Such a disturbing movie. Like, not sure if I can go to sleep tonight kind of disturbing. Very disturbing. But also very high quality.
I don’t even know where to begin with this. I guess with how the film begins? The “Chitta Ve”, which I have been listening to over and over again at work, turns out to be all about drugs! Who knew! We open with Shahid playing a very clear Yo Yo Honey Singh analogue and singing “Chitta Ve” at a massive concert. And then we see him and his entourage snorting cocaine (I think? I really don’t know anything about drugs). And from there we see the whole cycle, how the cops look the other way and publicize the token busts they make, how politicians talk a lot but do nothing, how the activists try but are fighting a losing battle, and how the little helpless workers in the fields continue their small lives on the outskirts.
We are seeing the whole pattern of society and how drugs connect it all. Fine, okay, not terribly original but all right. But what I started to notice as the film continued is that the message wasn’t just anti-drugs, it was anti-society. It’s not that drugs made the politicians corrupt, or elevated shallow empty musicians to positions heros, or forced cops to ignore the laws, or made poor little girls from Bihar travel to the Punjab for soul deadening manual labor. That was already happening. All drugs did was make those problems worse.
Put it another way, sometimes drugs and other illegal options can seem like a way to turn the power on its head. It can let minorities became business owners, make them powerful, help their communities. It can spread wealth in unexpected and unusual paths, it can effect change, it can be a part of the revolution. Heck, I just saw that in Iyobinte Pusthakam, when they run illegal liquor to help pay for guns.
But what this film is saying is that the drugs serve to enforce the existing power dynamics in the region. The most powerless people in society remain the most powerless people in society, just even more abused. Even the characters who, at first, appear to be profiting from drugs, to be moving up in the world, are just heading for a much much worse fall. The only ones who succeed are those who are already on top. Which isn’t a spoiler, because those who appear to be on top at the beginning and those who appear to be on the bottom, may not actually be at the top and bottom, as we see as time goes on.
Hmm, what else can I say without spoiling things? Oh! Acting! Phenomenal, all around! Alia is on a whole other plain, I do not understand how she is this good, this young. It’s like the second coming of Nutan. Or Kajol. Just this raw, open emotion. She is the heart and soul of the film, and she carries the whole thing on her back.
Shahid is a kick! He’s basically the comic relief, and he is great at it! I looked up the director, and he previously worked on Kaminey, and wrote the script for it, which is my all time favorite Shahid performance. This is kind of the same, plays into that same craziness and energy. But without any of the depth or sorrow from Kaminey. Well, maybe just a tinge of it. But mostly just comedy and energy and fun.
Kareena is really well-caste. It’s kind of a small role, really. Well, smallest of the leads. But she has to project confidence and calm and control. She has to be the one who is five steps ahead of everyone else. Who can see the big picture better than them. So having her be the biggest name in the cast, and the most experienced actor, works very well. Although, I kind of think 5 years ago she could have knocked the Alia role out of the park. Not now, with all her old lady married feel to her, but back then she could have done it.
Dilji Dosanjh was dreamy! Why did no one tell me? He had these big sensitive eyes and a sweet smile and all that. And he also had a great presence. I cared, immediately, about his character. And also respected and enjoyed watching him. I believed he was smart, I believed he was brave, I believed he was the head of his household, all of that, right away.
But like I said, it’s Alia’s movie. Alia and the director. It’s an extremely complicated plot, and he balances it perfectly, hopping between character and character just right to keep us interested in them all, switching from despair to comedy just right to keep us from being depressed. It’s also, of course, a really controversial plot. He really pulls no punches in blaming the politicians and the cops and everyone else who just looks the other way and chooses not to care.
And, like I said, the real lesson is that nothing changes and nothing is new. The ones who were abused before are still abused now, the ones who were abusers before are still abusers now, it’s just that drugs are part of it now, instead of water, or taxes, or the army, or any of the other things that have been fought over in that country before.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Diljit is a corrupt low level inspector whose little brother is an addict. His brother is brought in to Kareena’s clinic and Kareena nags him into caring and trying to track the distribution network. Kareena and Diljit work together, and follow a truck to a factory outside of town. They hide out at the factory and witness loading of materials and get the name of a shell company used to purchase supplies. They track that shell company to the driver for a politician, confirming that he is running the drug trade in the region. They prepare a report to be delivered to the election commission, and agree to go on a date the next day, now that the investigation is over. And as Kareena walks back to her room, she sees Diljit’s little brother, escaped from the clinic with a knife. Kareena tries to calm and stop him, he stabs her in the neck with his knife. The guards call Diljit’s relative, another cop, to come cover up the murder, and he finds Kareena’s investigation materials, and realizes that Diljit is involved. He calls Diljit over to the clinic, and then takes him to the hide out at the old farmhouse.
Meanwhile, Shahid is a superstar rapper of the Yo Yo Honey Singh style. He is also a drug addict, he is arrested as a public relations move by the politicians. Diljit throws him in with the general population of the jail, which makes him confront the ugly side of drug addiction. He comes out determined to stay clean, but struggles, leading to him grabbing a gun at one point and shooting his uncle/manager in the ear. At his big anti-drugs concert, he has a break down and gives a rambling unclear speech to the crowd about how he ended up famous and an addict. The crowd turns on him and he runs away, ending up hiding in the same place as Alia, also on the run. Alia forces him to listen to her much worse story, and he is inspired by her spirit and bravery. He goes back to his house, determined to rescue Alia and then turn himself in to the police. But no one will help him, so he ends up hitching rides and borrowing bicycles until he finally arrives at the same old farmhouse where Diljit is and Alia is being held, just as they are torturing Diljit.
Alia has the saddest story. She is a migrant worker from Bihar who finds a packet of drugs in a field. She figures out how to sell it and make money, but panics on the way to the sale and destroys the drugs. They take her instead, and drug her up and use her as a sex slave, keeping her in the farmhouse and offering her to their allies as a perk. She finally escapes, despite her addiction and withdrawal, and manages to get away and hide, where Shahid finds her. But the gang tracks her down and drags her back. This time, she powers through and resists the drugs, takes the time to manufacture a weapon, and kills her captures, attacking them just as Shahid arrives outside and Diljit uses the distraction to kill the rest of the gang.
The thing about this movie is, it’s all about the characters. There’s really not that much plot, and not that many twists. It feels like there is, because of the structure hoping back and forth between stories, and the editing which breaks on tense moments, but really all the important things that happen are internal.
At one point, Kareena and Diljit are talking about their investigation of the drug trade and efforts to bring down the distributors, and Kareena says that there are two battles going on, and theirs is the easy one. The hard one is the young addicts, trying to quit.
And that’s the point of the characters, we see 4 main characters, and in the beginning, our non-addicts look like they are the important ones, the “heroes”, the ones who will fix things and make it all better. But by the end, after going through experiences and changes, it is the two addicts who do what matters most.
This also goes back to my point above, that the film shows how drugs reinforce existing power structures. It looks like our lowly addicts, an uneducated village boy turned rock star and a field worker, are using drugs to upend power structures, they are going to make their lives better. And it looks like our higher up characters, the cop and the doctor, are just as helpless and trapped in the situation as everyone else.
But, no! Not really. And the simplest way to see how the power is still in place is by seeing who is, and who is not, an addict. The drug trade prays on the vulnerable, the young, the poor, the working class. The ones who escape it will never suffer as much as those who fall into it, no matter how wealthy or luxurious their life appears.
So, time for SPOILERS! What I want to do, is go through each main character’s storyline separately one at a time, instead of in chronological order all mixed up like the editor did it.
Kareena’s story is the simplest. She is a noble doctor, who distributes clean needles and education pamphlets, runs a rehab clinic, and an emergency room for ODs. She also writes articles and makes statements, trying to wake people up to the drug threat. She is, as Diljit says at one point, perfect.
But even within this mostly perfect character, there is still a little journey to be made, with Diljit serving as the catalyst. After Diljit’s brother is brought in to her clinic, she gives him a lecture about how drugs are so easily distributed through out the region, how they are affecting every young person in the state, and how she knows, as a police officer, he has oppurtunities to do something and chooses to look the other way.
Diljit takes her words to heart and challenges her to help him actually investigate and track down and reveal the distribution pattern. This is one of three moments when Kareena is taken aback, and questions herself. As Diljit says, it is easy to make speeches and judge others, but is she brave enough to do something to actually attack the problem?
She steps up to his challenge, and goes on attack, instead of defense. And she steps up again, after Diljit brings her his evidence and asks her to help him with the next step of the investigation. She is drawn into his enthusiasm and confidence and bravery, and starts to believe they really can make a difference, they can report the corrupt politician to the election commission, and the media, things can be better!
And that is her downfall. Diljit makes her think she can break out of her place in the system, makes her hope. I was feeling the “doom, doom!!!” coming a mile away, but I thought it would be because the election commission is corrupt as well and ignores her evidence, or that someone finds out they are investigating and her clinic is shut down. But no, it comes from the direction that is completely unrelated to everything else, but completely related to how Kareena herself has changed.
When we first meet her, she has a brutally practical approach to addiction. She has seen it all a hundred times, she will do what she can, but she won’t raise her expectations. But now, she has hope. She is ready to do something, to believe her actions can effect real change. And, she has fallen in love with Diljit, which makes her look at his little brother not just as another patient, but as a real person. And so, when the brother breaks out of rehab, she doesn’t simply step aside and let him go. She believes she can confront him, that she is strong enough to do something. And she sees the sweet little boy Diljit still sees, not the uncontrolled addict she met a few weeks ago. And she dies for her mistake.
The lesson of Kareena’s character is that it is better to keep fighting the micro-fight, to save one life at a time, to keep your expectations low and harden your heart. If you overreach, you will burn yourself out and the world will lose a warrior it needs. If Kareena had never gotten involved in Diljit’s fight, if she had focused on her patients and her work, then she would still be around to run her clinic, to save one life at a time, to finish out her life as it could have been. Instead, she became one more sacrifice to the drug war. (And a teeny-tiny voice in my head wonders if she had to die first, so she wouldn’t need to share screen space with Shahid)
Of course, she had the possibility of living a long life and fighting the good fight because she had hidden privileges all along. Kareena does a wonderful job with the character, being warm and loving, but also proper and educated and beautiful. She is clearly someone who had the education and money and opportunities to escape the drug scourge. She chose to fight it, which is admirable, but it was still a choice that our other heroine didn’t get to make.
In the same way, Diljit had more choices than the other hero. Or even his own brother! But before I get into his character, first, Diljit! The actor! Why did no one tell me he was super hot? Why did I not notice it myself that one time I tried to watch Jatt & Juliet? Did he get more attractive since then or something? Anyway, he’s great! And right away, you can see why he has been able to escape drugs.
While Kareena was born with more class privileges, Diljit was a little lower, but also a little smarter. We see in his early scenes how he is able to manipulate his superior without even really trying. How he is able to see through the situations and find his advantages. He had the smarts and abilities to get himself what he wants in life without the threat of drugs. And, well, he’s older. By the time the drug trade took over the region, he was already in a place to benefit from it, not fall victim to it.
Unlike his brother, who is younger and, well, stupider. That’s all it takes to make him into a victim instead of a profiteer. Just that little bit of a lack which drops him down on the power scale, makes him someone who dealers can prey on and friends and popular culture can influence. But he’s not one of the main characters, so I’m not going to talk about him, back to Diljit!
The thing with Diljit is, he has a lot of a power. He is a man, first of all. And the head of a household, since his father is dead. And a cop. And smart. And strong and good in a fight. He is so powerful, he doesn’t even realize what power he has. That’s what Kareena calls him on, when he begs her for help to save his brother. That he had the ability to save his brother all along! He is the head of the household, he was in that house with them, and more importantly, he is a cop! It was his job to protect the state from drugs, and he never bothered to do it!
Diljit’s whole journey is a growing awareness of his own power. His problem is the same as Kareena’s, he thinks Kareena has all the power, but in reality he is the one who needs to take charge. Their shared delusion makes Kareena overly confident and leads to her death. And it makes him overly restrained.
They both learn their lesson at the same time. Kareena dies because she believed too much in her own power. And Diljit’s sees her death and finally understands where his own power comes from. The solution isn’t in Kareena’s knowledge that lets them track down the supply route, or the connections that lets them report their findings to the proper authorities; it’s brute force and the power of the Punjab that needs to come into effect.
Diljit, finally, unleashes himself at the end. He stops tracking down the politicians and the big names, and just let’s it all come to him, the family connections and village elders who respect him as a fellow Sikh elder in a way they would never relate to a woman, or an outsider, or even the powerful politicians who seemingly control them. He lets them take him away to their secure village hide out.
And then, finally, when he sees his moment, he fights back. Not through reports and photographs and investigations, but through the power of his body and his skills. One moment of distraction gives him his chance, and he kills everybody. It’s a wonderful sequence, because it is so practical and controlled. He grabs a chair and uses it to hit one man, then grabs his gun as it falls and shoots two others. And then he goes through the house and kills everyone else who is left, ending with the old woman sitting in front of the TV with her mythological tapes.
No more lingering discussions and careful wording. No more sympathy because they are “just like us”. Just straight up on the ground one by one action, killing everyone who stands in his way. It’s an amazing sequence, and it is both the culmination and the end of things for this character. He has finally defeated his enemies, but in so doing he has had to face the darkness inside himself, to see that he has benefited from the same system that empowers them, and that his only choice is to lose everything. The last moment of the film, when we see him sitting on the floor, gun dropping from his hand, face to face with his younger brother who killed the woman he loves, and both of them have nothing to say, they just breath. That is chilling. That is the Punjab, young men who are either destroying others, or destroying themselves, and there is no other choice.
Like I said, Kareena and Diljit are the privileged ones. For most of the movie, it feels like they are the ones who are going to fix things, to change things. Kareena is going to save lives, Diljit is going to arrest bad guys, everything is going to be solved. And it feels like our stories of Shahid and Alia are just a distraction from the main action.
But then, towards the end of the film, it shifts. Just like Kareena said, her battle is meaningless. The real battle is the addicts, the victims, who have to find a way to save themselves.
Shahid doesn’t look like a victim at first. He looks more like comic relief than anything else. A friend I was watching with called him and his group “Spinal Tap”, and she’s not wrong! They are all idiots! Shahid, his older manager, his young crew of hangers on. They can’t stay focused enough to finish a song, they think the discovery that “coke” and “cock” sound similar is the greatest moment of art in the history of the world, their label drops them and they react by partying all night.
Shahid’s big moment is after he is arrested. It’s also when he first overlaps with Diljit. Diljit, who has just been lectured by Kareena and seen his own little brother, a fan of Shahid’s music, succumb to drugs. Diljit passes on down his anger by grabbing Shahid and throwing him into a cell with the general population. Which is where Shahid meets the two brothers, young identical looking boys who sing his songs to him, and then explain that they tried drugs for the first time in 8th grade, after hearing his songs, and then they “had” to murder their mother, because she wouldn’t give them money for more drugs.
At this point, Shahid’s story loses me a little. Because it seems like that kind of by the numbers “celebrities and media drive kids to do bad things!” argument that never holds up. You know back in the 50s in America there was a whole congressional investigation of the comic book industry because it was destroying our youth? So STUPID!!!
But then, as it goes on, I think the lesson gets a little less blunt and a little better. It’s not that Shahid’s music made these kids into drug addicts. It’s that they remind him that drug addiction is the source of his music, that he is just as bad off as these kids, even if he has a mansion and millions and as much cocaine as he wants. He goes back to his house and freaks out on his family, desperate to get away, to get out of the Punjab, to get back to London. In his crazed withdrawal, he grabs a gun and shoots his uncle in the ear.
The scene is played for laughs, but there are a few moments of realness buried within it. For one thing, we learn that his manager isn’t just some manager, it is his uncle. Who took care of him his whole life, who got his little sister married, who is family. And that is who is trying to take care of him and stop him from harming himself or others. Not just some greedy parasite, but someone who has known him since he was a child. And that’s who he shoots. Remove the fame and the glamour and everything else, this is a young man who is so deep in withdrawal that he shoots his own uncle.
That looks like Shahid’s darkest moment, but then it gets worse. He has to do an anti-drug concert, but he can’t sing, he can’t think, he can’t handle it. And he keeps seeing the two boys from jail everywhere he looks. He tries to resist, but when one of his entourage offers him one small hit, he finally takes it. Again, it’s played for laughs, him diving behind a sofa scrabbling around looking for it. But it’s really horrible, that someone is struggling to get over their addiction and is still being forced to live up to their responsibilities, and is being enabled by those around him (I’m not 100% sure, but I think the one who offers him the drugs is the only non-relative in the entourage, the only one who doesn’t love him for himself).
And then Shahid goes out on stage and really reveals himself. We have had half the movie with him playing the comic relief silly stupid pop star. But now we are reminded that there is a human under that pop star. That he is suffering just as much as anyone else, and that no matter where he is now, he came from the same struggling background as anyone else, that he is a Punjabi just like them.
It’s a great speech, because it doesn’t feel speechy. Or exposition-y. The point is supposed to be what Shahid wants to get across to the audience at his concert, they other characters in the film, that he is no hero and they shouldn’t follow him. But the real point is to the audience in the movie theater, that Shahid is a victim just like the other characters and we should stop laughing about his struggles. And that message is buried in the little comments he throws out as he goes along, that he was a village boy who lucked into a Visa to Birmingham, that he somehow learned how to sing and people love to listen to him. And that he sang about the only thing he knew, drugs. And now 3 years later he went from a 22 year old boy to a superstar.
Suddenly, it’s not that he sent Diljit’s little brother down the wrong path, or even those boys in jail, it’s that the path was already there, it’s the path he was on, it’s what the world is for young men in the Punjab, and he was just the first one to sing about it. And he is as much a victim as anyone in his audience. And then he urinates on his audience. Which I only know because I read the articles about the censorship debate, it really isn’t filmed very clearly.
This is where Shahid’s path intersects with another one of our characters for a second time, when he meets Alia, also on the run and trying to get off drugs. And Alia saves him. Literally saves him, fighting off the concert goers who are chasing him down, but also metaphorically saves him by reminding him how much worse he could have it. And teaches him to be brave, to fight, to look beyond himself. This is the fight that matters, just like Kareena said, not a big charity anti-drugs concert, not that speech he tried to give to teach his audience a lesson, but just himself, on his own, trying to save himself instead of just give up.
And, buried within their interaction, is another moment played for laughs with a real feeling hidden beneath it. Shahid wants to befriend Alia because he wants someone to help him kill himself. He is ready to give up the struggle, in all ways. He can’t handle life without drugs, he can’t handle what drugs have done to the world, he can’t handle the Punjab (remember, his early despair led him to beg to go back to London, to get free of what his home has become). It’s at that deep deep moment of despair that she shows him what it is like to fight back, and how much worse his life could be. Because, even if they are both of the level of society that the politicians and the dealers like to chew up and spit out, Alia is a woman, and it is always worse to be a woman.
After Alia is taken, finally, Shahid does something. Like, in terms of narrative. For the first time, his character takes the oppurtunity to put things in motion. But first, there is a final confrontation with his family, a scene which legitimately made me feel things. Shahid is hanging around outside his house, where the police are waiting to arrest him and have already arrested his uncle/manager. He sees his friend from the entourage and stops his car. And, I think, this is the first time we learn that this seemingly useless hanger on is actually Shahid’s cousin? He blows up at him, because his father is in jail, everyone is being arrested, and it is all because Shahid has destroyed their lives! And then he adds “I used to look up to you! My cool cousin from London! I was proud of you! PROUD. And now, I can’t even look at you.” It’s kind of devastating, picturing this young boy in the village, starry eyed about his big cousin who can rap and lives overseas.
It’s even more devastating because now, for the first time, Shahid wants to do the right thing, and no one will help him. This is his punishment and his salvation, that for once he is trying to do something good, but he has to do it on his own. So he leaves his cousin alone, promises to return and turn himself in, but first he has to go rescue Alia.
And this is also where Shahid’s fans get their redemption. And, by extension, all the youth of the Punjab, the seemingly heartless and careless and selfish ones. Shahid has a vague idea of where to start looking, and he tracks down the local drug hang out and speaks to the young boys there, using his star power to get their help. And, immediately, they join his crusade. Because they trust him and they want to do good. Real good, human good, not some abstract idea of a drug-free Punjab, or fair elections, but just rescuing a girl.
It’s also where we get to see Shahid’s value as an artist. The opening of the film was him singing an ode to drugs with thousands of screaming fans. And yeah, it’s a great song! But is he a one-hit-wonder? Does he have anything inside him besides a kind of crazy charm and a lot of energy? And the answer is, yes!
Just as Alia has reached in and dug up his humanity, his strength, and his humility, she also pulled out his art. With the help of the two young boys, Shahid breaks into the hospital room of the local drug dealer, who was beaten up for Alia’s mistakes, and demands to know where she is being held. But before he will tell Shahid anything, he insists on a song. And everything stops.
The guards stop banging on the door, the patient/dealer stops screaming in pain, and Shahid stops trying to think and solve and escape, he just feels. It’s a really beautiful song. It’s also the song from the film that is based on a poem by Shiv Kumar Batalvi, a great Punjabi poet who died in 1973. I don’t know if it is supposed to be that Shahid knew the poem and suddenly it clicked for him with the tune he was working on earlier, or if it is supposed to be within the film that Shahid wrote the poem. I kind of hope it is the first. I like the idea of him discovering an older Punjabi voice within himself, and the patient and the guards at the door are responding to that, to a call back to their shared past and heritage.
(This isn’t the version from the movie, but look how happy they are!)
This song is what drives Shahid forward through the end, riding a bicycle all night, surviving withdrawal symptoms and the pain of the beatings, because he has a vision of Alia’s purity and strength. His art has been reborn and is bringing him through, but I also like it if it is his Punjabi heritage and art and beauty that is bringing him through too, found in a new understanding of this classic Punjabi artwork, until he finds Alia, takes her away, and (as we learn in the tag), turns himself over to the police after giving all his money to his loyal family members.
And then there’s Alia. Oh man, she is so amazing in this movie. She is just determination personified. The world keeps attacking her, destroying her, trying to make her give up, and she Just. Won’t. Do it.
She is where the movie opens, and at first she seems like her story will be a simple taste of tragedy, on top of the firm foundation of Diljit and Kareena’s quest, just like Shahid looks like no more than comic relief. But as the movie continues, she becomes more and more the heart and soul of the film.
Right at the beginning, we see three figures on the Pakistani side of the border throwing a packet over the fence. It lands in a field, and is found by Alia, a migrant farm worker from Bihar. She instinctively hides it, and watches while others search the fields. And then, slowly, she puts together that what she found was drugs, that it is valuable, that she can find a dealer and sell it for a lot of money. This part is kind of fun, watching her put it all together long after the audience has worked it out. And enjoying her street smarts and lack of common sense. She may be able to figure out how to distract the tea stall owner while she weighs her bag of drugs, but she doesn’t have enough common sense to realize she shouldn’t spread around how much she is carrying.
And then there is her big mistake, her big moment in which it all gets real. What I love about this sequence is how it emphasis her position as a woman in society, separate from all the drug stuff. At first, she leaves her home, all confident, dressed up with her hair brushed. As she leaves, she passes a young boy, around her own age, he looks at her with obvious appreciation, and she smiles, all happy at the compliment of his admiration. But then she leaves her familiar neighborhood, and the young boys, and she is out in the world being stared at and studied by men, grown powerful men. And she gets scared, not just because of the drugs she is carrying, but because she suddenly sees and recognizes her own lack of power in the world. And that leads to panic, and that leads to disaster, when she runs away from her meeting, and instead throws the drugs down a well.
Also, great metaphor there! The drugs going into the empty well, Punjab’s lost water being replaced by it’s new drugs. It’s a context that comes up only a few times in the film, someone refers to the drug business as the “new green revolution”, way at the end the village elder leader of the gang says something about how “they took our water, they can’t take this.” The drugs didn’t just arrive out of nowhere, and didn’t just take root for no reason. The Punjab has been in trouble for a while, the drugs are just the latest symptom.
Not that Alia cares about the metaphor, her life is too hard for that. The way these scenes are edited, the horror comes fast for her, but slow for the audience. We see the drugs go down into the well, and then cut away and follow someone else for a while. And then come back to see her locked in a room, 4 men looking at her and deciding her fate.
It’s a really hard scene to watch, and a really interesting one, in how it is so different from the usual rape scene. It’s so much less dramatic, for one thing. No big mustache twirling and evil laughter or anything like that. The leader points out that Alia cost them a lot of money. And then he leaves. And the one man left in the room starts coming towards her on the bed. In most films, this is when we would cut, the rest left to our imagination. But the filmmaker had a different idea here. He wanted us to see that Alia wasn’t just a “victim”, that she fought back. So we don’t fade away, we keep watching as Alia fights back, two other men enter the room, she hits and bites and kicks, she breaks free and reaches the terrace, and then, finally, is pulled and pushed down onto a cot sitting out in the sun.
Besides seeing Alia fight back, we also get to see the whole space in which she is trapped. Which is fascinating. It is an old Punjab farmhouse, the kind I have seen in movies from Pardes to Nameste London to Jab We Met. The terrace where the scene ends is the same terrace as in all the other movies, where the heroine sings and puts out chillies to dry, and flirts with the hero. The cot is the same one where Varun slept in Humpty Sharma, and Shahrukh flirted with Kajol in DDLJ. This isn’t some unfamiliar terrifying outsider den of evil, this is just a traditional Punjabi household. And in this household, with the old woman obsessed by TV soaps and the old man sitting in the courtyard directing things, there are also 4 young men raping a woman up on the roof.
We cut away from this scene right when Alia is finally caught, no lingering camera on her body as they tear her clothes, no screams of terror, none of the usual tricks directors use to make rape titillating. I appreciate that.
The next time she shows up, it is on a cell phone held by Diljit’s commanding officer. He is showing it to Diljit, asking if he is interested, there is a woman available to cheer them up. Their callousness is shocking. Especially since Diljit doesn’t seem to realize that this is the crusade he should be on. No hunting down of drug factories and sources, just go to your uncle’s house and rescue the sex slave that is being held captive.
But everyone is blind to Alia, no one sees her, so she has to rescue herself. That is the rest of her story, her rescuing herself. It’s frustrating to see her captured so quickly, her life destroyed so fast, especially when the beginning of her story looked so hopeful, she was going to use the drug trade to improve her life, and all she did was bring herself into the worst possible life, kept drugged and addicted while man after man after man come into her room and did what they wanted to her. But it has to go that low, and that bad, to prove how strong she is, that she can survive all of that and keep fighting.
Which she does. She drags herself out of the drug haze enough to notice when the door is left open, and makes a run for it. She gets away, she finds a place to hide, and she laughs at Shahid when he suggests suicide. She isn’t that stupid! She is going to keep fighting and make her life better.
Oh man, this scene is so amazing! Shahid’s whole purpose in this movie, really, is to support Alia, to give her a partner to play off of so she can, finally, reveal everything that is burning up inside her. All the dreams that died and all the stuff she survived. It’s not just the drugs and the rape, it’s before that, when she had to give up on her athlete dreams to travel to Punjab and work in the fields to support her family, when she thought that was the worst that could happen. Most heartbreaking and strong is her way of conveying rape, by grabbing Shahid’s face and kissing him, and then saying “they have all done that to me, and much more.” She doesn’t have the words to describe what they did, that is how innocent she is, but at the same time she has the strength to survive it.
(Also, so odd to think of them filming these two very different movies together back to back)
And then the men come for her and take her away again. And, finally, someone cares! Even if it is silly funny Shahid, finally someone is seeing Alia, is fighting for her, is trying to make her life better. Of course, it doesn’t work, because it is silly funny Shahid who can’t do anything (until he sings a song in the hospital), but at least someone tries.
And maybe it is that, that someone reaches out a hand to her and reminds her that she has value, which finally pushes Alia through to the other side. And man, she is so strong! She is the smartest, the bravest, the strongest, the hero of the movie. Not just the protagonist, but the Hero. She tricks her main captor, gives him drugs but hides the needle before he remembers to drug her, then stuffs her shirt in her mouth and powers through the withdrawal symptoms, and finally works a nail out of the wall and uses it to stab the men who have attacked her. Shahid shows up just in time, not to rescue her, but to watch her rescue herself.
Shahid isn’t the only one who thinks Alia needs to be “saved”. Her main captor tries to convince her he loves her, that he is the only one who appreciates her. He convinces the others not to punish her for running away, or kill her. And in the end, Alia still stabs him in the neck with a nail. Because it doesn’t matter how he feels about her, all that matters is how she feels about him. And she felt raped.
That could have been the ending for her, Alia stabbing and freeing herself, with Shahid trailing behind her as her appreciative audience. But, thank goodness, we get a little more from her! The first ending of the film is what I described above, Diljit and his brother staring at each other as the screen goes black. And then about a minute into the credits, the movie starts up again. We don’t see what happens to Diljit, but we see the end result of his actions, the politicians being questioned and confronted on TV. But that’s not the real conclusion, because that’s just the big picture problem, who cares about that? It’s not what really matters.
What really matters is what we see next. Shahid’s cousin, talking on the phone, as he walks through the beaches of Goa where the family has gone for vacation, living large on Shahid’s money while he is in jail. But Shahid doesn’t want to talk to them, he wants to talk to his sweetheart. And it’s Alia! Shahid did rescue her, not from violence, but from all the other misery of her life. And he handed her over to his family, and he turned himself in, just like he promised. And now, here she is in Goa, just like she dreamed while staring at the tourist ad billboard from her room every time the men came in. And she tells Shahid her name, finally, over the phone. “Mary Jane”. In an American movie, this would be just a drug joke, about the marijuana nickname. But it’s a Hindi movie, so there are two jokes. A drug joke, and also, “Mere Jaan”. She isn’t just a drug victim, she is also a loved one. And she is free, finally, and we end with her diving into the ocean, and swimming free, as the final song starts.