Hindi Film 101/DDLJ Part 44: The Rescue of Amrish Puri and the Tragedy of the Fearful Immigrant

Well, this turned into a whole thing!  I started just wanting to establish Amrish’s character journey at this part in the film, and I just ended up going on and on until it went way beyond the usual Scene By Scene and turned into a screed on the tragedy and trauma of the immigrant (full index of DDLJ posts here)

Welcome to Amrish Puri week!  Which may turn into Amrish Puri 2 weeks, since I have a lot to say about this section.  Because Amrish is a difficult character, and this section here is what makes him most difficult.

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I haven’t mentioned it much in the last few sections, because they were focused on Shahrukh, but in the first sections I talked a lot about my close friends in college who reminded me so much of Kajol’s character in this film.  And now we can talk about Amrish Puri and how he reminds me of their fathers.

At first I didn’t know my friends enough to notice the difference in their families, or care about it.  They liked to stay in the dorms instead of going out at night, so did I.  They liked spending time with their family, so did I.  They had no interest in drinking or dating, neither did I.

But then I started going home with them on weekends and meeting their family and it felt “different” somehow.  There was this relief when they came home, and reluctance to go out, the ideal weekend was staying inside all together watching TV, maybe going out to a restaurant for dinner.  On a really good weekend more relatives would come over and join us in sitting around watching TV or movies.  Which wasn’t terribly different, I mean, I also like to watch movies.  But somehow this feeling that this is the only/best thing they could possibly do felt different to me.

What began to feel really different was when we neared graduation.  I was planning my life after school.  Looking for jobs, looking for apartments.  They were all planning to go to med school, but planning around family.  A school that would also be close to their parents, or at least to another relative.  Not as an added benefit, but as a qualification for even considering a school.  And even years later after graduation, when I would meet them, they would talk about their parents’ new house or something as if it was still their “home”.  Not a sentimental home they go back to on the holidays, but where real life occurred.

And this is a pattern I began to notice not just among desis, but among my other non-desi friends who also happened to be children of immigrants.  So no, it is NOT “just the Indian culture”.  The details of how this anxiety is expressed might vary culture to culture, food versus religion, encouragement of education versus discouragement of education, etc. etc.  But the sense that “outsiders” cannot be trusted, that the family must stick tightly together, that was the same with everyone I knew, just to varying degrees.  It is even a story I recognized from my own family a few generations back when we were immigrants.

(This is why I love this song, it is breaking down all those divisions, making all of America into “us”)

I should clarify that a large part of this was just because of the friends I had.  They were the extreme edge of “good girl”.  They had siblings who happily went to college very far from home, insisted on staying out late and otherwise doing wild activities, even had secret boyfriends and girlfriends, and so on and so on.  And they weren’t cut out of the family for doing these things, no terrible punishment ensued, but they did have to fight for them.  My friends were like me, not fighters, more the type who would always do what was expected of them.  And what was expected was that you stay close to your family at all times, don’t trust “outsiders” or the outside world.  And once I began to realize what was happening and that it was coming from their parents, I began to really resent their parents.  Raising children who were unable to trust anyone but family, unable to make their own way in the world.  It killed our friendships, eventually, they weren’t able to even go so far as to visit me in my apartment in the city, unless I was willing to travel all the way to their parents’ houses in the suburbs (where they spent all their free time), I would never see them.  And in a million other small ways I began to realize that I was always going to be an “outsider” to them, when it came right down to it.

But then there was the second reaction.  As I gained maturity and so on, I started being better able to understand why their parents were like this.  All my friends were second generation immigrants, most of them desi, but a few non-desis as well.  And the immigrant experience is terrifying.  You truly do not know who to trust, cultural signs that are familiar to me and other people born and raised here are invisible to you.  How can you know that, for instance, it is safer to travel on a commuter line than on an inner city train?  Or that a waitress expecting a tip is reasonable, but a guy on the street corner saying he needs money because his wallet was stolen is probably ripping you off?  If your only choice is to trust everyone one, then no one is the obvious solution.  Even if you don’t start with that assumption, within a few weeks of moving to a new country, you will switch to it after being ripped off.

I fell victim to this myself, the first time I was in India.  I was hideously over-charged for a rickshaw ride, I think I paid something like 400 rupees for a 15 minute ride.  But see, in America, taxis are highly regulated, so I was trained to pay whatever I was charged without thinking about it.  After I realized what had happened, suddenly I was confused and didn’t know who to trust any more.  I started only going to places that reminded me of “home”.  Major chain bookstores and supermarkets and of course McDonalds.  They worked the way I was “used to”, so I could follow the system more or less and understand if it fell down.  There were printed prices and credit card machines and receipts and it was all very reassuring.

I was being careful because I was worried about myself and my money.  Imagine how much more careful you would be with your child!  Of course someone living in a place that they had not been raised in would be extra cautious about letting their child into the world, trusting the world with their child.  Of course they would do everything in their power to keep them to spaces that felt “safe” to them, Indian groceries, Indian cultural events, everything that was a little bit of India in America.  If I were to travel in India with a child, I would probably never leave the hotel, I would be that scared.  Not of the country, not exactly, but of my own ability to have sound judgement within the country, to avoid the dangers that are present everywhere without being familiar with them.  And so, I came to realize, of course my friends’ parents wanted them to go to school and straight home, were nervous about them going off campus, about even building their own lives outside of the home at age 25.  I could understand that.  They weren’t being cruel or hateful, they were trying to protect their children as best they could.  And they themselves were dealing with internal scars and difficulties far beyond what I could fathom.  But then the question is, does understanding bring forgiveness?

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DDLJ understands Amrish Puri’s character in a way no other Hindi film about the diaspora really had before.  The loneliness of walking to work every day across a deserted city feeling like the pigeons are your only friends, dreaming of home for 20 years without seeing it.  In an earlier draft of the script Aditya wrote in an explanation that Amrish was conned out of his money by a friend when they arrived in London, thus his lonely exile for years trying to earn back the money and feeling too ashamed to return home.  And also his general dislike and distrust for the British or Britishized desis.  That explanation is no longer in the script, but it doesn’t really have to be.  Most immigrants have something like that, something which breaks and then hardens their heart.

And so Amrish is lonely.  And scared.  And, most of all, rigid.  He trusts nothing, not even himself, and so he clings to the rules and traditions he learned as a youth.  He feels weak, and therefore refuses to reveal weakness.  It’s a tragedy and a sad character and I want him to be happy.  This sequence here reveals all of that.  His fear and strength dropping away as he finally returns to the happy youth he was in the Punjab before he moved into “enemy territory” and felt he must always be on guard and guard those under his protection.  A willingness to reveal love, joy, all the emotions that were locked away while he was in London.  We’ve seen glimpses of it before in the moments with his mother, but it was always hidden again in front of his wife and children, even his friends.

He is driven by fear, fear of losing status, of his family being in danger, his family going hungry, if any one thing goes wrong.  And now, for the first time, he feels fearless, happy, free, in love and young and joyful.  This is the magic of his daughter’s wedding, it spells to him that he has accomplished everything he feared he couldn’t.  He is respected in the community, he has the money to host this large affair, and his family has been safely protected from those who would harm it until he can bring them back to safety.  His goal is in sight.

And this is what he thought he had lost when he learned of Kajol’s love affair with Shahrukh in Europe.  She had been corrupted, lost, to the West.  Amrish sees the world in terms of “us” and “them”, very strongly, and he has to protect “us” from “them” or else “us” will become “them”.  When he learns that Kajol has fallen in love instead of waiting for her arranged marriage, he believes she is on the verge of becoming “them”.  His outsize reaction, his anger and tyranny, through out this section, it is an effort to protect her.  He believes that the worst possible thing that could happen would be for her to marry for love.  It means he has failed to protect her, to bring her safely to this happy ending of a good marriage with someone he can trust.  Now, finally, seeing her smiling and happy and with the joy of the engagement being completed, he is enjoying his victory party, his success party.  His purpose has been fulfilled, he can now relax.

All of this, I can understand.  Because it is a good film and it draws a character that I can understand.  But can I forgive?  At what point does fear stop being an excuse?

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(The film itself offers a counter argument, another aging immigrant from the Punjab in Anupam Kher, but one who was open to change.  Who kept India in his heart, and taught his son to keep it in his heart, but wasn’t afraid to let in a little light from this new country too.  Which is also something I have seen in the real world, many times.  Just not from the kind of people who raise “Kajol” types that then become my friends)

Amrish Puri is afraid, is hurt, is scarred.  And he has a right to all of that.  And I am happy that he is happy here at his daughter’s engagement, finally able to break through to happiness.  But he did not have a right to purchase his own happiness at the price of cutting his daughter off from hers, even just at the cost of POSSIBLY cutting his daughter off from her happiness.  He is right, Shahrukh might not be trustworthy, might be just using Kajol.  She could be letting herself in for a life of lonely misery.  But he does not even pause to consider that she might also be in love with someone worthy of her love, that she might be able to make a decision for herself.  That she might have the right to make a decision for herself.  He just lets his fear, and the anger that comes from his fear, drive him.

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(And this is the result, paying the pain forward)

And now here is Amrish, singing to his wife, clearly he loves her and she loves him and he has within him the capability of love and empathy.  It makes you like him.  But then it follows that if he is capable of love and empathy, then he might be culpable for choosing not to utilize his love and empathy when dealing with his daughter.  Was fear a choice?  A decision to ignore the feelings of the people around him at other times because they made him afraid?

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Let us jump to the end of this film.  Amrish Puri, eventually, does choose love over fear.  After being gently brought there by Shahrukh proving, over and over again, that his fears are groundless.  And so he smiles and let’s Kajol go with a cheerful thumbs up.

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He lets her go.  That is the happy ending.  Ignore the “let” part of it, and look at the “go” part of it.  Once he gives in to the same love and understanding he shows in this section when he joins the singing, he discovers that the best thing he can do for Kajol is put her far away from himself.  He tells her “Go, take your life”.  He is giving up any right over her, which means both that he is rejecting the idea that he has a right to her life, but also the idea that he is a good judge of how to control her life.  He is acknowledging that his way was not the right way.  He was living his life, and forcing her to live her life, in a way that would lead to unhappiness.  Shahrukh has rescued both Amrish and Kajol, in the end.

 

And I leave it up to you, the real life issue I am still grappling with and the issue for this character, does Amrish deserve to be rescued?  At which point is fear a choice rather than an unthinking reaction?

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16 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101/DDLJ Part 44: The Rescue of Amrish Puri and the Tragedy of the Fearful Immigrant

  1. Pingback: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: Scene By Scene Analysis in Exhaustive Detail Index | dontcallitbollywood

  2. On your first question I can speak authoritatively. Not only am I the child of immigrant parents who were fully and always operating on the “fear” model, because of the negative effects of that behavior on my own life, I’ve also been a keen observer of how this model plays out in other immigrant families. So I can say unequivocally that yes, Amrish not only “deserves” to be rescued, but he “needs” to be rescued, because he himself cannot find a fulfilling and happy life as long as he doesn’t get over the fear.

    I’m not sure I really understand your second question. I don’t think Amrish (or other immigrants) ever “chose” fear. Or if he/they did, they did it early enough and strongly enough that it became ingrained in them, so that, after a point in time, they are not even aware this is what is driving their actions, and so need to be “rescued” from it.

    I don’t even think it is fear, but prejudice/bigotry. Most of the desi immigrants I’ve observed come with the conclusion already formed in their minds that the western culture (of whichever western country they happen to emigrate to) is corrupt and inferior to their own, and the people of those countries can never be relied on (note not “trusted”) in the same way as people from their own country. They continue to believe this even after they have been repeatedly cheated, swindled, etc. by members of their own communities. I have been observing immigrants for about four generations now, and this attitude persists across all of them, even among the young, “westernized” immigrants that rejected all aspects of desi culture when in their original countries, and longed to get away from it all. That was a huge surprise for me.

    Another huge factor is that nowadays most such people (and you are right, it is not just desis, but those from other countries, too) do not think they are “emigrating” (with its old connotations of making a new start and building a new life somewhere else) as much as they are “settling” in a different country, but expect their lives to continue pretty much as they did in their “home” countries, only with better economic status. We are seeing the result of such thinking in many western countries now.

    I have to stop now, because this issue has literally been a life long study for me (and still ongoing), so I can blabber on forever. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am glad that you have seen the same thing I have! And I don’t know what the solution is. One thing that I sometimes think might make a difference is if the country where you live now was more welcoming, if aspects of your culture were integrated into the mainstream, if the legalities of citizenship were easier. Something as simple as being able to find the food you like to eat in a major supermarket, or seeing your holidays referenced in mainstream TV shows, maybe that would help.

      Or maybe it is a change related to media being too accessible, rather than looking for yourself in mainstream TV shows in the country where you live, you pay for satellite TV and watch the same TV you would at home. But then, that would be a new development, I don’t know if there is a difference between past immigrant culture and now that would reflect this.

      But I do think, ultimately, there has to be a solution. Or at least a logic and humanity that can overcome the fear. I can understand being scared of something like buying a house from an outsider, or even hiring an outsider to do your taxes. But when it reaches the point of harming others, that’s what bothers me. Tipping is where I noticed it most. Some of my friends refused to even consider tipping, seeing it as “why risk my losing money in a system that doesn’t make sense to me? Better for someone else to possibly suffer.” But other of my friends were open minded enough to ask me how it worked and believe me when I explained it and change their behavior. They still weren’t comfortable in the culture, they still felt locked away, but they were at least willing to consider the other side a little bit.

      There’s also the troubling tendency to take the fear out on the only groups that seem less powerful than yours. In the US at least, I have been shocked by the assumptions and fears that I have heard about groups ranging from African-Americans to Latinos to Muslims. Queer people, transsexuals, even HIV/AIDs patients. Heck, poor people even! That’s another thing I can understand, but not necessarily forgive. There has to be a way through simple humanity to get passed it. Partly because people do get passed it, again like the tipping thing, I have seen people get their minds expanded and move through fear and bullying, towards sympathy and understanding. I don’t know what the magic way to do it is, but I do know it is possible.

      On Thu, Jan 25, 2018 at 9:11 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Much to unpack in your comment, and I might get back to it later in the day. But let me ask you — why is it the “emigrated to” country’s responsibility to change itself to cater to your comfort for what you voluntarily left behind? And, pragmatically, how can it change itself in multiple and often contradictory ways to cater to the comfort of people from multiple and vastly differing cultures?

    I generally don’t think there is a “magic solution” to anything, but here’s a starting point. Start with the definition of “emigration.” Then the definition of “foreign country.” Keep repeating every 15 minutes as necessary. What about “it’s a foreign country” is so hard to understand?

    And the flip side is the way these uncomfortable desis behave when they go back to their “home” countries. That’s enough for a whole separate thesis in itself.

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    • As I see it, it’s not “my” country versus “your” country. Once you are here, you are us and we are you. So, like, I don’t expect there to be an “Assyrian culture week” on a major TV channel, because there aren’t that many Assyrian Americans, but if Asian Americans, for instance, are 5% of the country now, then they shouldn’t be invisible in popular culture. There shouldn’t be an idea that the “real America” doesn’t include them, or makes them feel like they aren’t included. I’m not asking for outsize representation, just accurate representation. The country belongs to the people who are living there. You don’t have to tear down all the hot dog stands, but I am glad that McDonalds now has vegetarian options, for instance. And that doesn’t take anything away from my ability to have hot dogs. The Irish have a whole massive unofficial holiday recognizing their contributions to American culture, and they are also one of the most assimilated groups. Again, I don’t know if that is the solution, or even part of the solution, but it is something I think about.

      Here’s my problem with “foreign country”. At what point does it stop being a foreign country? Not saying it should be exactly like India (and I’ve definitely heard those complaints! And been frustrated by them because it just isn’t going to be like India if it isn’t India), but at some point does it stop being a place that is foreign to you and become your home? I think that’s what you were saying at the beginning, that there is a resistance to moving out into the great culture and accepting it.

      I guess, going back to what I saw among my friends, it is also accommodating to the culture just as the culture accommodates to you, meeting in the middle. I had friends who learned the vegetarian options in the cafeteria, ate Subway and pizza and vegetarian burritos and liked them. They didn’t become total meat eaters, but they found a version of mainstream American food that worked for them and ate with the rest of us. And then I had friends who only ate the Indian food that their mother made for them and sent them to school with. No effort at compromise.

      On Thu, Jan 25, 2018 at 10:37 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Anupam Kher was able to be more relaxed because he’s rich and he has a son. More resources and he doesn’t have to worry about his child’s virtue, presumably Shahrukh can sex as many white women as he likes as long as he marries a nice Desi girl.

    Have you seen The Big Sick? It deals with all of these issues in a warm and generous way. Kumail Nanjiani and Anupam (again) have a wonderful scene at the end of the movie that I don’t want to spoil for you but touches on the question of forgiveness.

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    • I was thinking about Anupam being rich. But the film establishes he arrived in London even poorer than Amrish, and he has a son but his wife died. Which doesn’t alter your point, you are completely right, but I do think about how your experience of the new country can affect you. Anupam clearly found success in London, and perhaps after the death of his wife felt even less connected to his original culture, it was just himself and his son who was raised in London. And it also seems as though they have no family back in India tying them there. So Anupam was ready to always see the good things in this new place and teach his son to see the good things as well without letting go of their original culture. While Amrish felt constantly under threat and was able to tie himself ever more firmly to his homeland.

      I haven’t seen The Big Sick, and you are the first person to give me a reason I actually feel like I should see it! I knew it was a wonderful rom-com that deals with the immigrant experience, but I hadn’t thought of anything new or substantial from what I had read that could add to my understanding of Hindi films. But you are completely right, looking at it in terms of another comparison with DDLJ, and all the other films that deal with young lovers and their disapproving parents especially in an immigrant setting, that makes all the difference.

      On Thu, Jan 25, 2018 at 11:42 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Interesting read and discussion. Amrish can suck an egg though. Just for the hell he’s put Farida through. I do think your description of his fear (not commenting on immigrant fears more broadly) is a good example of how we often place burdens on ourselves which have little to do with reality. It can be hard to feel sorry for people who make their own problems, but we all do it sometimes.

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  6. The trigger for fear is the unknown…and it is the own choice how to deal with the unknown, a choice that is influenced by education, intelligence, experiences and – to an important part – by your inclination more to the positive or to the negative.
    Aditya gives two exemples of a desi father who has settled in another country (not foreign, just another) and who are two different characters. Raj’s father is driven by positivity and enthusiasm and love-for-life, Simran’s father is driven by always doing the right thing, a negative view of the environment he lives in and fear to let loose/open up for the new. However, both are loving fathers wanting the best for the family/kids. Amrish must have done something right because he and his wife have two daughters with a mind of their own and inner strength…he may seem to be an autocrat but that is a front…I saw similarities in him and Kuljit…if one is a man one has to have a certain behaviour. The other person in Amrish, the softer one, is to be seen when he feels safe. And at the very end, he feels safe…he responds to the way Raj shows his manliness and determination but also his standing to the word he gave and his respect for Simran’s father (and he had witnessed the trust Raj’s father has in his son).

    Yes, I think, there are people who choose fear with the argument that it would make them more cautious and safer…and therefore they may prefer to exchange joy of life against a (treacherous) feeling of security. They restrict their own freedom, but also the one of those they feel responsible for.

    Thanks again, Margaret for sharing your thought-process and giving another insight in your life 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just forgot…
      The contrary of fear is courage because it needs courage to confront all the fears one encounters. Amrish knows that…he had courage, too (once)…and he values the courage Raj has shown.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent point that we should have known there was a softness in Amrish from how strong his daughters were. Although, there is also the argument that all their softness came from Farida, and all their harshness and fear came from Amrish.

      On Thu, Jan 25, 2018 at 2:31 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  7. Just got done! And now I’m wondering whether to finish watching the movie (paused at Mehendi Laga ke Rakhna) or wait for the rest and watch it with newly opened eyes like I did the rest of the movie. Thank you for all the effort you put into this!

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    • I think there’s only like 40 minutes left, so you could always finish the film, and then come back to it again once I am back to writing.

      On Tue, Mar 27, 2018 at 11:35 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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