I’ve known about this movie for years and years and years, since college, but I had no idea how good it was. I wish I’d watched it ages ago! And I encourage all of you to see it.
In 1933, Hedy Lamarr went swimming nude onscreen in an Czech-Austrian film called Ecstacy. After it was released, Hedy Lamarr and the film became an international sensation. Her husband spent millions trying to buy up every print. The Catholic Legion of Decency in America tried to suppress it. But the stills of Hedy’s nude swim, and the film clips of it that were passed around for years, became legendary.
What no one remembers is the rest of the film. It wasn’t about Hedy swimming nude and giving the world a sexy image. It was about why Hedy’s character went for that swim, what it meant to her to be free and naked in the water. And it is that same reason that this film, in tribute to Ecstacy, opens with Udita Goswami swimming in her underwear.
Ecstacy was a movie that made the shocking argument that women have physical desires, that they can gain natural free pleasure from their bodies. Hedy’s character goes for her swim after she has returned home following a frustrating marriage to an impotent man. She is craving something, she wants to feel like her body is her own, wants to wash away all of the rest of the world from it.
Paap is generally regarded as a remake of the American film Witness. And it is, in the broad strokes of the plot. But it is using that plot to deal with an entirely different series of questions. Witness was about the clash of a community and a people that chose to retreat from a world of violence, and a man who lived within that world. It asked the question if it was nobler to retreat and end the fight by leaving, or to stay and do whatever it takes to win. The end resolution between violence and non-violence is that each have their place, that the people who live outside the world can serve as a “witness” for it, can challenge folks to be better just by watching them. But there also has to be someone to watch, someone fighting and doing something in the world. So the film ends with our hero choosing to leave this community where he briefly stayed because, ultimately, it is not the place for him.
Paap is dealing with an entirely different question. It asks if it is a sin for a woman to have desires, or if it is a sin for a woman to kill those desires. The violence of the plot is there only to shock her into further awareness of her desires, further awareness of a world full of passion and change and possibilities.
Personally, I think this is a better film than Witness. For one thing, there is minimal idealization of the remote community where our heroine lives. She eats the same food, wears almost the same clothes, lives a life not that far different from how our hero lives. And the community is a community of choice, not birth. I can believe there are many people in the world who feel a calling to a life of peace. I have a harder time believing that a community of folks raised knowing only that life are all truly happy, that it is a place of peace and happiness and love, that no one desires something different.
But it’s not just that. Witness takes a cowardly path, gives the audience a beautiful fantasy of a perfect place, and then walks away without truly grappling with the question of the price of that beauty. This film doesn’t do that. The conflict is explicit for the last third of the film, not the superficial conflict of cops and robbers but the internal conflict. And it ends with a strong clear statement of resolution to that conflict, Pooja Bhatt as a director is not afraid to pick a side.
Pooja Bhatt as a director isn’t really afraid of anything. For example, in this film our hero and his sister have an angry fight because he wants her to throw out her drunken abusive husband and she keeps letting him back in. They are rich, they are educated, and his sister isn’t “pretty”. This isn’t either a glamourous or a pitiful melodramatic version of spousal abuse, it is regular every day abuse that can happen inside any house. Most of all, after movie after movie after MOVIE where our hero beats up the husband to force him back into the marriage with his sister, we finally have one where the hero throws him out and has a screaming fight with his sister working through the messy situation. You know, like a normal human person would react to spousal abuse of their sister.
Later, the same hero talks to the heroine’s father in the usual tug of war conversation. But instead of how it usually goes, with the hero and the father both giving their opinions, this time the hero simply refuses the fight, says it is up to the heroine to make her choice and that’s all there is to it. When do we get that in a movie? The hero choosing not to take part in this battle, because it isn’t really his fight?
In every shot, in every line, Pooja is declaring, “I am a woman, this is my world, this is my story.” Her heroine puzzles out her own mind and heart, writes poetry, goes on spiritual quests. Her hero worries about the people around him and tries to take care of them. Pooja’s moral issues aren’t abstract patriotism or loyalty, they are about life and death, protecting people. And most of all, the inner life of a young woman is not forced back, told “this does not matter”, shoved in the little space left after the action scenes are through and the big speeches about society and all the other stuff that is important, that counts, that matters more than if a young woman is dying inside or living her full life.
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We start with Udita. She lives in the mountains around Manali, one of the ancient religious spots of India. She writes poetry and dreams of something or someone that she can’t quite understand. Her father forbids poetry and dreams, reminds her that she is destined to join the monastery, it is a great future for her.
The monastery calls for her to give her a task, to find a little boy who is the reincarnation of their dead Lama, living in Delhi. It right away tells us how Udita is different, alone, in her place in the world. She is close enough to joining the monastery that she is considered trusted and capable of caring for a special boy, and yet still enough of the world to be able to navigate within Delhi. Udita’s there-but-not-there attitude continues in Delhi. She isn’t shockingly different from another woman you would see on the street, she knows about television and phones and everything else of the modern world. But at the same time, she is torn by an unusual internal struggle, resisting the urges of her body with all the strength of her mind. What makes her unusual is what is inside of her, not the world she lives in.
In the original film Witness, there is an artificial divide between our hero and heroine. The hero is “normal”, part of the modern world and all of that. The heroine is completely different, a breed apart. That is the conflict. But in modern India, a hero who is loving and compassionate and sees love and sex and everything else as a normal thing could easily be paired with a heroine who sees all pleasures of the body as a sin to be resisted. The Manali setting makes it a little unusual, as does her father’s desire to have her join a monastery rather than have a proper marriage. But it is still the familiar question of a heroine choosing between love and duty.
Pooja could have told this story with a proper engaged woman and the cop she meets in the city. But she gave us something a little bit different in order to grab our attention, in order to make us see true conflict is between a woman and herself, not a fiance and a boyfriend or a father and a lover. And yet, not that different. Not so much that we can’t see how it can apply to our lives, our normal non-filmi lives.
In Delhi, Udita finds the little boy easily and they go to the airport to fly back home to Manali. No stress, no weird culture clashes, she is an intelligent capable person. And when the little boy witnesses a murder in the bathroom, she supports him as he talks to the kind police detective John Abraham. She is nervous, as anyone would be, but not lost in this world or helpless. And she is capable of standing up to John and reminding him that he is happy to have a witness to the murder not sad that a little boy saw a bad thing. That’s why he notices her, because she is strangely fearless in the world and ready to remind him of what matters. More than that, because she agrees with him as to what matters. People, more than rules and laws.
Udita and the boy need a place to stay so John takes them to his sister’s house. Arriving just in time to hear a fight between her and her drunk husband. John throws the husband out than asks the sister how she could let him back in, especially with the kids upstairs. She tells him not to tell her what to do. And then she welcomes Udita. This is a normal exchange between two people who love each other. It’s not great that she lets her drunk husband in the house again, but she’s right, John can’t tell her what to do. And John’s not right to try to boss her around, but he’s right to throw her husband out when he starts hitting her. Udita came from a place of peace and non-violence, but also from a place where she does not dare speak up against her father’s orders. John is a man who will accept a woman in his family arguing with him, even when he is sure he is in the right.
And then Udita is taken up to the guest room where she sees an art photo of a bare chested man and quickly looks away, while John’s sister observes and hides a smile. As a woman, she recognizes that look. Desire, quickly masked by guilt and embarrassment. This is the only time in the film that Udita interacts with another woman, but it is enough.
Pooja moves rapidly through the other moving pieces of the plot. The little boy recognizes the killer as a hero cop, John puts it together that the cop has been working for a gang and killing people in “encounters” for them, he takes it to his boss and then is shot at and realizes that his boss is in on it and he can trust no one. He grabs up Udita and the little boy from his sister’s house and drives through the night to get them back home. And it is in this final section that Pooja wakes up and starts paying attention to the film. She gives John a hero’s anthem, shoots with gorgeous vistas in the background, and let’s John go full melodrama in his performance. This is what is important, this is what is heroic, to do whatever it takes to protect innocent people. Not with a big fancy shoot out or a speech that garners a slow clap from the audience, but a long tired painful drive into the mountains with a gunshot just so two innocent strangers can live.
The rest of the plot plays out mostly as expected. John gets Udita home, but is so weak that he has to stay there and recover. Udita stands up for him against her father, insisting that they care for him and not take him to a hospital (since he is afraid of the evil police finding him). She watches him through the night, holds his hand when he is in pain, blah blah Love.
The first scene that felt unexpected and truly different to me is when she is writing poetry while watching him, and he wakes up and invites her to read it to him. They aren’t touching, they are on opposite sides of the room, but she reads out poetry that metaphorical addresses the conflict she feels over a life of austerity and peace versus passion, and he simply listens. There is no judgement, no horror as her father showed. In one person, she has both the object of her desires and approval of them. It is after this long moment between them that she leaves the room suddenly and is overwhelmed with a vivid fantasy of physical love.
And then there is the way John interacts with Udita’s father, Mohan Agashe (the actor is a fascinating guy, practicing doctor and respected profession of Psychiatry, who is also an actor), Mohan is supposed to be the man of peace, but in fact he is the aggressive one while John is the one who seems at peace with himself and who he is. At one point they take two small ponies (I think? I am bad at horses) in to the village. John smiles at seeing Mohan looking so human riding the small animal, Mohan gets angry with him and chases away his pony forcing him to walk. John merely smiles and laughs a little, and walks.
In Witness, the conflict was between violence and peace, the conflict between control and letting go was also there but never treated seriously, the film accepted the premise that the main conflict is between two men with the heroine Kellie McGillis merely a bystander. This movie directly addresses that as the main issue between John and Mohan. It’s not about a gun or a choice to live in Delhi instead of the mountains, it’s that John is able to let go, to accept what is, whatever it is. He will wear Buddhist garb and ride a pony, and laugh when his pony runs away. And ultimately, he will tell Udita that he loves her and wants her in his life, but accepts whatever decision she makes.
John and Udita never really have a “love scene” in the typical way. And that is important. John does not “woo” her, he does not touch her, or smile at her, or in any way incite feelings within her. Udita’s feelings are her own, they come from inside of her not from anything John has done. She already felt a desire for a different life, a life fully lived. And then John appeared, and she desired his body, she liked that he was kind to the little boy, brave and caring in saving their lives, and willing to cook daal for the family as a thank you for caring for him. And that he listened attentively and respectfully to her poetry expressing her inner spirit. Udita’s father thinks he can control the situation by controlling John, that John is the cause of it. But that is not true. And instead, all he does is force John to consider his own feelings and realize he loves Udita and wants her with him, not because of love at first sight or because he desires her, but because she is calm and brave and intelligent. The two characters get to know each other without a typical “pursuit-acceptance” dance of a movie romance. Instead, they learn to live each other at the same pace, individually. And reach the culmination of John simply going to her and inviting him to leave with him when he leaves, if she chooses to do so.
John’s behavior in this sequences treads a thin line. He is clear that he wants her with him. And he argues that she should not give up everything she desires in life merely because her father believes it is best. But he also does not pressure her, try to seduce her. or try to make her pity him. He respects Udita’s agency, her freedom to do what she wishes whether or not it makes him happy.
It is Mohan who does not respect her. He tries to explain to John that he fears the world, fears the unhappiness waiting for her there, that he sees a life of prayer and isolation as a life of escape. Mohan is not a simple authoritarian father, or someone who reached this decision for his daughter lightly. But what the film is showing is that, even if you have good reasons and are doing it out of love, you still do not have the right to take away anyone’s ability to decide their life for themselves.
The final action scene, the evil cops arriving and attacking, that plays out as merely a footnote to the question of what Udita will do. It is there to end John’s time with them, to put the pressure on her to make a decision. Although it is also a well directed sequence. The whole film is remarkably well directed in terms of clarity and telling the story, for a first time director. Pooja manages love scenes, action scenes, even light comedy (John attempting to milk a goat). This is not a “good movie for a woman” or a “good movie for a first timer”, this is a just solid film all around. And a testament to the Indian way of training. Pooja grew up on film sets watching her father, worked as an actress for years watching what happened around her on set, and finally after careful preparation was ready to make her own movie. It’s not the same as getting a degree in film from a Western university, making a short film and going to festivals, but the end result is a first movie that is far more assured than most “first films”.
The finale of the film is not the action scene, but what comes before and after. Before, Udita says good-bye to John, taking his face in her hands one time, and saying that this memory will sustain her. And John points out the wrongness of this, if she wants to be with him, then why be satisfied with just a memory? Why deny herself?
This is the good-bye scene we have seen in so many films. The noble good heroine/hero acknowledging what they want and then pushing it away from themselves. But, that is wrong! If this is what you want, than you should go after it, take it. Why is it a sin to want something? Why must we bend ourselves away from where our natures take us? Why is the sacrifice elevated to nobility instead of cursed as foolishness?
The action scene allows for a pause and then a second good-bye. This time, Udita’s father talks to her and acknowledges his mistake in thinking he can live his life for her, forcing her away from what she wants. And the film ends with Udita running down the hills, chasing John’s car, until she finally leaps to the ground in front of it and he comes out and embraces her.
It is a wonderful ending. The pure edge of your seat aspects, the false good-bye that makes us think they will be apart followed by the fear that he will just drive away and never see her. But more importantly, the passionate activity of it. We have never seen Udita fight so hard for anything, to run and run until she is out of breath, to go on a search for a goal instead of accepting what she is offered. And the visual metaphor of it, her running for her life out of the mountains, away from God and towards the world.
That’s the culmination of the film. We start with Udita swimming, floating, surrounded by water and suspended in space. A visual metaphor for how her life and spirit are disconnected from her body. And we end with her running and falling to the earth, her body now part of her, her life her own.