I had friends over last night, since I can’t drive to the movie theater, and we had a lovely time watching a movie I missed when it was in theaters, Qarib Qarib Singlle.
This is Tanuja Chandra’s first straight romance. How interesting! She has been working since the 90s, starting as a scriptwriter on films like Dil To Pagal Hai, and then moving on to directing with Kajol’s action film Dushman. She has made a whole variety of movies since then, on topics ranging from post-9/11 New York NRI culture to adoption. She always has strong interesting heroines, but their stories are not love stories. Love may be part of it, but it is not the main part.
This is Tanuja’s first try at making her heroine’s romantic journey the main plot. And it is most okay, but struggles with the ending. Which makes sense, in all her previous movies the heroine and hero getting together is the epilogue, the real climax happens when the killer is caught or the case is won or whatever else the actual plot is. The love story is just a nice little finishing touch.
The one thing Tanuja has a firm grasp on, as does her heroine Parvathy, is the emotional journey of the main character. This is a unique kind of heroine, one who doesn’t match with any of the other heroine’s we have seen before. And we immediately know her, know how she thinks and what she feels and what she needs and who is in her life.
The problem is, we don’t have the same kind of grasp on the hero. His motivations are mysterious, his emotions are unreadable, both to us and the heroine. His backstory, his life, what has brought him to this state, it’s all left empty. But not in the usual way these stories are empty, it doesn’t feel like there isn’t any more to him, he feels like a real character, just one that the director isn’t letting us get to know the way we should. And because we don’t know him, the romance doesn’t quite work. We can understand exactly what Parvathy is feeling, but Irrfan is a mystery, making the whole thing one-sided.
I kept thinking about other one-sided love stories. There have been plenty of them, but the key is to give us that one moment in the finale where we finally know how he is feeling and it feels in the gaps of everything we didn’t understand before. Best part of Ohm Shaanthi Oshaana, of Aaiyyaa, of Eega even, is that moment when it all comes together and we see both sides for the first time. And again, this movie fails in the clincher. We never really see Irrfan’s side.
But that isn’t to say it’s not a good movie. It’s 2/3rds of a great movie, and then 1/3rd an okay movie, that’s all. But those 2/3rds make it definitely worth watching. Parvathy is brilliant and Tanuja is brilliant in bringing out her brilliance. Just watching her slowly blossom and become beautiful as the film moves on, going from dowdy and unhappy with herself to blooming with joy, that alone is worth it. Irrfan’s character is one of those only Irrfan could play. Strange and charming at the same time, irritating but fascinating. And the scenery is gorgeous, this is a travelogue along with everything else and Tanuja picked places in India that aren’t always shown on film. They aren’t never shown on film, she didn’t go out of her way to find unknown gems, but they are less familiar than the usual. And she took a slightly different route to showing them, less big establishing shots of mountainous beauty, more human eye level weaving in and out between people.
I just wish the ending was handled a little better. That’s all.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The trailer seemingly gives away the entire plot. A man and a woman meet through a dating website. The man is always talking about his ex-girlfriends, the woman suggests jokingly that she should meet them, and it turns into a real plan. They will travel together to meet each girlfriend and also get to know each other a little along the way.
But what the trailer doesn’t give away is who Parvathy is and why she is so lost and desperate for a connection. She is seemingly the sane one, the one who is normal and strong and better while Irrfan is desperate. But it is truly the other way around. We spend a long time with Parvathy at the beginning of the film getting to fully understand who she is now and why she might be open to this ridiculous plan with Irrfan.
She is a successful insurance agent with a thriving agency and a busy job and a big apartment. Her little brother is at Princeton, fairly recently moved out of their apartment and she calls him constantly on Skype. Her parents are either dead or live far away. And she herself is a widow, her husband was in the army and died ten years ago. And she still sleeps on only one half of the bed, leaving the other half for him. She signs up for a dating website not because of any one thing, simply because she sees other people happy and coupled, she misses her brother, her apartment is big and lonely, and she finally just does it. And maybe it would have turned into nothing, maybe she would have canceled her account the next day and retreated back into loneliness, but then she gets a message with perfect grammar and lovely turn of phrase from Irrfan and she decides to meet him for coffee.
Irrfan is what Parvathy needs at this moment. The professional man she is imagining would never have lived up to her expectations, and would have been turned off by her shyness and uncertainty. There is a perfect moment right before Irrfan arrives at the cafe for their first meeting, Parvathy sees a young couple leaving, the man casually caressing the woman’s bare waist as they walk out the door. And she quickly puts back on the wedding ring she had removed and starts to leave. We can see everything in that little moment, an older woman who isn’t ready for the new dating scene, is scared of the physical contact she thinks would be expected, will jump and run at any implication of anything sexual, but at the same time will not stay unless she is pressured into it, will instead choose to retreat to her safe little life. Anyone besides Irrfan would either have been too slow moving, to restrained, and she would have slipped away. Or would have been to aggressive, scared her off. But Irrfan is the perfect man for her in this moment, an old-fashioned gentleman who would not dream of saying or doing anything explicit, anything that makes her feel pressure to be someone she isn’t. But at the same time, crude and determined and stubborn, pushing hard enough to force her to turn a coffee meeting into dinner, and then into another coffee, and finally into this ridiculous ten day trip that he cleverly suggests as shared expenses, with her picking and paying for all the hotel rooms while he picks and pays for the travel. Giving her just enough control to feel safe, but not so much that she will run away.
The problem is, the movie never really finds a way to treat Irrfan as something besides just what he is to Parvathy. Maybe that’s the point? Maybe we are meant to see him through her eyes? Through the course of the film, his mannerisms, his clothes, everything slowly becomes calmer and less intrusive and unpleasant. I would say it is a subtle character drama, showing how Parvathy’s feelings change through how his appearance shifts, except that we also see Irrfan without Parvathy. Traveling by himself, even visiting his final girlfriend alone. It is clearly structured to be a two character drama, but it just doesn’t work because one of the characters is so much more opaque than the other.
As an audience member, I can certainly fill in the gaps. Irrfan is a village boy with a poetic soul. He ran away from home because he didn’t fit in, but he doesn’t fit in in the city either, still too much of a villager. He is a romantic who falls in love with his whole heart but never with women who are strong enough to stick by him. His first village girlfriend cheerfully went on to marriage. His second girlfriend, in his youthful poet days, married for money and left him, breaking his heart. His third girlfriend was as spiritual as he was, and that was the problem, she was married to her own art. Parvathy’s “flaws”, for this particular man, become merits. She is mature enough to know what she wants and take it, she has her own successful career and income and won’t care whether or not he has money, she is artistic enough to appreciate him but not for her passion to compete with him. And she is a widow, which means she is someone who can understand Irrfan’s own complicated romantic past. And so he would see her profile, see she was mature sounding and interesting, sent in his initial message, and then at their first meeting responded to her maturity, her reveal she was a widow, and all those other details. And worked his magic to make sure they kept meeting to somehow build this connection.
But the film doesn’t fill in all of that for me! I have to do all the work to make sense of it. Especially at the end. Irrfan and Parvathy have a fight, he goes off to meet his final girlfriend of three, watches her in her dance studio, and then leaves her a note instead of going in and rushes off to find Parvathy, and finally asks her how she feels about him. But, why? What changed? Parvathy had just said terrible things to him, he went to see his girlfriend, and then rushed off to Parvathy. I can come up with all kinds of explanations, realizing that he doesn’t want the artistic beautiful young woman, looking back on his most recent relationship and seeing how unsatisfying it was, all kinds of things. But I don’t KNOW because the movie doesn’t give us anything! And it would have been so easy, give Irrfan a speech earlier that explains exactly what went wrong in this relationship (more than just his tossed off “she was married to her art” comment), so we can fill in the gaps when he sees her, have the note he leaves be a little clearer, anything at all!
(Oh good lord, they cut a whole song! This movie really should have been 20 minutes longer and that would fix everything)
Especially because the ending is where, for the first time, we suddenly can’t really understand Parvathy either. There were a few moments earlier where we saw her checking Facebook on her phone, looking at photos of a white man. But then suddenly out of the blue she announces that the whole purpose of this trip for her was to meet up again with her ex-boyfriend, the older white man. There was no indication before that this was what she was doing, the rest of the movie seemed like a sincere attempt to get to know Irrfan. The introduction of her ex-boyfriend came out of nowhere. And then she suddenly blows up at Irrfan, for seemingly no reason, declaring that he only cares about himself when he has just taken care of her for the past week, including holding her hair while she threw up on a helicopter ride. That also comes out of nowhere. And then her boyfriend shows up, it is seemingly perfect, he takes her back to his lovely house, and then we cut to Irrfan. And by the time Irrfan tracks her down, she has had a change of heart and is receptive and happy to see him. Why? What happened?
Again, it would have been so easy! I can fill in the gaps, I sort of know what happened. She has been considering contacting her ex, the dating website was a way of getting her feet wet, this trip was a way of having an adventure and getting off by herself and building up her courage, she found herself more and more interested in Irrfan, and then as a final step to psych herself up to meet her ex, she had to yell at Irrfan and come up with things that were wrong about him. But when she does meet her ex, she realizes he isn’t right for her after all, she doesn’t want to disappear into his life, and so she is going back to Irrfan. But wouldn’t it have been easy to show all that? Just a couple more glimpses of her looking at Facebook or somewhere else and thinking about the ex. One moment of softness towards Irrfan right before she snaps, so we can connect the dots of her feeling suddenly afraid of her feelings. And, most important, one scene of her with the ex, something as simple as him describing his plans for the day while her face shows that she is not interested, and that would fill it all in. But there was nothing.
Like I said, the ending doesn’t ruin the movie. It’s still a good movie, with two great central performances and memorable characters. But it could have been more, if only Tanuja had stuck the landing.