Interesting, this film gives us 3 separate female leads, and each in a different phase of female life. And the one who is in the most typical filmi phase, Anushka as the “maiden”, actually gets the least amount of screentime.
It took me a while to figure out this film. There’s a lot about it that I don’t like. Priyanka Chopra, for instance, I find her performances difficult to watch. I also didn’t like that it was representing such a small and very specific part of Indian society (very wealthy Punjabis) without seeming to realize it was representing a non-universal experience. I also found Aamir’s voice over tiresome and pointless, and Farhan’s character slightly needlessly perfect.
But somehow, despite my not liking all those things, this film stayed with me. And I kept thinking and thinking and thinking about it, and finally I figured it out! It’s a film about a family. Strip out all the rest, and it is about 4 people and the complicated relationships between them. Not about a son rebelling against his father, or a couple falling in love, or anything as simple as that. But about 4 separate people who each have their own problems, and happen to be related. Really really related.
In Indian film, families are always part of the plot. But most often they are treated based on their social responsibilities and positions, mother is noble and sacrificing, father is authoritarian and upholds society, and so on and so on. They don’t feel like people who have similar personality traits, similar weaknesses, similar strengths, similar taste in movies, similar jokes, similar reference points, any of that. But in this film, they do. 4 people with different dreams and hopes and needs. But with the same flaws, the same traumas, and an abiding familiar kind of love, a love that is so familiar you can forget it is even there.
What’s surprising is that the most important love patterns in the film are not the ones you expect. Ranveer and his mother Shefali. Priyanka and her father Anil. Shefali and Anil and each other. They are the ones who, at the beginning, seem most distant or least distant, seem to have the most stable patterns. Are not the “problem” in their lives. But, they are. That’s how families work. The relationship you spend the least time on, you think about least, is often the one that hurts the most, the one that you have pushed down and down and down so that you don’t have to deal with it.
And that’s what this film is about, all the complications and all the fights and all the problems that happen are just there to pull out the hidden miseries within this family and resolve them.
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I’ll deal with the boring stories first, the kids. Ranveer is friendly and smart and funny and kind. But he is bored with business and he isn’t very good at it. His father is pressuring him to become something he isn’t. And then pressuring him even more, to marry a girl in a semi-arranged marriage in order to seal a loan for the company. He goes on his parents’ anniversary cruise and meets a dancer on the cruise ship, a Muslim British Indian played by Anushka Sharma, very inappropriate, and they fall in love enthusiastically and immediately. Meeting her inspires him to finally confront his family over all the secrets they are hiding from each other and the world, including the most poisonous and painful secret, that his father is cheating on his mother and she pretends not to notice/care. At the end of the film, he learns Anushka left the ship at the last port, and dives off the ship to swim to her, finally fearlessly going after his own life.
Priyanka is the older child. Married to Rahul Bose, and runs her own successful travel agency. We learn that her family pressured her into marrying Rahul, while she herself was reluctant and still a little in love with her childhood sweetheart Farhan Akhtar. Now, she is miserable in her marriage, and on birth control pills to avoid having a child, and considering a divorce. Farhan surprises her by showing up on the cruise, bringing all her feelings to ahead. She finally slowly admits that she wants a divorce to her brother, her mother, and finally her father. Her issues are resolved when she confronts her husband in a family meeting and says she wants a divorce and discovers that her parents do and will in fact support her. At the end of the film, she kisses Farhan and asks him to wait for her before jumping off the boat with her parents to chase down Ranveer.
And now, finally, the interesting ones! The parents. Interesting in so many ways. While Ranveer and Priyanka are troubled little rich kids who have never made their own lives, Shefali and Anil have created their own problems, are tied together in a lifetime of hurt and growth and struggle and success and everything else that goes into a marriage, into founding this family.
Something that is a bit hidden in this film is that Shefali and Anil are in fact the hero and heroine of most movies. Just, older. They are Kajol and Shahrukh in K3G, or Aamir and Madhuri in Dil, or any other young couple in love that runs away to start a life on their own. It is mentioned a few times, they had a love marriage, they ran away together. And Anil made his fortune on his own. Behind what we see of them today are 30 years of being in love, of building up everything their children take for granted, of founding a family. A real family that needs each other and loves each other and, most of all, knows each other.
At the end of the film, we see the family reunited, smiling and laughing on a lifeboat, riding off into an unknown future. And that was the end, but it also felt like a flashback to what had been in the past, the foundation that all these relationships were built on. At some point in the past, when Ranveer and Priyanka were children, they had been a happy family of 4. They had been close, they had laughed together, they had adventures together, they were each others best friends. And we see that in how Ranveer and Priyanka, in the present, are still each other’s best friends. Are still each other’s safe space. And we see that in how Anil and Shefali’s marriage isn’t like their friends’ marriages, not quite. Somewhere in the heart of it is so much love and therefore so much hurt.
Anil and Shefali were “normal” people who fell in love and started a life together. But then they became very very rich. And now they are surrounded by an odd mixture of “normal” people who are happier in their relationships than they are, and rich people who never expected to be happy in their relationships. We see that in the beginning, Shefali’s identity is as the lucky one with the romantic story among her ladies-who-lunch friends, and as the lucky one with the rich husband with her in-laws. Anil’s identity is as the powerful self-made man who can control his own destiny, who is still handsome and powerful and vibrant, unlike his friends who were handed everything. And both Shefali and Anil have become trapped by these identities. They are now playing the role of who they used to be in the past, unable to connect with who they are in the present, unable to admit that they have come together to a new place, a cold and unhappy place. And, worst of all, a place that they think they have come to alone.
(This song does a great job of establishing the card playing men, lounging women, and showy Anil and shy Shefali)
Again, I have to start at the end. After Ranveer has confronted his family, told his mother to stop pretending she doesn’t know about his father’s “business trips”, Anil comes to Shefali and they have a very very difficult conversation. He tells her that he didn’t think she knew. She says she did. He asks her why she didn’t leave. And she says that she didn’t have anywhere to go.
Both actors play this scene perfectly, but it is Anil that really brings something we hadn’t seen before. Shefali just seems sad, sad and resigned, no longer willing to hide her pain in order to make him feel better. We saw her earlier, reacting to Anil’s affairs, we know she knows. And we saw her starring at herself in a mirror, looking lost, we know she is thinking about where else and what else she could possibly do with herself. But we didn’t know that Anil didn’t know she knew. And we didn’t know how much that would hurt him.
Seeing his face in that moment, when he realizes that he hurt her that much, so much that he almost lost her, that she is only still with him because she has no other option, suddenly it makes everything else he did in the rest of the film, all the unforgivable hurt he gave her, suddenly appear from the other side. And, to me, it becomes clear that it is a situation in which both of them think the other one has left the marriage first.
Anil wants to feel desired, wants to feel loved, wants to feel young. And he wants that specifically from Shefali. He is dieting, he is exercising, he is doing everything to try to make himself attractive to her. And every time she ignores his diet suggestions, takes an extra dessert, it is a statement that she no longer cares to be attractive for him. Every time she rejects his advances in the bedroom (which we see), it tells him that he has to try harder, be more attractive, more successful, more in control. And then he turns to other women to get the validation he isn’t getting from her. To learn that she knew, she knew all along about those other women, that he had thrown away his marriage and didn’t even know it. And to learn that she was so out of love with him that she was only staying with him out of necessity, it breaks his heart. We see that on his face, his heart breaking as he looks at her, breaking more than Ranveer with his little love at first sight flirtation, or even Priyanka with her childhood love Farhan appearing before her, breaking with the weight of 30 years, of two lives so completely connected that they cannot be separated without both ending, of his whole identity being built around this woman.
That’s what it is about. A man and a woman who fell in love, who had children from that love and raised them up together, who made a family. And then, somewhere, forgot what that family was, lost each other.
There is a lot more plot to get them to that point. Anil is losing his business and bribes Ranveer with a promise to keep the family plane so Ranveer can keep flying if he agrees to get engaged and create a merger with another company. To arrange the engagement, they have the anniversary cruise, including the nice manager of the company who’s son is Farhan the globetrotting journalist, Anil’s brother and sister-in-law and their unhappy (and clearly gay, HELLO ZOYA AND REEMA!) daughter, Anil’s best friend and his son Vikrant Massay, and the merger businessman, his wife, and his daughter. The daughter falls in love with Vikrant Massay, despite their parents enmity, Anil has a panic attack which the family thinks is a heart attack, and so on and so on. But none of this has to do with the young people, or the company or any of it. It’s about getting Anil and Shefali to that moment of honesty with each other. They are where this family started and they are where it can re-start.
It’s after this moment that Anil finally remembers how to defend his daughter, gives in to his fatherly instincts over his efforts to appear cool and businesslike and powerful and respected. That he learns how to support his son, promising to do whatever he needs. That he remembers what it was like to be young and fearless with nothing to lose so long as he had his family.