Attakathi, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, Premam, and now this, they all have very similar content, the kind of content I don’t really see in American film, or even in Hindi films that much. The struggles and pain of being in love, and not being of an age for it. It isn’t something American movies deal with, maybe because it isn’t an issue in the same way in America? At least, not any more.
Towards the middle of this film, the heroine points out that their love story wouldn’t have any problems if their parents had just allowed them to date while they finished their studies, instead of forcing them to stay apart, or even marry someone else. It was the parents who gave them the ultimatum, an artificially created circumstance. And what makes this movie different, is that the young heroes refuse to accept that ultimatum.
Okay, there’s some other stuff that makes this movie different too. For one thing, the young cast. So far as I can tell, this was a first movie for all of them, and they were all abou the same age as the characters they were playing (18-21). The biggest break-outs of the cast are Siddharth and Genelia, of course, and they were also two of the most experienced. While still being very very young.
Siddharth had started as an assistant on Kannathil Muthamittal at age 21, after being recommended to Mani Ratnam by ad filmmakers he had already been working with. And then the scriptwriter for Kannathil insisted that he audition for this film, and he ended up with the lead. So, no acting experience at all, but plenty of experience on film sets and with how a movie is put together.
Genelia was only 16. But she had already had a minor hit Hindi film release and, equally important, had gained national popularity through her Parker Pen ad with Amitabh Bachchan. She was the only cast member who had anything approaching a recognizable face.
Which is kind of a problem, her being so experienced. The freshness of this movie relies so much on the freshness of the faces onscreen, on these kids really feeling like just regular kids you might see on the street. It’s lucky that Genelia is so young, because at age 16, even a “practiced” actress isn’t really practiced, there is still a certain innocence and openness that is just there on her face.
Also making the movie different, the songs!!!! Oh my gosh, is this ever a great soundtrack! Which kind of relates back to the last two points, about young people refusing to accept limitations and this cast being so strikingly fresh and young. Rahman had one of his genius moments, of being inspired by the tone of the film to create something cohesive and unusual just for this kind of plot. At least, that’s how it sounds to me. This is not the kind of song that I had ever heard before or since, sort of rock/pop, but still recognizably Indian. It works perfectly to provide the backbone for this “new” kind of story with completely unknown actors.
(So hip that a band was playing it to cheers in a concert in 2015)
Oh, and it’s a Shankar film, so there’s also crazy CGI. Possibly unnecessary CGI, not for like fight scenes and stuff, but just because he thought it would make the song look cool.
And that’s all the stuff I can talk about without getting into plot details, so now, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The title of the film is “Boys”, so that’s where we start. With the perspective of a bunch of boys. Not the usual “oh, he just needs to meet the right woman” kind of bad boy gang, like in Ghulam or Deewana or what have you. No, these are actual boys. Gangly and pimpled and not ready for life, and completely ruled by impulses and hormones. And alike in this, even though they all have completely different backgrounds, from the child of struggling manual laborers, to wealthy white color workers.
(The Ghulam song no one remembers. Because it is terrible)
Shankar shows their immaturity through some kind of odd CGI. This is the moment when I went “Oh right! He did Jeans too!” Because Jeans also had some kind of strange CGI. That time, it was to show two Aishwarya’s dancing together. This time, it’s to show a sort of video game avatar looking fake woman that all the boys are imagining, when they talk about how great it would be to have a girlfriend. This is just like Akshay dancing with a cardboard cut out of Preity in Jaan-E-Mann. They aren’t ready for a real person, or even imagining a real person. They want an ideal, someone to be whatever they want her to be. And they all want the same ideal, just a universal sexy woman.
(Man I love Jaan-E-Mann!)
This concept of the ideal, women as some kind of remote other, it starts to break apart not with the introduction of their love interests, but with their meeting with a mentor, Vivek (a biggish deal actor/comedian, from what I can tell from wikipedia, but I had never seen him before). They boys begin by running a scam on him, seeing him as just a random older guy who might be willing to share his drinks and food with them at a roadside stall. But then he starts talking and relating to them on an equal level, telling them about his failed love affair that he had never recovered from. It lets them see that adults can have the same problems as they do, can be people too. And it lets them see that an adult can also understand their problems. Kind of provides the thin edge of the wedge to help them begin to see other non-teenage-boy people as real people too.
Although, come to think of it, the film had already begun to try to show teenage girls as people in their own right, not just CGI visions of teenage boys. Genelia is so great in this, sooooooooooooo young, but so sparkly and confident and herself. And not perfect at all. We first see her scamming a boy who flirts with her. She goes along with his flirtation so that he will take her and all her friends out to eat, and then they run out on him as soon as he goes to pay the check.
On the one hand, you feel kind of bad for the boy, and Genelia shouldn’t have done that. But on the other hand, it wasn’t done out of maliciousness, just sort of joyful naughtiness. And he was being kind of a scammer, trying to take advantage of her innocence, why not turn the tables on him?
I think it’s after this that she and her friend walk by the wall where all the boys are sitting, watching the girls go by. They notice them, of course, and the boys notice Genelia. But Siddharth is the only one to really go for it, not just whistle at her, but to grab a bike and ride after her and try to do a fancy trick in front of her. Which just results in him falling in the mud while she laughs.
And then that night they meet Vivek, who gives them the magic key to getting with girls. Just look them in the eye and talk to them! That’s it! No big trick or challenge or anything like that. And he also gives them the magic key to figuring out which of the boys should “get” Genelia. Why not each of them talk to her in turn and see which one she likes? Brilliant! Who would have ever thought of just letting the girl decide who she wants to date?
I really like the little indications that Genelia likes Siddharth the best out of all the boys and vice versa. Siddharth was the only one to go a little nuts and really chase after her that first time. And now, while she just rolls her eyes at all the lame lines the other boys try on her, Siddharth’s terrible approach makes her laugh. At him, not with him, but it’s still something. And when the boy she scammed starts bothering her, Siddharth is the one she approaches out of their whole gang to ask for help.
If they were different actors, I would call shenanigans on how fast Genelia and Siddharth fall in love and all that. But since they are playing teenagers and look like teenagers, it works. Because that’s how teenagers work, there is something that kind of randomly sparks between them, they exchange a few words, and suddenly they are “dating” and in love forever and ever. There’s not all the hesitation and over-thinking that comes into it with older people, it’s just jumping in feet first right from the start.
Which is what Siddharth does. And all his friends. They beat up the guy for Genelia, and then she takes them out to eat to thank them, and suggests that they hang out as a group with her and her friends, so they can see that dating and girls and all that isn’t actually that great. Only, of course, Genelia’s whole “let’s normalize male-female interactions” plan falls apart, and turns into “A girl sat next to me at the movies! Now I am in love forever and ever!” And, song!
Genelia is the only one still really resisting the call of teenage romance. Which just makes Siddharth more determined, writing poetry for her, pretending to be too upset to eat, and so on. It’s shallow, his efforts. But what isn’t shallow is that he is so focused on Genelia. While the other boys just sort of fell into dating whichever of her friends they happened to be paired up with, Siddharth has to really try, and he is!
Oh, I forgot another vital step on the way to the boys being able to see girls as people! Vivek gave them the number of a prostitute when he was drunk. I knew there was a prostitute part in this film from the wiki summary, and I was nervous that it was going to be gross and kind of icky. But instead of it was really straight-forward. Vivek uses prostitutes, because he is a sad lonely man who doesn’t know how else to find love. It’s a business arrangement, fulfilling a need, not him molesting random women or ignoring his natural urges. More mature than the boys, who are constantly rubbing up against strange women or stealing glimpses down blouses.
(Here’s that bad CGI song I mentioned earlier. And also bad eve-teasing)
And when the boys call her, she shows up with her baby and pimp in tow, and is a nice practical woman who arranges to deal with each boy one at a time in a separate room. And very kindly allows them to NOT sleep with her, when they each in turn confess that they are too scared. It’s an important part in their growing up, not because they lose their virginity, but because being confronted with the reality of that experience confirms that they DON’T just want a breathing willing woman to have sex with them, they want something more than that.
Right, back to Siddharth really trying for Genelia. Like I said, his efforts are kind of lame, but he is still trying at least. And unfortunately Genelia’s friend doesn’t realize how sincere he is, no matter how flawed his methods. And she tells him that Genelia wants him to run across a busy street naked to prove how much he loves her. And he does it!
It’s kind of an adolescent joke type feeling scene. But, on the other hand, how great is it that the boy is asked to put his body on display in order to prove his love instead of the other way around? And, as a visual metaphor, putting his physical nakedness on display at the same time as his emotional nakedness works kind of well.
Oh, and then the police arrest him for indecency and beat him up, because he refuses to explain at his bail hearing, and his friends make Genelia feel bad about it, and she runs to see him in jail and writes their names on his hand, and love song!
(Also, more strange CGI)
These kids jump in with both feet. But it doesn’t feel like he “won” Genelia through his nobility, more like she was holding back because she didn’t buy his lover act, even though she liked spending time with him, and now that she knows his feelings are true, she is all in. Her whole stupid teenage heart is his.
And because they are stupid teenagers, they don’t exactly hide their feelings, and their parents find out basically immediately. Which is where the film gets a little radical! Naturally, the parents object. But this time, the kids speak up and point out the flaw in their reasoning.
The problem is always phrased as “choose between love and your future success.” But, why is it a binary? It was for Siddharth’s parents, who eloped before finishing school, had a kid right away, and now are struggling in very modest circumstances. And it was for Genelia’s father, who left the girl he loved, worked hard, and years later married a rich girl who could help his career. But then there’s Vivek, who didn’t choose and ended up with neither. He gave up career opportunities in hopes of marrying the girl he loved, but she didn’t wait for him and married someone else. And now he has a lessor career and no love story.
Siddharth and Genelia propose the opposite of this, what is to stop them from having both a career AND love? Only their parent’s objections! Why can’t they date and continue school? Why do they have to immediately say good-bye forever and ever or else their lives are ruined? Or, alternatively, why do they have to run off now and give up on school forever if they want to be together? It’s not their natural feelings that are the problem, it’s society’s attitude towards them that causes the issue.
And this is where I went “Yes! Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya! And, in contrast, Vivah! All the ‘V’ movies!” It’s all about old-fashioned expectations for romance coming in conflict with new-fashioned expectations for achievement.
Boys and girls aren’t supposed to date or even talk to each other once they hit puberty. Which isn’t a problem in, for instance, Vivah. Because Shahid and Amrita have a nice arranged marriage basically as soon as they hit puberty. Shahid has just graduated college (so, 20-21 based on Indian college schedules) and Amrita hasn’t even finished (so, 18). But their young age doesn’t matter because their parents are there to support them, they will move into a bedroom in a nice big combined family house, and have socially acceptable sex and romance at a biologically acceptable young age. All the social restrictions in this version of society make sense, because we are really talking about boys and girls interacting until like 14, then splitting off for a couple of years to focus on growing up a little, and then being married as soon as their hormones really start getting out of control and their bodies are fully formed. And this works okay, so long as education and “growing up” is done around age 21.
(See? It’s sweet and nice and kind of healthy feeling, so long as this whole “first meeting” thing happens when they are both just barely grown-ups)
But now, at least for middle-class boys, “growing up” means college and then advanced studies and then a good job and then a promotion in the good job, and suddenly you are talking about no socially acceptable sex until you are like 30. Which is just not natural!
Sometimes it is the same for girls I suppose, the families where they are expected to complete med school or whatever first. But what seems more common is that the girls stay the same age while the boys get older. So you end up with this little 18 year old baby getting married to a 35 year old boy, instead of to someone closer in age and experience to them.
Now, I don’t want to say this is restricted to Indian society at all. You know when there were the most teenage pregnancies in America? The 1950s. But they weren’t unmarried teenage pregnancies. They were little high school kids getting married at graduation, or even before graduation, just because they could. There were plenty of jobs and money, why not get married at 18?
(Yuck, Frankie! Yuck! Well, at least “we both are young”)
American society eventually learned to bend their standards a little. When college suddenly became a normal thing in the 1960s (moving marriage ages up to 22-23 instead of 17-18), it also suddenly became a normal thing for people to live together and have sex before marriage/kids. And, hopefully, Indian society is heading in that direction as well. Because the other solution is a lot of 35 year old men sleeping with prostitutes until they are finally at the marriage finish line, and a lot of teenage girls being married off to guys a lot older than them.
Anyway, bringing it back to this movie! The kids in this movie reject all of these problems. They declare that the solution is to just break-off and start fresh. Siddharth and Genelia run off and get married, before she can agree to marry the older relative her mother has picked out for her (one of those 35 year old grooms). And they throw it in their parents’ faces that the only reason they got married like this was because their parents couldn’t just be cool about it! They would have been happy to live at home and finish school, but since their parents forced this separation on them, they were forced to rebel.
And, here’s the real rebellion, they aren’t quitting school! They aren’t going to decide “welp, I chose love, my future is gone”, they are going to prove that you can have both. Even to the point of Genelia refusing sex with Siddharth on their wedding night, because it is more important for them to do well and make money and get a house, and then think about a family.
(And they are super happy about this decision! This is the song they both dream, after deciding they will wait until they are in a better position to have sex)
I love the idea, that Siddharth and Genelia are proving they really do just want to be allowed to be together, that they don’t want the evil sex their parents feared. But on the other hand, BIRTH CONTROL!!!! Yes, I know the only 100% effective birth control is abstinence. But the other methods are pretty darn effective too! And it’s like this movie has never even heard of them. Siddharth and Genelia hold off on sex because they don’t want to end up struggling with a baby, Siddharth’s parents DID end up struggling with a baby because they didn’t hold off, but did no one ever consider just using a condom and finishing school? COME ON!!!
Oh, and the other thing I like is that all of Siddharth’s friends decide to stand with him and Genelia and choose exile as well. I don’t like that part, the choosing of exile, but I really really like that they are standing with Siddharth AND Genelia. When we first met the titular “Boys”, they didn’t even know how to talk to a girl. Now all 5 of them are casually living with one and not thinking twice about it. She’s just a person in the household, like anyone else. It’s not just Siddharth and Genelia that are proving they are responsible and able to live together without having sex, all of Siddharth’s friends are proving that (despite their obsession with having a girlfriend back at the beginning), they are perfectly capable of living with a girl without losing control of themselves.
Which brings me, leaping wildly forward, to their band. See, they all get part-time jobs to support themselves, and then learn that part-time jobs aren’t enough to buy food and pay tuition. I totally could have told them that, by the way, since it is why I took 6 years to finish a 2 year grad school program. But then they decide that they can make more money by cutting a tape of religious songs, but religious songs with a new sound to it, a mixture of Genelia’s classically trained voice, and the boys wild Western rock and hip-hop influenced sound.
And from there, they get a commission to write a song for a radical Naxalite group. Which is great, they can buy food and even rent a small apartment. Only, the police end up rounding up the Naxalites, and then our little band as well for writing the songs. They eventually prove their innocence, but it is too late, the college has found out and expelled them. Noooo! Future is over!
Or is it? These kids already questioned the accepted wisdom of love or school by saying they could just have both. And now they are further questioning the wisdom of school as your only route to success. What if you can be expelled and still keep moving forward?
So now they are all in on the band thing, and when the music producers refuse to listen to them, they stage a guerrilla concert at a cricket match to get his attention. And this is when someone, finally, puts into words what makes this film so unusual for me. It’s “the mixture of the girl’s voice with the boys.” Yes! In their music, in their life, Genelia is there too. Not exactly the same, still different from them, but part of the gang. Their band, just like the movie itself, is called “Boys”. But it’s not a group of boys, it’s a group of boys and one girl. Normally it is the girl who inspires the boys to greater feats of artistry and whatever. But in this case, it feels more like it is the association with the boys that has inspired her, that has made her see things in a new light and be a new person and mix in with the boys.
(Also explicitly states the thesis of the film, “Break the Rules”)
And it is the regression to the normal gender roles that almost destroys them. And again, sex rears its ugly head. The boys get drunk and giggle a little about the prostitute, actually kind of sweetly, they say she told them “Siddharth’s wife would be a lucky woman.” Not in a yucky sex joke way, but just in a “passing on the nice thought to Genelia” kind of way. And Genelia blows up! In a very regressive manner. She can’t handle Siddharth having slept with someone else, and she won’t believe him when he says they just talked and didn’t do anything.
I guess it is progressive in that it is the woman having this very essentialist “I have to be the One and Only sexual partner or else it is cheapened!” reaction. And I can kind of see where she is coming from, since their mutual abstinence pact has been a key building block in their trust as a couple. But not believing him when he tells her he didn’t do anything, that is NOT COOL.
And, delightfully, that is the part that he calls her out on. Not a big chest-pounding “you should be okay with me sleeping with another woman because I’m the man!” thing, but just “you should have trusted me and my word should be enough.”
It goes back to the whole “Break the Rules” theme. The “rules” say that Genelia has to be mad at him for this, the “rules” say that Siddharth has to somehow prove himself. The “rules” say that Genelia has to stay in their band and so Siddharth has to agree to a divorce. The “rules” end up just leading to bad things. It’s only one Siddharth stands up at the end and declares, again, that he just doesn’t care what the sensible thing is, he isn’t going to explain or apologize because she shouldn’t need it, that’s what makes things work again for them.
And their eventual reunion doesn’t follow any of the “rules” either. It’s not because Siddharth makes a passionate plea, or Genelia’s heart is softened. It’s because Vivek pretends they are looking for a new wife for Siddharth, and Genelia blows up at him in a very unladylike and unacceptable manner, the complete opposite of how her parents wanted her to act, and Siddharth lets her yell at him and drag him out of the courtroom, the complete opposite of how a manly husband is supposed to act, and once they give up on all of the social expectations and obligations, they find each other again.
(Again, a song that states the thesis “Secret of Success” is to ignore the established patterns and just do your own thing, whether it is in life or love or music or anything)