Another Shahrukh repost! Dear Zindagi, a reminder of what happens when he takes a step back and lets his heroine take the lead. Okay, he always does that, but even more than usual.
Okay, you ready? The whole plot in just a paragraph? Here I go!
Alia is a cinematographer working on ad films and filling in on the occasional movie. She has 2 super close childhood friends, a maid who loves her and who she calls “Didi”, a wonderful apartment, and lots and lots of hot guys in her life. She had a fling with Kunal Kapoor while on location, and came home to break up with Angad Bedi, her serious boyfriend, by telling him she just slept with Kunal. But then she ruins it with Kunal too, by kind of blowing him off when he tried to have a serious moment before leaving for a business trip. And a couple of weeks later, on the same day, she learns that Kunal just got engaged to someone else, and her landlord is kicking her out of her apartment. So she moves back to Goa, planning to stay with her parents, but after one abbreviated dinner party, she moves out and goes to stay with her childhood friend. Where she stops sleeping. Which is what finally drives her to see a therapist, Shahrukh. During therapy, she slowly peels back the problems in her life, starting with deciding not to take a huge career opportunity, if it means spending time with Kunal. And then having a fling with sensitive singer Ali Zafar, but ending it because it doesn’t feel right. And also learning to be a better friend to her roommate, happier with the little things in life, less condemning of herself for being unmarried and dating, and all sorts of healthy things. Before finally getting to the root of her problems, the two years her parents abandoned her and left her with her grandparents, and then returned to yank her away from the home where she had just started to feel secure again. She finally admits her sadness and anger and fear that all come from that miserable time in her early childhood, and is able to make a start to find happiness with her parents again, and then with her whole life. And, of course, she also falls in love with Shahrukh, because who wouldn’t? He very very gently turns her away, telling her it wouldn’t be right, but he is proud of her for taking a chance and expressing her feelings. And then after she leaves there is the slightest hint that he might feel something for her as well. And finally, at the end-end, she has completed her short film that she has been working on for years, and at the premiere she meets a handsome Aditya Roy Kapur, and it is implied that she may be starting a new relationship on a firmer footing.
Okay, that was one loooooooooooooooooooong paragraph. But I think I hit all the important outlines of the plot, and now I can go into more detail about the little details. And more detail about the big thesis statements too!!!
The big big big thesis statement is in her short film at the end. It’s not a very good film, bad costume drama with a voice over, but it tells the (I assume true?) story of a female Portuguese soldier who fought in disguise as a man. But after she was injured, a sympathetic doctor discovered her secret and convinced her to stop hiding her true self. So she returned, as a woman, and was promoted and allowed to continue fighting.
See, this whole movie is about third wave feminism! The idea that women should stop trying to be “just as good as men” and embrace what makes us different. Or just what makes us happy, there is no need to stop wearing pink or having conversations about emotions or crying when you get upset, just because it’s not what a man would do.
(This is also kind of what Sultan was about. Or at least what the criticisms of Sultan failed to understand! Being a feminist doesn’t mean that Anushka had to give up marriage and motherhood for her ambitions. And it doesn’t mean that she couldn’t be in love with her husband. It means she can be whatever she wants to be.)
At the beginning, Alia was all anti-love, and committed to her career. A specific kind of career, one where she rose through the ranks fast and gained the approval of all the many men who are her superiors. And she wanted to live alone in her own apartment, she wanted to date a string of men and have sex with no guilt, she wanted to ignore her family and just spend time with her friends. It’s all very “male” type stuff. Not “male” as in “things men like”, but “male” as in “things society expects of men”. And she is rejecting anything that is considered “female” in the same way, can’t even stand to talk about marriage or serious romance or family or children or emotions or any of that.
The gift she gets from therapy is to let herself just be herself. She gets off the fast career track, stops looking for approval and success in a man’s world, and instead chooses to focus on her own work in her own way just because it makes her happy. She stops living alone, and happily moves back in with her parents. And she stops serial dating, being happy alone for an unknown about of time, and her final possibly romantic encounter at the end doesn’t have any of the aggressive flirting and tension as her previous relationships, she is much more relaxed and slow and focused on building a connection with him. The movie isn’t saying a woman has to be all “female”, Alia doesn’t end it married with a baby, but it also says that she doesn’t have to reject all the female things that might make her happy. It’s saying she can do whatever she wants to do.
That’s big picture, backing it up to the little things I thought were neat! First, Shahrukh’s introduction is giving a little speech at a mental health conference, talking about the stigma that is attached to mental disorders in India. Which I was vaguely aware of, but my friend who I was watching this with was really excited to hear this addressed. She did a study abroad in Pune last year, and she told me later that it was a serious issue in their program, because they had various students with anti-anxiety and various other medication, and there was no easy way to get the prescriptions re-filled or handle the whole disorder in India, there just weren’t the mental health facilities or societal acceptance.
(Poor Parveen Babi. We can’t know, but it is possible that if Indian society had been a little more open, and more facilities were available, she wouldn’t have starved to death alone in her apartment at age 55)
Obviously, the movie romanticizes and simplifies the therapy process. But it is clearly a situation where therapy is required, Alia is slowly spinning out of control and she desperately needs someone to help her get her head on straight, as it were. The first half hour or so is agonizing, watching her whole life fall apart and her head get all tangled. But it’s worth it, because when she finally makes a move to go to therapy, the audience is right there with her, thinking “yes! Do it! Thank goodness you are getting help!” We aren’t judging her or thinking she should be able to straighten her life out on her own, we are thrilled that there is something available to her, something that can actually do some good. Anyway, that whole thing was super great, the nice little “mental health issues are important and nothing to be ashamed of!” message.
Another great message, so queer positive! Therapy first comes up when one of Alia’s friends from work mentions needing to leave to see his brain doctor. She asks him later if he started to go to therapy to learn how to tell people he was gay, and he responds “no, I went to learn how to tell myself I was gay.” Later, at the first disastrous dinner Alia has with her parents and their friends, they ask her if she is gay, and then later say something about how many gay people are in the film industry. Alia bursts out that “No! Of course everyone isn’t gay! There are no more gay people there than anywhere else, it’s just that we are more open-minded and they don’t need to hide themselves. There are probably just as many gay people at your office, but they are too scared to tell you and that is too bad.”
Which is just about perfect! Her argument, of course, which is perfect, acknowledging the straight up fact that at least 10% of people anywhere are gay, and that it is a pity in some places that 10% doesn’t feel comfortable admitting it. But also what it is in response to, the giggly and titillating titter-tatter gossip attitude towards queerness in celebrities in India. Not all gossip, of course, but there is this certain tone that seems to see queerness in celebrities as something which is extra exciting and forbidden to talk about, instead of just a fact of life. Or, even worse, there is the constant use of “gay” as an insult. Talking about how many people are “gay” in Hindi film as though that somehow proves the industry is a bad place and the products are less moral.
Completely leaving this film for a moment, I do appreciate that basically all the major stars nowadays just laugh at this, and don’t even bother denying it. You know Charlie Chaplin? I read a biography of his last wife, Oona, and one of the things it talked about was how, after he died, she was riding in an airplane with a friend and someone recognized her and chatted with her and then said they were never sure, was Chalin Jewish? And Oona said “yes”. After the man left, her friend asked her “why did you say that? You know Charlie wasn’t Jewish.” And Oona said that Charlie used to do the same thing, and had told her to always do it. That’s what it feels like now, with Shahrukh and Akshay and Ranbir and Abhishek and everyone else making all this broad jokes about being gay or in love with Karan or whatever. That they would rather seen as gay, then to be seen as possibly ashamed of being gay.
Right, back to this movie! 3rd wave feminism, mental health, queer acceptance, that’s all great! I also liked just the general awareness of women. At one point Shahrukh asks Alia to list of the most important people in her life. And she rattles of the names of her 2 female best friends since childhood, her little brother, and her maid. At another point, Alia is walking down the street as a sad song plays, having just been gut-punched by life, and in the background all the extras are women, a woman returning home from shopping, a female cop directing traffic, etc. When do we ever get a movie like this? Where the heroine is so much more than just her father’s daughter, the hero’s girlfriend or sister. Where the relationships that define her are with her fellow women. Okay, there’s Pink, but besides that!
And the movie was also made for women to watch. Not just in the message it gives and featuring a heroine and all that, but there are little signals in there that I truly think only a woman would get. I went with a friend, and the second Kunal Kapoor was introduced, something about the way he talked to Alia, the way he smiled at her, the way she reacted, we both went “Oh, he’s going to break her heart.” And then Ali Zafar showed up, and we both went “Sleep with him, don’t have a conversation.” And then several scenes before the end, we both went “Oh no, she’s falling in love with Shahrukh.”
It’s something in the particular turn of phrase in the dialogue, the way Alia is playing her reactions, the body language between them. Something so subtle that I can’t even tell you what it was. But I know it took me about 30 seconds to spot it. Just like it takes me 30 seconds to spot it when a couple is putting on a good face at a party but really having a fight, or when a girl has a crush on a guy (or vice versa) and trying to hide it. There’s just a level to interpersonal reactions, a subtilty to the behavior in this movie, which I honestly think only women will understand. Not in a “female” “male” made up by society way, but in a super power only available to women way. Either because of biological differences (like being able to see a greater range of colors), or because it is a defense mechanism developed from early childhood to protect ourselves, women really can “read people’s minds” in a way that men just can’t.
(Watch the first 30 seconds and tell me everything you know about Alia’s relationship with Shahrukh)
Speaking of Alia falling for Shahrukh, I guess I need to deal with that. You know how in English/Vinglish you really really wanted Sridevi to run off with the French guy? But you knew that would be untrue to her character, and unbelievable in the plot, and just all around lowering of the movie? Same thing here! It becomes clear that Alia is falling for Shahrukh. And he is just SO DAMN SEXY in this (I never swear, but MAN! Sometimes you just have to!), so you can see why she feels that way. And by the end, you kind of just want him to grab her and throw her down on the therapy couch and give her one perfect kiss. But that would be wrong! This is a whole movie about how therapy is healthy and good and trying to remove the stigma from it. And you can’t do that, and then throw all the standards and morals out the window. But OH GOD would it have been satisfying!
So instead, Gauri Shinde gave us a little bit, but not a lot. Shahrukh very gently tells her that he really really likes her to, but their time is up. And then they shake hands, and she turns back for one deep hug, which he returns by gently patting her hair. But after she leaves, to briefly sob outside his gate, before walking away with a smile, Shahrukh goes to sit down in his chair, a chair he joked about early as being perfectly balanced “so long as you aren’t in love with someone you can never have”, and of course it tips over. And he kind of smiles. It’s like that breaking a nut by throwing it against a mirror trick from Baadshah, except more wistful instead of blunt.
(In case you don’t remember, Shahrukh is pretending to be in love with Twinkle here, and at some point he shows off by throwing a walnut against a mirror so that it bounces back perfectly split in 2. And he says that he can do it without breaking the mirror, because his heart is whole. And of course, then he falls in love and the trick stops working. Also, only in Indian film can you say “My goodness, that woman’s midriff looks exactly like her mother’s!”)
Final thing I really liked, is how exactly perfect Alia’s trauma is. I was dreading a sexual abuse reveal, which would have made the movie way too dark for me. And at the same time, I was dreading a “first world problems” kind of reveal, that it really was just because her parents were pressuring her to get married and she was worried about her career. But the actual trauma is a legitimate trauma, to feel abandoned and rejected and lied to by her parents at a very young age, that is the kind of thing that can seriously mess you up for life. But it is also forgivable (well, for some people. She was so chubby and cute!!! How could her parents have left her????). Her parents were trying their best, maybe another less sensitive and shy child would have been fine with all the moving around, and no one meant to hurt her.
Most importantly, without needing to spell it out for the female audience, this is a trauma that only came about because she was a girl. Her parents had two children, and her brother got to travel with them, while she was left at their grandparents. Her mother even says “I can’t travel with two children!” implying “I can only take one, and obviously it will be the boy.” And today, her brother is complimented for his career advancements, his schooling, his everything. Her mother makes all his favorite meals and throws a huge party when he comes home. And when Alia returns, there is a small meal and a lot of pressure to get married.
The details are different than the would be for a different family, Alia was never hungry or cold or over-worked, but when you get down to it, her parents only had limited resources and they gave them to the boy child. Just like a farmer family that lets their daughters starve or puts them in the fields while the son goes to school, or a middle class family that marries their daughter off at 17 while their son is kept home as long as possible. Or heck, a family in America from any ethnic background where the boy is allowed to go out for sports and extracurriculars at school, while the daughter is expected to rush home and help take care of her young siblings. That’s the real trauma, not the abandonment, but the knowing she was abandoned because they loved her brother more, because she was a girl. And it’s not something Gauri Shinde, the director, bothered to spell out. Because the audience she wanted, the audience she made the film for, they would understand it immediately.