felt way too filmi, with the big hero’s speech and the cowardly bystanders and all that.
But what didn’t feel filmi, what felt completely earned, is that as Akshay walks away, his sister stops him, and gently pours the rice she is holding into his hands. It’s a lovely sincere moment of her honoring him as her elder brother, and the eldest son of the household. Finally thanking him for all the invisible sacrifices he made from the time he was a little boy and lost his hair, to the time he was 17 and lost his fragile new sense of community, all the way to now when he finally stood up to his father and received his final exile, so that those who came after him could live better lives.
And then, of course, he wins the big game and his father forgives him, and it’s all very over the top, Dimple has a great speech somewhere in the middle there confronting her husband for his short-sightedness and selfishness, the whole family stands in the road and forces Rishi to acknowledge he was wrong, the son-in-law joins his pregnant wife in her rebellion, finally finding his manhood again, and so on and so on. But if it had ended with him gently pouring the rice from his sister into his pocket as he left his family home, that would have been really beautiful.
Although, the end credits song is super fun.