I really really like this movie, for many reasons, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is without Jaya Bachchan.
(this is a mini-review, which assumes you have already seen the movie, I’m not going to worry about summarizing it, or avoiding SPOILERS)
I started thinking about Jaya’s character in this film and how she is attached to the other characters, and then I started noticing that in many ways she is the center of the film. More than that, the female relationships are the center of the narrative. Yes, Shahrukh is the hero and is wonderful. And yes, Saif’s character and performance are one of his best ever, truly living up to the idea that it is the loser in the love triangle who has the hidden strength. But the actual things that happen are, literally, answers to Jaya’s prayer. She wants her family to be happy, her restaurant to succeed, her daughter to be married, and that is what happens. Late in the film, Shahrukh says he did everything for “Jaya’s eyes”, he couldn’t see the pain in a mother’s eyes. It’s a bit of a lie, hiding the fact that the “Naina (eyes)” he cares about is also our heroine “Naina”. But it’s also a bit of the truth. He loves Preity, romantically. But his greatest respect and concern and, in a strange way, allegiance is to Jaya. Shahrukh is the hero of the movie, but the hero his character worships is Jaya.
And Jaya Bachchan, the actress, is capable of playing the “hero”. This role and her performance is a reminder that Jaya was a star long before her husband, that she is an actress and a star and a beloved Indian icon in her own right. She can play the “hero” of a family without major heroics, big moments, loud voices, anything like that. Just the smallest wrinkle of the mouth, gesture of the hand, wrinkle of the forehead, and we can see her pain and strength.
If you flip the film that way, look to Jaya and her concerns as Shahrukh’s character does, you realize that it is the rare film structured entirely around a matriarchy. In Preity’s house, Jaya is the head. Sushma Seth is the evil scheming elder. Preity is the young hero. And Jhanak Shukla is the child they are all trying to raise. Their neighbors/friends/allies are another female household, two sisters, Lillette Dubey and Delneez Irani. And that finally explains the epilogue, it’s not about Preity and Saif and their bad old age make-up, it’s about seeing Preity with adult Jhanak, the continuation of the female line. Shahrukh’s purpose was to ensure that, to heal the hurts in the family and unite the women into a strong line that would continue on and on.
And, because it is a matriarchy, there is a unique idea of male strength. Of strength in general. We don’t see them in big fight scenes, either verbal or physical, we instead see endurance, silent endurance of pain. Right at the beginning, Preity talks about how she and her mother both hide their tears from each other. Jaya struggles to handle her mother-in-law, not through big declarations and ultimatums, but through the little daily slights and little daily challenges in protecting her children from abuse. The invisible challenges and small triumphs that make up the life of women.
And it is this kind of strength, this small ability to endure and keep going, that the film celebrates in both female and male characters. Our heroes are heroes not through achievements, but through sacrifices. Shahrukh sacrifices his temporary happiness for Preity’s permanent happiness. Saif accepts the constant knowledge that he has something a little less than perfect in his love story. And the failure is the man who lacked that small strength. Preity’s father, who was charming and successful (presumably, based on their house) and beloved of his mother, and capable of romancing women (as we can see from Jaya’s willingness to marry outside of her religion and the late reveal of Gia’s parentage). All the usual markers of the “hero” in these films. But ultimately, he was not heroic. He could not handle the small everyday needs of his family, and he killed himself. And that made him someone not worthy of emulating.
There is a tricky sequence of scenes late in the film. Preity finds out Shahrukh is dying after she has already begun to plan her wedding to Saif, Shahrukh goes to her and holds her and says “I don’t love you” in a way that tells the audience (and Preity) just how much he does. Preity is broken and devastated, and that is when Jaya appears. She is the voice of wisdom, the ultimate judge, the ultimate good who can make sense of this crazy world. And she, in that moment, gives Preity the key to the value system of the film. Her father was a weak man who could not survive. It is survival that is important, putting one foot in front of the other day after day, even if it isn’t showy or heroic or perfect. That is what makes Saif the better man, the man who is willing to take on a responsibility without expecting anything in return. It is this moment between the two women, talking bluntly and honestly about what men can and cannot do, which leads into the wedding sequence. A sequence in which we have a rare moment of women together, women of all generations. While the men are excluded, we see Shahrukh passing on a particular “male” wisdom, reminding Preity’s brother he was not allowed to look or enter the room without an invitation. Inside, there is Lillette, the middle-aged woman next door. Delneez as a young woman. Jaya as the matriach. Shubla Seth as the elder. And little Jhanak, watching and learning from all of them. These are women who are varied and complicated and strong. They all have these little heartaches, the things they have hidden, and Preity is joining their number.
It is an echo of an earlier moment, during the “Mahi Ve” number the emotional depth is given not by Shahrukh and Preity and Saif’s three way heartache, but by the moment when all the older women sing to Preity, giving her their love and wisdom as she enters marriage. Her mother and Preity having a moment acknowledging the specialness of that bond. And then little Jhanak playing Preity, a remember of how the family will go on, this little girl will stay home and some day grow up. And in no part of that sequence is Preity’s brother present, or her future husband, or her dead father. The men are extraneous, the women exist together outside of them.
(go to 3:30 and prepare to cry. Loose bad translation of Jaya’s lyrics, “Moon, oh my moon, how will I ever make you understand how much I love you? I want to find all the happiness in the world and send it with your wedding palanquin”)
That is the reveal that brings the culmination of Jaya’s story. When Sushma and the rest of the family learn the truth of Gia’s heritage, she is Preity’s half sister, the result of an affair her father had. But Jaya didn’t look at Gia and see her cheating husband, she saw a little girl. More importantly, she didn’t look at Gia’s mother and see a woman who stole her husband, she saw a fellow woman. That is the lesson Sushma learns, she always saw only men in the family. Her son, her grandson. Her daughter-in-law only existed in relation to her son, and therefore was to be blamed for her son’s death. Her older granddaughter only existed to be married off to another man. And her younger granddaughter was a burden, less than human, to be disposed of.
This is the dark side of matriarchy. The internalized misogyny side of it. Sushma was a woman, living in a household and family of women, and she hated them all and herself because they were not men. Sushma’s character is related to the real life women who coordinate their daughter’s honor killings, who pray for a son, who kill their daughters-in-law. And the weakness of the film, the fantasy of it, is that she would ever change. Would, in her 70s, learn to confront her behavior and acknowledge her sins.
Sushma Seth is the darkside, but Jhanak is the promise. She has an open fragile face, ready to absorb anything that happens to her. She is there, in the background, for all of these moments. Seeing her mother’s strength, her sister’s sorrow and joy, and the way “good” men behave, not afraid to appear weak or funny or happy, but always there, supportive and present. And in the end it is her story. A young woman who survived all of this and came out of it stronger and happier and with a fuller sense of what it means to be a woman. That was Jaya’s greatest triumph, raising this child into a strong adult. A triumph all mothers achieve but do not get movies about them.
Oh, one final thing, in Shahrukh’s speech he says he did it all for “Jaya’s eyes”. And it had to be Jaya in that role. Because there is something about her eyes, and her little face, that just breaks your heart. You can believe that Shahrukh would do anything to keep her happy because we, in the audience, just want her to be happy again.
(The highlight of this song, second to Shahrukh dancing, is Jaya finally smiling)