I’m including this on Wednesday Malayalam, because PRITHVIRAJ! In one of his greatest roles. Or at least most shirtless roles.
Now, if you remember, I looooooooved Ohm Shanti Oshaana. Whole-hearted no reservations loved it. And the big main thing I loved is still there in Aiyyaa, that it is a love story from the female side instead of the male, the woman gets to fall in love at first sight and be the stalker and make all the big gestures and stuff. But, all the little things in Aiyyaa are just WEIRD! Weird weird weird! I can see why it wasn’t a hit.
I kind of want to track down the Maharashtrian original to see if Aiyyaa is more or less strange. If they watered it down, or played it up. But then, on the other hand, would it even work without Rani Mukherjee?
Rani really makes the film. I mean, Prithviraj is there too, but he has the more subtle (while equally difficult) part of playing the love object. But Rani is the whole film! You have to buy into her way of viewing the world, believe in her reality, or else it doesn’t work at all.
Right from the start, with open with Rani’s dream world, in which she is Madhuri and Sridevi, but threatened by the ugliness of dump trucks and the real world, with no hero to save her. I vaguely remember stills from this sequence and the song being sold as a special “fantasy” sequence in which we get to see Rani play all the heroines of history! It was described in a way that made it sound more like “Character Dheela” or “Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte”, just another one of those light-hearted tributes to film past.
(I know it’s not the most obvious example, but the song was just going through my head earlier today, so I was thinking about it)
But it’s much more than that, in context. It’s not about momentarily fantasizing through the lens of film, it’s about a character who really really needs that escape, who uses it as a coping method for real life, who has integrated this behavior so much into her life that it is an inextricable part of her.
It kind of reminded me of Jaya in Guddi a little bit. Only, if she had never recovered from her film addiction and grown up from her fantasies. Or, rather, if she had not had the people around her to help her grow up. Jaya was a dreamy teenager, her loving family gently and wisely steered her away from her fantasies. But, the final touch was that she was offered something in “real life” that was better than a fantasy, when the sweet nice boy who loved her finally got her to notice him.
(I don’t know, I think I might still pick dreaming about Dharmendra over life with this guy. He’s cute, but he’s no Dharmendra)
Rani’s character in Aiyyaa, I can believe that she started out like Jaya in Guddi, a dreamy teenager with age appropriate crushes on film stars and filmi fantasies. We even see evidence of that, there is a great shot at one point of what is clearly an old middle-school photo of Rani tacked up on her wall next to a QSQT era picture of Aamir, and the fabulous filmi wall in her room has photos that are several years deep, clearly recent Shahrukh layered on top of classic Aamir, and so on. She has been like this for a long long time.
Rani lost herself in fantasy in adolescence, a natural female urge. But then as the years went by, and her life never really improved (lazy brother, strange father, pushy mother, crazy grandmother, small house, no job, no escape), she just stayed in her fantasy world. And it molded her, affecting her mannerisms, her beliefs, her everything. That’s what the opening is saying, that her inmost self is this fantasy, it’s not a surface protection, it’s at her very core. Also, notice, this opening fantasy is not about being in love, or needing a hero to save her, it’s just about being the bright happy free strong type of heroine like Madhuri or Sridevi. Her fantasy is where she builds her sense of self.
(This isn’t what I’m talking about, there’s a little bit right at the opening that I can’t find online. But this later song gives you the same idea of the focus on getting strength from her favorite actresses)
Rani’s whole character, in the hands of a less accomplished actress, could have been just too strange to work. But, with Rani at the helm, it all kind of fell into place. We see how she can be a proper librarian spinster, and at the same time a crazy dreamer who makes faces and sings out loud. How she can be mature and strong, but also as fragile and impulsive as a teenager. How she can be completely irresistible to the people who like her, and complete invisible to those who don’t.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast, and the rest of the characters, aren’t quite as balanced. Really, the film breaks down into two halves. Those who are more crazy than Rani (her co-worker, her brother, her father, her grandmother, her mother sometimes) and those who are less crazy (Prithviraj, Subodh Bhave, Subodh’s family). Rani is the connection between the two, and the saving grace, because otherwise those who are more crazy are just too crazy, and those who aren’t, are too boring.
The really deadly parts of the film are when the boring folks and the crazy folks interact without any buffer between. Makes both of them look like caricatures. Or, even worse, when the crazy and the crazy interact, and suddenly the movie goes from a delicate character study to some kind of bonkers sledgehammer heavy bad comedy. It’s not even good-natured comedy that takes itself seriously, it’s more like “ha-ha, look at how crazy we are being! Let’s all laugh at these people!” Just, blech!
It’s funny, I think this movie flopped because it was both too good and too bad. Too good, in that the whole concept of Rani as a spinster locked in her girlhood fantasies and drawing strength from them, was just too subtle to come across in the promotions. And too bad, in that the stupid stupid comedy bits probably drove away any audience who did show up for the clever character study. The real tragedy is that the best and the worst of it all was combined in the very last ten minutes. Which means it is now time for SPOILERS
SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
I wonder how old Rani’s character is supposed to be? It’s hard for me to forget how old Rani herself is. I mean, she is so beautiful and such a good actress, she can believably play much younger than her real age. But since I’ve been watching her since she was twenty, I can see the signs of age in her face in a way that I wouldn’t if she had just started beign in the public eye at 27.
When we start the film, her family has reached the point of advertising for a groom. And Rani has reached the point of going out on her own to look for a job. From how they laugh at the lie in the matrimonial ad that she is 22, and from how confident Rani is in her job, I wonder if she is supposed to be 25? 27? Something like that. Old enough that, in India, she is far past time to get married. And old enough that she has determined to get her own job and work towards being able to afford her own apartment.
As I said, her family really is awful. Not cruel, that would be easier to bare in a way. If they were cruel, she would have had more reason to escape. But they really do care about her. Only, her brother is lazy and irritating (teasing her about the bike keys when she needs to get to her job interview). And her mother is constantly nagging her about learning how to cook and getting married. And her father just sits around all day smoking and playing with his many many telephones. And her grandmother rides around in a motorized wheelchair making crazy pronouncements.
In some ways, they are no worse than any other family. But in a very small house, after years and years and years of this (Rani isn’t just a teenage girl, barely aware of life outside of her home, she’s been an adult with her own opinions for a long time), it is believably awful. And now, with them talking about newspaper matrimonial ads, it is time for Rani to finally make a move and get a job and get out.
And of course she ends up finding a job that is as crazy as her home. At least, her co-worker is. Uch, her co-worker is so awful! Completely over the top ridiculous character! And pointless, too! We just need someone to act as Rani’s sounding board, for her to explain her plans to. No reason for that person to be this nutty girl dancing on table tops and in crazy outfits, with a weird John Abraham obsession.
But the rest of the job is kind of nice, she is hired to work at the library of the arts college. It’s a place where everyone is slightly off, and the whole world is a little dreamy, like Rani. She walks across campus in several scenes, and we see huge art installations behind her, with students working on them or talking or walking. It’s kind of the perfect place for her, just as fantastical as her dreams.
And she finds the perfect guy, not a hero who will sweep in and rescue her, but a blank slate who is calm and beautiful and all the things her life is not. Oh, and also smells real good. That was another thing they promoted a lot about this film (biggest thing that sticks in my mind: Rani said that Shahrukh smelled the sweetest of all her co-stars. Because of the smoking, he was worried about offending his heroines by being all cigarettey, so he would douse himself in very expensive sweet smelling cologne constantly), but the promotions never really got into WHY it is the sense of smell that is so important to the character.
It doesn’t really have to be smell, it just has to be something a little unusual, something that would only be important to her. It’s not as important for being the thing that attracts her to Prithviraj, as it is for being the thing that turns her off her home. The way her family brushes off her complaints about her father’s smoking, her brother’s dogs, and the huge garbage dumpster outside their gate, is indicative of their larger lack of concern for anything that affects her. Rani sells it that these smells really do bother her, she truly does have an extra sensitive nose. But since they only bother her, her family ignores it and doesn’t care. Sight and sound would be too universal, it wouldn’t be just limited to Rani. And of course, taste and feel would be to intimate and too easy to avoid. But smell is something you can’t escape from, and at the same time is something that not everyone even notices.
That not-noticing is also what makes her attraction to Prithviraj so interesting. Prithviraj is, of course, shockingly handsome. And he comes off really well in this movie, very well styled and shot and all. And yet, no one else on campus has noticed him? No one else in his life wants to marry him? Rani is the only girl running after him? Well, it’s because she is the only one who really sees him, he is someone who doesn’t force himself on your attention, unless you are attracted by something he can’t control, like his smell.
And then there’s Subodh Bhave. At the same time Rani is getting her first job and falling in love with silent art student Prithviraj, back home a nice boy from a good family has agreed to marry her. Not because he had to be talked into it either, but because he saw her and liked her a lot, right from the beginning. In all ways, this is an excellent match. A nice boy, a good family, nice parents, and he really really likes her!
Or, does he? Does he even really see her? This is where the film theme comes back. On their first “date”, Subodh tells her about his favorite movie, Chashme Buddoor. And the whole sequence is very Chashme Buddoor-y. Natural lighting, walking through a park, in common casual clothing, having a conversation. This is romance for Subodh, a quiet getting to know each other in an everyday place.
(Very confusingly meta. Referencing a song from a famous past film, which was itself making fun of film songs)
But this is not romance for Rani. For Rani, it is colors and dancing and crazy outfits and extreme emotions. It is being so overwhelmed by her feelings that she can’t stop following Prithviraj, for a whole night. It is lying her way into his home to get to know his mother and steal a shirt from his bedroom. Or, to put it more simply, for Rani romance is the 80s and 90s movies she loves, with Madhuri and Sridevi and the rest of them. And for Subodh, it is Chashme Buddoor. This marriage would never work.
In a less feminist film, the lesson would be for Rani to give up her dreams, to learn to appreciate real life. I wouldn’t even really have minded that Subodh was such a sweetheart. But, this is Rani’s movie. It is about her getting what she wants. And she wants Prithviraj.
(See how much she wants him! And how awesome this movie is about providing for the female gaze!)
Which brings me to Prithviraj! He plays what I think of as a “Raaj Kumar” part, after Raaj Kumar in Mother India. It’s the same tricky balance Fawad Khan pulled off in Khoobsurat, or Shahrukh in Dil Aashna Hai. To be a strong interesting well-rounded person, but at the same time to be primarily the romantic interest and support for the heroine. It’s the challenge that heroines are expected to pull off all the time, to somehow create a full character out of drips and drabs of scenes with the main character, to make us understand why they are “worthy” of being with the protagonist. It’s slightly trickier with men, because the male character is usually the aggressor, so you have to wonder why, if the guy is so great, he doesn’t recognize how great the girl is and just go for it! But of course he can’t go for it, because the woman is the protagonist of the movie, she has to make all the moves.
The explanation here is a little weaker than in Ohm Shaanti Oshana. It’s almost the exact same progression of the romance, she basically stalks him for the whole movie, trying every trick she can in her limited female role (it’s not like she can go to his mother and directly propose marriage), and then in the end he finally responds, after she literally falls at his feet (fainting because she got drunk earlier, and then followed him around all day), and of course he loved her all along! He knew she was following him and was delighted by it! He noticed her awkward attempts to learn Tamil to please him (there’s a whole north-south thing I’ll get to in a moment), he saw it all and liked her. And, in fact, he is ready to propose after a brief conversation! All of this is also the case in Ohm Shaanti Oshana, but in that he had a good reason not to acknowledge her at first, because she was just a teenager and he had to wait for her to grow up. But in this film, why not tell Rani how he feels right away? Why keep her waiting?
There is sort of an explanation, we learn that he was going to college during the day and working all night and was just too darn tired to think about things until she dropped in his lap. I guess I can believe that, that he was just sort of waiting around for something to happen to push the issue, because he was too busy to go out of his way and do anything, but it’s awfully selfish while poor Rani is going crazy trying to get out of her engagement. Yes, he doesn’t know she is engaged, but he also doesn’t know she isn’t! Come on, Prithviraj! Get a move on and nail that girl down!
And then there’s the end-end. Just as Rani and Prithviraj are finally having their first conversation, and admitting their feelings, we intercut with her crazy co-worker and weird brother hooking up in her co-workers mad John Abraham themed apartment. Blech! Why? Why put this delicate and real conversation against this bonkers stupid sequence? Is it supposed to be the contrast? To make us appreciate both sides more? Well, it didn’t work! I just hated the bonkers side of it even more, seeing it in comparison with the really good sequence.
Oh right, I promised to talk about the north-south thing! Or, central-south? Anyway, Maharashtrian-Tamilian. Rani’s family is Maharashtrian, this whole thing takes place in Pune. And Prithviraj and his widowed mother are Tamil transplants. Rani learns Tamil, and watches Tamil movies (specifically, Silk Smitha songs), and seems to find Prithviraj more attractive for being non-Maharashtrian.
(Which is what inspires the “Dreamun Wakeuppum” number, which was the main thing everyone talked about from this movie.)
I don’t think it is saying that Maharashtrian is worse than Tamilian or anything like that. I think it is just talking joy in the mixing of cultures. In the idea of a girl finding a dark-skinned boy more attractive than a lighter one (as the end credits song says). In the whole beautiful mixture of cultures, that at the same time isn’t a mixture at all because, on the inside, Rani and Prithviraj have a lot more in common than Rani and Subodh ever did. Prithviraj sees her, really sees her, and delights in all the fantasy and craziness and filmi-ness that is a part of her.
(Speaking of mixing of cultures, here’s the end credits song with Polish subtitles! I didn’t even do that on purpose, it’s the best version I could find on youtube.)