NRI Films Week: Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, One of the Happiest and Most Realistic NRI Films

Happy anti-Independence Day week! As in, movies about folks happily living not in India without all kinds of patriotic angst.

I know Jhoom Barabar Jhoom really well, because it is one of my go to’s for “first Indian film”.  My first choice is always K3G, because it is a good way to get to know the top stars, the top mythologies, the top song styles, and the top visual techniques of Indian film.  But, it is also super super SUPER long.  So if I am showing a movie to someone who doesn’t have quite that long, then I do Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, because it is only a little over 2 hours and it is also a really good first movie to watch.

The thing with JBJ is, it is like every other movie, but more so.  And also less so.  It’s kind of like you get to see a super realistic version of the audience for Indian films, and their dreams and desires and how they visualize them through the films, and at the same time a regular Indian film, only way more elaborate and fantastical than usual.  And I love both parts of it.

Plus, you have Amitabh walking through it like the wandering troubadour/guardian angel of the whole desi community.  That’s one of my favorite parts, people make a lot of fun of it (sometimes, people sitting with me in my living room!), especially because his costume is so over the top and all that.  But, I think that’s the point.  He is the soul of fantasy and love and magic, so he is a little over the top, just like the films are usually over the top, just like the fantasies of the audience are over the top.  And as he moves through the world, he spreads the fantasy and happiness behind him.  It’s a very traditional kind of character, from Krishna type avatars in Indian mythology, all the way through Shakespeare’s “wise fool” characters who often narrate the action.

You’ve got Amitabh wandering around like a lost spirit of film, you’ve got crazy songs in Paris and London, and at the Taj Mahal, but then you’ve got these moments that are so grounded, way more grounded than in any other movie.  This is one of the few films that shows the NRIs as they actually are.  Shopgirls and hustlers, long streets with tiny storefronts, young people who still believe in true love and all the fantasies they’ve been sold by the films, but who also believe in making their own choices and their own lives in their new country.  No big country estates with golden retrievers, instead tiny little happy row houses and sub-sub-sub-let apartments.  And no fancy bespoke suits and chiffon saris, practical little dresses and comfortable jeans.  It’s refreshing!  And it adds a layer of emotion and, I don’t know, fragility?  A sense that these are real people who might really be hurt.

And it uses these characters to make a brilliant statement on fantasy and reality and the NRI identity.  It’s all there in the first 3 songs.  You have Abhishek’s fantasy of a romance in Paris and a honeymoon in “Hollywood”.  It is over the top and delightful, every possible French stereotype thrown in, a heroine who is impossible beautiful and sophisticated, and through it all Abhishek wooing her with impassioned antics and mugging.

This is the fantasy, Europe and French and the beautiful girl who falls for the loser guy.  And it’s fun!  It feels like your standard film song fantasy, a little more over the top than usual, but not unheard of.

And then theirs Preity’s version.  An impossibly wealthy and powerful London-based NRI rescues her from her shopgirl existance.  Lots of London settings and big hats and big chorus numbers.  Plus, a dramatic court case, a long held standard feature of Indian film.

In their fantasy, it is all picture perfect and pretty.  And if the first half had left it at these two fantasies, it would be a picture perfect and pretty statement.  That fantasy is silly and over the top, a useless escape, a lie.  Let’s all laugh at it, and at the films our fantasies inspire and which feed them in turn.

But it doesn’t leave it at those two fantasies.  After telling each other their stories, Abhishek and Priety have a moment of asking each other “what would have happened if we had met before?”  Before they had already fallen for their sophisticated European lovers, before they had even reached London from Desh.  And then there is a different fantasy, one with real power to it, which reaches out into the real world and transports and changes you.

This fantasy is in India, of course.  Not because India is more real, but because it is more significant, part of the hidden deep connections within these two people, a place of fantasy that has more to do with their inner selves than with their outer personas.  In an American film, the same effect would be captured by having the lesser fantasies be in India and the “realer” ones be in, say, the American heartland.  And notice, this isn’t a “fantasy” version of India, set in the past with fabulous wealth and princesses and rebels and all that.  This is modern India, they are still themselves (a fast-talking Sikh and a self-possessed Muslim), just meeting somewhere that has a deeper significance for them than a London train station might.

And deep within this hidden inner self, they are able to find each other, to come together and bond in a way that all the talking and learning and laughing in “reality” couldn’t.  There is a line after the song, “in five minutes, we lived a lifetime.”  And that is what the best film fantasies do as well.  They transport, they pull you into the story, and when it is over you feel like you lived a whole life with these characters and it is almost a shock to come back to your own.

That’s all in the first half of the film, the two characters meet in a London train station, brought together by the magical presence of Amitabh, share their mutual fantasy stories of their romances with Lara Dutta and Bobby Doel respectively, and then have a moment where suddenly they are sharing a whole life time in 5 minutes.

And then SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER TWIST!!!!!!

Preity and Abhishek were both making up their romances.  And now they are both in love with each other, but convinced that the other is already engaged to someone else.  Now, in a different movie, this would be where they make a noble sacrifice, where there are all sorts of complications, where Bobby and Lara really fall in love with them, where a family member tries to get involved, and so on and so forth.  But this movie is both simpler and deeper than that.

While the fantasy song may have shown the depth and importance of the Indian identity, their actions in the second half are all diaspora.  They don’t talk to relatives, they talk to age mates, fellow desis who can understand the conflict of wanting something traditional (a big romance and marriage with another desi), but with new rules (no parents, no shyness, no hesitation).  And they come together not a big fancy romantic party, or at the Taj Mahal, but at a local Indian community event, open to all classes and religions and parts of society, so long as they pay the entrance fee.

And, best of all, even their original fantasies are given a little brush and push back into reality.  Bobby isn’t a powerful wealthy lawyer, he is just the cute guy who works at the eyeglass shop.  And Lara isn’t the sophisticated French hotel manager, she is the local desi prostitute.  It’s the film saying “see?  see?  We gave you the fantasy of the NRI life, but here, now we are giving you the reality.”

Only, just like the first half gave us the “real” fantasy, so does the second half give us the “real” mixed in with the fake.  Yes, Bobby and Lara are fake.  Yes, Priety just rented a limo to take them to event, and Abhishek is paying Lara by the hour.  But the reality of Preity’s heartbreak when she sees Lara’s beauty, that is real.  All of this cheesy glitter and glamour, and tacky costumes, and farcical plot, all of that is there, but within it, is some deep deep feelings.

Most Indian movies aimed at the diaspora sell them an unattainable fantasy.  That they will live in a mansion, with gorgeous saris and minimal racism, and everything is perfect.  That has value, sure.  It gives you something to cling to and something to aspire towards.  But this movie says “you don’t need that!  You have the fantasy right here already.  Your shops and tiny houses and open to all social events, those can be fantasies too.  You just have to look a little deeper.”

That’s what the last shot of the film is all about.  Abhishek has tracked Priety down to her tiny little row house in a row of tiny little row houses.  She comes running out to him, in her casual at home clothes.  And he grabs her, in the middle of the street, spreads out his long Bachchan legs, and bends her over backward into a huge romantic kiss, ala the RK Studios logo.  And their big romance, their big silly real romance, towers over all the London streets and foreign people.  The Desi fantasy is alive and well and strong and powerful right here, in “real” London, not just in Karan Johar’s version of it.

Anyway, that’s why I like the movie.  But I also get why other people don’t, because sometimes you just really need Karan Johar’s London to carry you through.

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