I watched it! And boy, it is way easier to watch a British movie than an Indian movie, it was playing at like 5 theaters within 15 minutes of my house, instead of the 3 theaters within an hour and a half that I am used to. The same is probably true around you, so you have no excuse not to go see it.
When people talk about song sequences in movies (Indian or non-Indian) they tend to talk about the superficial elements, they love the colors and the dancing and blah-blah. But that’s not why song sequences are in films. They are to express something that cannot be expressed any other way, they are for when emotions get to big for the restrictions of reality. Whether that means a montage, a fantasy, or a dance number, it’s all the same thing. The most important part is the combination of the visuals and the music to express a specific emotion that is part of the story, to draw us in and make us feel for the characters. Ultimately, it’s about empathy. Forcing the audience to have not just sympathy for the characters, not to understand what they are feeling, but to actually feel the same things.
I’ve seen almost all of Gurinder Chadha’s films and they have a surprising variation in empathy levels. Surprising because when she goes deep (like with What’s Cooking) she goes really really deep. That’s a movie that is legitimately hard to watch by the end of it. All you are seeing is Thanksgiving dinners, and yet when the teenage girl is ignored again in preference for her little brother, or the hostess has to swallow her anger at her lazy ex-husband, it hurts so much you can cry. But then she will go light like in Bend it Like Beckham where there is that touch of humor to scenes as deep as a teenage boy coming out of the closet to his best friend. All the way to Bride and Prejudice where every moment has a kind of self-aware superficiality to it. This film is about as deep as I have ever seen her go in making us feel for the characters, trusting that the audience will feel for them because otherwise the movie has no where to go.
This is an entirely internal film. All the stakes are inner stakes. Things happen, yes, but nothing the characters do actually change “things”. All that changes is how they feel about it. If anything, the world at the end of this film is darker than it was at the start. Things are bad and keep getting worse and there is no end in sight. But you have to find a way to keep going, that’s all you can do. It’s a hard story to tell with nothing actually happening, and somehow Chadha makes that a virtue.
I also appreciate that Chadha doesn’t make it into her story. It’s a true story about a true person and his true family and life and dreams and everything. I haven’t read his book, so I don’t know how much exact details of Sarfraz Manzoor’s life were kept, but I suspect a lot. Because I have sen Chadha’s other films and has never never gone this dark before. The little light touches, the funny family scenes, those are still there. But the amount of racism and despair and ugliness of the world, the reality of what it means to be a Muslim in the West, that’s not really from Chadha. The understanding of the immigrant experience, the struggle of a duel identity, that is still there. But there’s another layer to it which isn’t Chadha’s story but is the story she is trying to tell as best she can.
She doesn’t rely on her actors to make it work, the cast is good but the only actors that stand out to me are actually the ones on the outskirts of the story. Meera Gunatra as the hero’s mother, Hayley Atwell as his teacher, they do interesting things with their dialogue and their expressions and I enjoy seeing them onscreen, I kind of perked up when they showed up. There were also a couple little cameos from stellar straight comic actors, the always wonderful Sally Phillips and Rob Brydon (who also gets to show up a little of his singing skills). But it’s not about the performances, it is about how Gurinder shoots them, the little things she does to put us in their heads and see the world through their eyes.
Chadha in Bride and Prejudice tried to do song sequences, tried to convey those emotions. And it was a miserable failure. She wasn’t thinking about the story, the characters, the emotions. She was thinking about the songs first and the story second. That doesn’t work. That’s the pitfall that most of the new age “musicals” fall into, they start out by deciding they want to make a musical and then fill in the story later, around their vision for the kind of film they want it to be.
What should happen is that you write the story and you write the characters and at a certain point the emotions of the story reach a point where the only way to express them is through a burst of crazed mad beauty. In India, there are songs not because the films are built around songs, but because the stories are built for those kinds of emotions. Big life changing emotions that demand to be expressed in song.
And that’s what this movie does. I haven’t seen it being promoted that way either, there’s no nonsense about “a return to the magical olden days of classic films”. It’s being promoted as the movie it is and the story it is. And then you watch the film and along the way there are multiple moments of pure song. But when you leave, you don’t remember them. That is, you don’t remember them as discrete moments of film. You remember the entire story, and you remember the characters, and most of all you remember the feelings. Whether those feelings were part of a moment of song or part of a moment of conversation, or just a silent close up on the actor, it’s all the same thing. It’s just part of drawing you into this story.
This is a really raw story. I’ve seen the film referred to as “feel-good”, but I’m not sure what that means in this context. I feel THINGS, certainly, while watching it. But are those all good things? No, they aren’t. I feel everything watching this movie, sorrow and fear and anger and frustration and homesickness and regret. And also first love and friendship and joy and hope. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to make you feel, and to make you feel EVERYTHING, good and bad.
That’s why there are songs. Gurinder wants to tell a raw painful story with raw painful emotions, the kind that an audience resists feeling, the kind that we want to be cynical and distance ourselves from it. So she puts in songs and that forces us to feel it, to get past our cynicism and practical armor, to get past all the protections we put up to prevent us from feeling what other people feel, to unlock the door to a shared humanity.