I mentioned in my SPOILER review, how this is a very very female story, both in content and style. Sure, the narrative is all about one woman’s journey, based on emotions and relationships and all that “girly” stuff. But it is also told in a very female way, more about what is unsaid than what is said, through body language and intuition and so on. Which starts in the very first series of shots.
We open with a standard seeming rom-com scenario. Well, standard except for the guy having a super hipster beard. Is this a thing in India now? Even in America, you see this kind of a look in ads for cutting edge young people focused brands, but not in like major mainstream TV or film things.
(Like this, but a young ripped guy in a t-shirt, instead of Santa)
The man and woman are arguing, he is chasing after her and begging for a second chance, she finally gives in, and they embrace. And then we hear “cut!” and pull back to reveal the full film crew (including, I believe, the director’s husband R. Balki doing a cameo playing this director). Balki asks “was that shot okay Keira?”, and there’s Alia! Turning around within a huge camera holding apparatus, with glasses on, to ask if they can do one more because she has an idea.
And here’s Kunal Kapoor! To have a quick discussion with Alia and Balki about time and cost of doing another shot. Balki and Alia overrule him, and people run around for a second (with the great line “we’re changing out the guy!”), and then we (the audience) see the shot a second time. It starts out the same, hipster beard dude running after girl, but this time, when they embrace, we see an attractive looking extra walking by while the girl picks over her lovers shoulder and checks him out.
This is such a great opening! So simplistic on the surface, just a little wink-wink nudge-nudge joke about how film romance scenes go. But underneath, it tells us everything about the dynamics of Alia at work, about being a woman in a male dominated industry, and most of all it makes a meta-statement about what kind of movie this is going to be.
First, notice that Alia is really confident and happy here. She may have to fight for her idea to be used, but she is ready for the fight and she knows she is right. And she is so good, that everyone else has to admit she is right too. Later in the film, her career will be forgotten for huge periods, so it is important for us to start here, and have such a clear sense of why she loves it and how good she is at it, before we leave this plot point behind.
(So much equipment!)
Second, notice the way the conversation goes here. Balki trusts her judgement, but Kunal does not. Sure, he is eventually won over, but even that is done with kind of a wink and a smile. I’ve seen this movie with two different people now, the first person and I both hated Kunal right away, right from this scene. The second person didn’t see a problem at this point, and generally felt he wasn’t a bad guy. I don’t think he is a “bad” guy, as in evil and manipulative. But I do think the way he acts here shows that, ultimately, he is used to having his own way and being able to dismiss and walk over people below him, especially women. Not because he means to do it, or even is aware that he is doing it, just because he doesn’t think of any other perspective.
And third, most importantly, the two versions that are shot of this scene are Gauri Shinde laying it out for the viewer “This is how a normal film would look, open for male viewers, or for male and female equally” and “This is how my film is going to look, it’s by women and for women and I want you to know that right away.” It’s more than just saying “hey, sometimes women check out attractive people who walk by, just like men do.” The original version of the scene had the audience relating to both characters equally, seeing them talking to each other. The second version puts us firmly in the female perspective, we are sharing something with the female character that the male character doesn’t know. And that’s this whole movie, showing the female side of life, a side that men may never fully see.
Shot over, Balki tells Alia that he is glad she could fill in at the last minute as DP, and he wishes he had been able to use her through out filming. On his next movie, she will be his first choice, not a sub. Alia thanks him, and then there is some exposition about how she is flying back to Bombay immediately, instead of staying in Singapore with everyone else to celebrate the end of the shoot (I’ll talk about this more in a bit).
And now we are at the bar at the airport and Alia is talking to Kunal. There are sooooooooooo many layers to this conversation! It is mostly professional, Alia complaining about how she isn’t taken seriously, she is thought too young to do anything, she wants to stop with ads and picking up little sub work here and there in movies, she wants to shoot a full feature film herself. And Kunal re-assuring her that she is still young, she is in too much of a hurry. The only really personal bits are at the beginning and the end. They both order drinks, Alia asks for a coke, and explains that she only drinks “when I am in love…or not in love”. And at the end Kunal tries to get her to swap seats with him, to take his first class seat instead of staying in economy. And she quickly rejects the gesture.
Okay, now I am going to back up and do a HUGE thing about two elements here. Element the first: the film industry!!!! This is a very western film structure they are talking about here. The very idea of a cinematographer, or Director of Photography, that’s Western terminology. Yes, there is someone who helps the director craft what appears onscreen in Indian films. And there is someone who’s main job is to use the camera and actually shoot things. But in America, there are unions and rules and Academy Awards, and it is very very clear who this person is and exactly what they do and don’t do. You go to school for it, then apprentice and blah blah blah.
Alia is coming from that tradition when she talks about herself and her role on a film set. And the film set we see backs that up, in Singapore, with fancy cameras and a bunch of people standing around and this that and the other thing. But, like the hipster beard on the hero, this is something you would find in only a very small proportion of the film industry in India. I’m not saying the film is inaccurate, because it is clearly stating that it is portraying that small segment (Bombay based ad and song films and high budget global Hindi film productions). I’m just feeling the need to clarify that if Alia were a real person, a smart ambitious filmmaker in India, she has SO MANY OPTIONS!
Forget Bombay, move to Kerala, you can be the “cinematographer” for a film the day you arrive, and a director within a year. Move to lower budget, more “traditional” kind of Hindi films, you will make less money and have fewer expensive toys to play with, but you will have so much more freedom to give your own ideas and make an impact on the finished product than in the more regimented higher echelons. And if you are really serious about advancing, forget the whole specialization idea and get taken on as a general “Assistant Director” to one of the big names, Sanjay Leela Bhansali or Yash Raj or Dharma films. You will learn about every aspect of the industry, far beyond the specialization you have now, and once you have proven yourself capable, they can wave their magic wands and give you anything you want.
(Their magic wands can even get the biggest star in India to agree to live out your crazy story idea)
Okay, rant over. Just wanted to get it out of the way, because this whole problem is going to come up over and over again whenever she talks about her career. But now I am done!
Besides the rant, I want to talk about Alia’s standoffishness. Her refusal to stay back another day, her eagerness to get home. Her discomfort with Kunal offering his seat. Later, when she gets on the plane, the way she quickly hangs up on whoever she was talking to on the phone, and instead starts browsing on ebay, not even noticing when Kunal pokes his head through the curtain to see how she is. There is also a small moment when the man sitting next to her, a harmless looking slightly chubby guy with glasses, glances over at her and she ignores him, completely focused on her phone. And finally, after an establishing shot of her very nice apartment block, we see Kunal help her get her suitcase out of the car and suggest dinner or coffee, or even that he help her inside, and she grabs the suitcase away from, gives him a quick awkward sidewise hug, and hurries away.
Later Alia is going to explicitly claim that she loves to travel, she loves adventure. And through out the first half of the film, she is always talking about wanting new challenges and success and this thing and that thing. But what we see here, in the very first moments with her character, is that what she wants most of all is to be home and alone. Setting aside how she is carefully holding Kunal at emotional arms length through jokes and rejecting his favors, she doesn’t want so much as a friendly smile to a seatmate, or to stay an extra day away from her apartment.
Not that Kunal is any great prize. He’s nice enough, sure. But that need to give her his first class seat, to reassure her about her career, to invite himself up to her apartment, it all feels ever so slightly patriarchal to me, like he sees her as his “project” more than a person in her own right. And the casting supports this, the contrast between the physical appearances of Kunal Kapoor and Alia. Casting Alia first of all, I am sure was like 90% because she is a phenomenal young actor. But maybe 10% of it was her slight body and baby face. Put someone like, say, Anushka Sharma or Sonakshi Sinha in this role, and it feels entirely different. Just because of their physicality, their height and mature appearance, nothing else.
And then there’s Kunal. In “real life”, Kunal is 16 years older than Alia, almost 40 while she is barely over 21. It’s slightly more than the age gap she had with her last co-star Shahid Kapoor. But Shahid has kind of a baby face too, it didn’t feel like an older man controlling her, it felt more like equals. Kunal, that’s not what it feels like at all. His face looks like a 39 year old. He talks like a 39 year old, he interacts with her like a 39 year old. And he is soooooooooooo tall! There’s a scene later on that really really drives that home, but in all their interactions, there is this slight power dynamic in play just through the difference in their sizes. He is always bending down to her, while she is always trying to rise up to his level. Which is exactly the problem with their relationship, his attitude feels ever so slightly patronizing while hers is ever so slightly aggressive and trying to “prove” herself. It’s just not a good “fit”.
(See? They barely fit in the same frame)
You know what is a good fit? Alia and her maid! She reaches the door of her apartment and as soon as she rings the bell, “Alka” (who might be played by Aakanksha Chandrakant Gade? That’s what one review says, but I can’t find confirmation anywhere else) throws it open and happily greets “Didi”. And then proudly shows off how clean the apartment is now, and brings out a bowl of flowers she bought in honor of Alia’s return.
I love the relationship between Alia and the maid, and this is the first time I was really struck by how well this film handled issues of class and gender and money versus Ki and Ka by Gauri’s husband earlier this year. In Ki and Ka, there was delight when the maid was “tricked” into providing better work. She was more the enemy to be overcome, not an ally.
But in this, Alia considers Alka to be one of her 3 closest friends, one of the only people in the world she can trust. The whole film is dealing with how a woman can live life as a “man”, as a worker and an independent householder. But in her relationship with Alka, it shows how some female aspects can still exist. The way they interact is just as it would have been if she had been a traditional “woman”, working side by side with her maid to build a home, take care of household tasks, and relate to each other as fellow women, talking about cute boys and so on. Not as an employer-employee class basis, but with respect from Alia for all Alka’s work, and with fearlessness from Alka in calling out Alia’s eccentricities.
Once Alka brings her into the apartment, we get a few more clues to the damage inside Alia. She immediately re-arranges the room, turning a pillow sidewise, knocking over a toy autorickshaw and a pile of books. Alka tsks but otherwise ignores her, as though this happens a lot. And then they talk about a photo of a boy on her wall, and Alia tells Alka to just take it down, she is done with him now anyway. Alka says it’s too bad, he’s cute. But is otherwise unjudgemental and unsurprised.
And Alia also, immediately, digs into her ebay box, one of 3 that are waiting for her. At first I thought this was just egregious product placement, especially much later in the film when she gets a call from ebay customer service just making sure she was satisfied with their products. But it finally clicked the second time around, her purchases are a symptom of her desire for control and escape. That phone call at the end was supposed to signify that she had stopped buying things and ebay was calling to try to win her back. We can see it a little here, she opens her book, sniffs that new book smell, and ignores Alka and everything else going on in her life in the escape of a new purchase.