If you are considering whether or not to watch this film and you don’t want SPOILERS, my first review is here. But if you can’t see the movie and want to know what happened, or if you’ve already seen it and want my opinion, read on! (oh, and if you’ve seen it and want to hear a conversation about it, I just posted my podcast on soundcloud)
Whole movie in one paragraph! And then I can go on to discuss the points I find interesting in detail.
We start with Suraj Sharma arriving home after 3 years in Canada, while Mehrene Pirzada his fiancee eagerly awaits him back at the family home. He is told by his family that his horoscope shows him to be Manglak and he has to marry a tree. After marrying the tree, Anushka starts haunting him and explains that she was a ghost in the tree and now she is his wife. No one else can see her and they all think Suraj just has wedding jitters. Anushka starts remembering and telling Suraj her life story before she was a ghost. She lived in the same place which was then a small village, her brother was the local doctor and they were a respected family. Diljit was in the same village, a drunkard who made his living by singing for the men. Anushka secretly wrote poems and sent them to a journal in Amritsar, but everyone assumed they were by Diljit. Diljit eventually starts to put it together, and Anushka reveals herself to him. And starts secretly giving him poems which he turns into songs. This turns into an affair, until her brother finds them together. The next day, Diljit comes to say good-bye, and that he is going to Amritsar to record their songs, and will make sure both their names appear on the record, Anushka’s and his. He will return at Baisakhi to marry Anushka. He sends money from Amritsar, all the money he made on the recording, and a letter with it formally asking for her hand, and Anushka’s brother admits he was mistaken and promises to marry them in a grand manner on Baisakhi. But Diljit doesn’t come. And in the end, Anushka runs to the tree and hangs herself in her bridal finery. This whole story is interwoven with the present day where Suraj’s marriage is in trouble. Mehrene knows him well enough to see that he isn’t happy about the marriage, she keeps trying to give him a way out, but Suraj isn’t sure he wants it, because he still loves her, he just doesn’t feel ready to be married. In the end, on the day of the wedding, Anushka figures out how to reveal herself to Mehrene, which lets Mehrene understand a little of Suraj’s strangeness. And at the same time, Anushka finally remembers the end of her story. And the other two realize that it doesn’t add up, why would Diljit send money and a letter and then not show up for his wedding? They ask for details, starting with how long ago it happened. And slowly put it together that it was 98 years ago, so 1919, Baisakhi 1919. At which point everyone looks at each other and realizes that Anushka never learned what happened in Amritsar on Baisakhi 1919 because she killed herself before the news arrived. They rush to the car and leave the wedding to drive her to Jallianwala Bagh, where she walks among all the dead until she finally finds Diljit, and is able to take his hand. At which point they both stop being ghosts and take on the colors they wore in life instead of the white and gold of their ghostly aspect, and go off together into the sky. And she also signals to him that she is pregnant, explaining why such a strong character would have killed herself rather than living as a jilted woman and just marrying someone else. Suraj and Mehrene watch this, and when it is over, Suraj tells Mehrene that he has finally learned what it means to be with someone “forever” and embraces her.
(And then we were supposed to get this ending credits song, but it was cut because it doesn’t fit with the mood we end with)
As I said in my non spoiler review, this movie is all about the last ten minutes. And I have a lot to say about that. But first I should crank through some of the other interesting things about it. For example, the entire modern day story.
The modern day story is really barely there. The heart of the film is in the past, the modern day stuff is just a framing device. But for what it is, it is well done.
There is one moment early on that makes the whole thing work. The first night he arrives, before the tree marriage and Anushka showing up, Suraj sneaks away from the crowd to do smoke on the roof (not clear on whether it is marijuana or just loose tobacco that he is smoking). Mehrene finds him up there and tries to get him to explain what he is feeling. She can tell that something is wrong but doesn’t know what it is, and he won’t tell her, so she just starts asking questions, “Do you still love me?” “Is there someone else?” “Do you not want to marry me?” And Suraj says the right thing to all of them, he does love her and there is no one else and of course he wants to marry her. But he just isn’t happy, and she can see it. Finally, she stops asking questions and just sits next to him and reaches out and puts her hand on his leg. And he takes her hand and holds it. And we hold on that image for a moment as the camera pulls back a little and the two of them are framed through a rose colored window and the music plays softly in the background.
This is what needs to happen in their relationship. While they try to talk it out they just go around in circles. But if they can find the time to just sit together, just the two of them, and be still, then everything is perfect. That’s how they have been until now, we get little mentions of how Mehrene helped him convince his parents to let him study in Canada, how they have been joined at the hip since childhood. They were always a team. Only now suddenly Mehrene is part of the “wedding” team, and Suraj is stuck on the outside in the part of the reluctant groom. They need to remember that this is just a moment and when it is over, they will be a team again. Only before they can do that, Anushka shows up and comes between them.
It’s essentially the same conflict as in Baar Baar Dekho (which I think moviemavengal pointed out to me when we were talking about it), only it’s a lot easier to take done in tiny little pieces that only add up to half an hour of screentime, then made as the main conflict of the film. Really, the way this film is structured, that’s the message, that this kind of conflict doesn’t DESERVE to be the main point of anything. The love story in the past, that had real conflict and pathos and meaning, and deserves to be a story that is told and retold and remembered. The modern day kids, they are just there to learn about it.
Again, it is the ending of that story that is the whole point of it. But there is other stuff along the way that is also interesting. Anushka is a village girl, but she is not the “prettiest girl in the village” or anything like that. Diljit is the only one who seems to notice her. He notices her first when she arrives late for a demonstration of phonograph record and her bangles jingle as she runs in. But he really notices her when she slaps him for reciting poetry and claiming it to be his. It is her pride and spirit that attracts him. And he falls in love with her poetry, her mind. And she falls in love with his ability to appreciate her poetry, to add to it with his music. Their love song is glorious, going from notes left in secret, to reciting poetry to each other, to talking, to holding each other, and finally to a secret nighttime meeting in his room and love making. There is never a moment where we fear she may have made a wrong decision in trusting him, where we think he might just see her as someone to be “conquered”. She is too smart to fall for anything like that, and he is too sincere in his appreciation of her mind. And therefore his arrival at her house the next day to declare his intentions, and his following through on those intentions with a letter and a monetary gift, does not feel like a surprise. It feels like what we would expect from him. It is his not arriving at the wedding which is such a shock, we are in the same mindset as Anushka, unable to believe that he isn’t here.
Before getting into that, one more thing about Anushka’s character in the past. I love her brother! I can’t find anything on The Internet to tell me who the actor is, but he did a great job. And his character is wonderful as well, and so unusual! Yes, he doesn’t want Anushka leaving the house at night, he disapproves of the village events, and he is furious when he finds her with Diljit. But all their interactions are so loving, he tells her to stay inside, but with a smile and a pat on the head, and she smiles back at him happily. We know that she is obeying him out of love and respect. And that he is putting out these orders to her not because he wants to control her, but because he wants to protect her and give her only the best. It seems like his dragging her out of Diljit’s house is the reveal of his real macho attitude towards everything. But it is followed by a lovely scene in which everything fits much better with what we have seen before. Anushka is huddled on a bed, with her hands under her cheeks, and something about how she is filmed and how she is lying makes her suddenly look like a little girl. We see her the way her brother sees her, as this little girl he has to protect and keep safe from all the bad things of the world. And that’s what he talks to her about, how he has done everything, sacrificed everything, educated her and protected her and devoted his whole life to loving her. And now she has thrown herself into danger, and he doesn’t know where he went wrong and he blames himself.
What makes the film really unusual is what happens next. Not just that he accepts Diljit eventually, we’ve seen that before, the father/brother won over by proof of love. No, what really sticks with her brother is Diljit’s telling him that Anushka is a poet, a brilliant poet, and he never saw it. There is a great shot of him reading her poems in the newspaper, and then looking up to see her obediently writing names on medicine bottles, using her pen for this plebeian task when it is capable of so much more. That’s the big revelation, that his sister had this brilliance inside of her and he didn’t appreciate it. That’s what makes him think that Diljit can take better care of her than he can. It’s all about Anushka’s fire and spirit and who can care for it best.
Okay, is that everything? Am I ready for the ending? I think so. Anushka’s half of it, that is nice enough. The slow building of tension as Diljit isn’t on the first train and they have to wait and meet the evening train. Her looking at her simple wedding finery (intercut with the elaborate wedding preparation in modern day), trying to smile but getting more and more worried, and finally her brother arriving home after meeting the evening train and slowly taking off his turban to signify that his honor has been lost and the bridegroom is not coming. And then his telling her that he will find another groom for her, get her out of town and married immediately to a good man. It’s such a loving moment, her brother’s only concern is getting her away from the dishonor and guaranteeing a happy life, and Anushka’s face says that her concern is protecting her brother’s broken heart and honor. And then we see her running to the tree in the middle of the night and finally jumping off a branch and hanging herself. Which seems odd for such a strong character, but once we learn that she is pregnant, it makes sense. She would not be able to live with putting the burden of that dishonor on her brother. And she would not be willing to pretend the baby belonged to another man. So death was her only choice (well, death or abortion. Donate to Planned Parenthood here if you want to save a life).
Okay now, FINALLY, I get to the ending. Anushka has told her whole story and Mehrene doesn’t believe it. Dijit sent money, he must have meant to return, there must be more. So she asks the first practical question, how long ago was this? Anushka doesn’t know, asks what year it is now. 2017, then it was 98 years ago.
This is kind of an odd way to phrase it, normally it would be asked “what year was this” not “how long ago was this”. But as the scene unfolds, there are a lot of moments like that. They want to build to the reveal, not for tension, but out of respect. This isn’t something you just blurt out, it’s a hidden pain that deserves to be treated with respect. Not a hidden pain for the characters, but for the audience. Let us be eased into it.
The characters are being eased into it too. Mehrene repeats “98 years ago” like she is beginning to remember something. The real “reveal” is when they find the record Diljit recorded, with both his and Anushka’s names on it just like he promised, and the date. But the way the scene is written and played, it’s not exactly that the modern characters needed that final confirmation. Every since the “98 years” moment, they have been exchanging looks and getting more and more serious as the truth begins to dawn.
What makes it really wonderful is that we never get someone saying “On Baisakhi 1919, the British massacred over a thousand civilians at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar”. Because you should know that, Baisakhi 1919 Amritsar should be all you need, just like “December 7th 1941” or “My Lai 1968” or “The Alamo”. More than that, this is the ultimate sign of respect, that they don’t say the name of the details, because it is too big to be spoken about bluntly in a popular film.
What really impresses me is how well they handle the “ghostly” apparitions once they get there. I didn’t realize, by the way, just how big Jallianwala Bagh was. And that there was now a monument there. I assume they got permission to film at the actual modern day version, which I don’t believe I have seen in a film before. That alone is remarkable, for a film to choose to deal with it not through a historic recreation, but by reminding us of what it looks like in modern Amritsar, and how it effects the modern Punjabis. Anyway, this is going to sound cheesy when I write it out, but when they arrive at Jallianwala Bagh and Anushka goes inside, we suddenly see a massive crowd of silent standing figures, floating in place on the grass. And Anushka’s reaction is “so many….”
It isn’t bloody, we saw a little flashback earlier, but just of Diljit being shot and falling. We didn’t see the women throwing their children into the well, or the people bleeding out over the night as they called for help which never came, or any of the other more graphic parts of the massacre. And now we are just seeing so many people, all of them standing as silent witnesses to the past. All of them with lives cut short and stories ended just like Anushka’s and Diljit’s.
That’s what the film wants us to remember. Not the pain and fear. Or even the cruelty of the British (there is a little shot of Dyer on Mehrene’s phone while they are looking up directions to the monument, which seems fair. Don’t want to dwell on the gory details, but we should all remember Dyer’s name). The point that it wants to get across is all of this people who are still there, watching over us, waiting to be remembered. Well, not watching over me, but watching over our modern characters, young Punjab with their rap music and their cell phones and everything else. None of it matters if they don’t remember where they came from and what was sacrificed to get here.