Reflects on Life was just talking about how usually “female films” means some depressing issue based movie and it is rare that they are simply movies with female leads. This is a movie with female leads, happy and rich and worrying about love affairs just like in male lead films. And I thought we deserved something happy after Neerja.
I have never had a female friend like the friends in this movie. Some woman don’t, and that’s okay. I am super close to my sister, fairly close to my mother, and I have had a lot of close friends in my life. And my cousins. And the little girls in my Sunday school class who tell me about popular music and I tell them about how its okay to be sad sometimes and let them play with glitter. I’ve never had this exact friendship, but I have had the ingredients of it, my sister is that person-who-is-always-my-person, and I am for her. My Mom is the one I go to for my emotional pick me ups and support. My close friends watch movies with me and fight with me and tease me. My cousins give me someone to fuss over and worry about (all 3 of them are likely to get married in the next couple years, busy times!). And my Sunday school class keeps me young and hip.
(totally had nights like this though. Usually the nights when we play “Dard-E-Disco” on a loop until we start singing along despite not knowing Hindi)
And then there’s my Dad too, and my Grandpa. They are nice, they teach me how to take care of my car and help me move things and put up shelves and give me sound advice about landlord disputes and tax forms. And pick me up at the airport when my plane lands in the middle of the night and listen to me babble on about what I am writing and worry about me and support me and do all sorts of wonderful things. But my life is made up of women, and men, together. And most of the time, it is the women who matter more.
That’s what this film gets. It’s not just paying lip service to the idea of female friends as a framing device for yet another rom-com. No, the friends are there for each other in a way the men in their lives, perfectly nice men, never will be. And the support they provide, the unconditional all encompassing understanding, is for problems that aren’t really related to men either. Or rather, are only secondarily related. In Indian society, men will always be a major concern in women’s lives. Do they love you, do they hate you, will they marry you, should you get married at all, should you get divorced, what does your father think about all of this? But this film gets that men may be part of the situation, but a woman’s emotional life, even her physical needs, belong to her, not the man she is with. And on some level, they can best be understood by her lifelong friends. Women of the same age who grew up together, that is a bond that is powerful and will not be overshadowed by any johnny-come-lately husband (sorry to my brother-in-law, but he knew when he married my sister we were a package deal. He’s never going to understand her the way I do. Or at least, not until after another 20 years of marriage).
(It’s edited better in the film, and it’s clear that this is a joyous celebration of Kareena’s wedding, but her friends understand her joy on a level her family, and her husband, will not)
I have to start with that big big thought, because that is what is underneath every single moment of this film, every relationship. It’s mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, mother to daughter, friend to friend, even householder to maid. The men are there, but they are in their proper place. This is a movie about woman, and it stays a movie about women, bringing out all those things about women’s lives that have no place in the traditional film.
So, yes, the language is raunchy. And so is the behavior. But that’s the reality of women. They give birth, they have sex, they wear swimsuits, sometimes they get drunk and throw up the next day, sometimes they fight with their husbands, sometimes they even masturbate. And none of that, in this particular film, feels over the top, feels like shock value. It is what it is, if the film is going to be true to their emotional lives then it has to be true in all the other ways as well, really wake people up to the shocking fact that women are people, just as much as anyone else.
(This song is more true to the spirit of the friendship in the film than all the raunchy jokes. But you don’t get here, to sitting together and singing together and being happy, without also taking about some physical stuff. Who else do women have to talk about it with? How else do you learn these things?)
So, who are these people? Without any spoilers, I can tell you that Sonam and Swara and Kareena and Shikha Talsania are life long friends, all from very rich families in Delhi. It’s that ideal combination of specific and general, the movie knows they are from a particular kind of family and culture, it’s not trying to sell the idea of these massive weddings and designer clothes and female careers as universal. But it’s also dealing with basic human questions, family and friendship and love. And each of the women are both specific and general as well. We can relate to their problems, because their problems are universal. But the 4 friends are drawn carefully to be slightly different from each other. They don’t follow the standard Golden Girls template either, you don’t have a sweet ditzy one and a sassy one, and a wacky one, and a sexy one. Woman aren’t just those stereotypes. These are characters with essentially different personalities, which we see in the high school flashback, one a little bit of a free spirit, another with a little low self-esteem, but then time and circumstances changed them and molded them, as it does everybody, and who they are at the start of the film is a result of where they have been and what they have come through. That is what makes their friends so important, because they are the only 3 people who can fully understand their journey, and how they got from there to here.
All 4 of the actresses do an amazing job with their characters. I can’t pick a favorite, either character or performance, between Shikha, Sonam, and Swara. Sonam’s character is the least spectacular of the 3, but she still does a good job with what she has, building up someone who is more than just “the good one”. And then there’s Kareena. I saw an interview with Sonam, when she talked about the struggle getting funding for this film, and pointed to Kareena as her “star”, that is, as the actor who should have brought in the star funding and promotions. Because Kareena is a star, she’s been acting and leading films for almost two decades now, she has an almost unbroken track record of hits, why isn’t she getting recognition for that the way a man would have? And in this film proves what Sonam was saying, Kareena really is a star.
(Also, I have to say that Kareena is clearly in the first trimester of her pregnancy, and she is almost unearthly beautiful. Her skin is translucent, her body somehow seems softer and stronger at the same time, you want to protect her and worship her all at once. I know it doesn’t hit every woman that way, but Kareena is definitely one that has that pregnancy “glow”. Oh, and they were costuming around her slight waist thickening, but loose flowy clothes are a good look for her anyway, so it worked out)
Kareena has the advantage of the Kapoor name, but also the Kapoor charisma, her face takes the camera. So, there’s that. And she has those two decades of experience being a movie star, dominating a scene and so on. But mostly it’s her acting. I was watching going “oh yeah, I forgot what it’s like when Kareena acts”. Because she doesn’t always. In something like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, she did a perfect job with her role, but the role was meant to be small and pleasant, not distract from the rest of the film. In Udta Punjab, again she was wonderful, but again there wasn’t much that was needed, she was meant to be there as an ideal for the other characters to look up to, to support rather than compete with their journeys.
But in this movie, she was cast for her emotional journey to play out and serve as the catalyst for everyone else. And she was cast for the ability to show that emotional journey in such a way that the audience can see it, but the characters in the scene with her might not be able to, fragile but invisible at the same time. And she is straight up phenomenal at it. And not for the first time. This movie made me start to remember the Kareena from Dev, way back when she was just starting out. And the Kareena from Jab We Met. And Tashaan. When they write her a role that actually demands something from her beyond the simpering heroine, Kareena always makes it work. It’s just not often that people give her that role.
People don’t give Kareena that role, and people don’t highlight these female connections on film, because it’s not supposed to be what the audience wants. Even the way this film was promoted showed that no one had faith this would be what the audience wants. The trailer cut together all the bad language and out of control moments from the film and removed the context, how they were just part of the natural flow of conversations. And it threw in, for no particular reason, the one line that made it sound like the friends have a falling out. “Tareefan”, in context as the end credits song of the film, is a bit of a joke. A “let’s pretend woman and female friendships really are this superficial and laugh at it” moment. But the music video released to promote the movie didn’t show that. Everything about the campaign sold this film as “let’s see women behaving badly”. Instead of what it was, “let’s see women”.
(At least they kept my favorite song somewhat close to how it is used in the film)
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Whole plot in 4 characters:
Shikha Talsani was the insecure one in high school, sure her traditional Sikh father was going to marry her off to some boring man. In the present day, she is married to a wonderful supportive funny American white man who is trying to learn Hindi for her. But she went against her family to marry him and hasn’t spoken to them since, or even told them she had a baby. Over the course of preparing for Sonam’s wedding, it comes out that she wants to reconcile with her father, is willing to give him a chance, but is afraid he will say he can’t accept her son which would break her heart. It also comes out that (although the marriage is supportive and understanding and funny), they haven’t had sex since the baby was born because she is insecure about her body after birth. Her friends encourage her and tell her she is beautiful, and she returns home with her libido restored to finally have sex with her husband. And at the wedding, her father to shows up, he came with a toy car for her son and learns (at the same time as the audience, since the girls always referred to him as just “Big Papa” so we didn’t know his name) that Shikha named her son for her father, despite the estrangement.
Swara Bhaskar was the adventurous free spirit in high school, planning to run off to Prague after graduation and not worry about the future. In the present she is unhappily in the process of a divorce, back home with her parents and stumbling home after being out all night, always smoking, always drinking. She is angry with her husband, there doesn’t seem to be any love there, but upset about the divorce because of what it is doing to her parents, they gave her her dream (very very very expensive) wedding and now she is home again and they are dealing with rumors that she was cheating and that’s why the marriage ended. Swara finally admits to her friends what really happened, everyone was right, she wasn’t really in love and didn’t really know him well enough. Once they were in London, they fought all the time. He tried to make her into the perfect housewife, and then complained that she looked like a maid because she had spent the whole day cooking. After a final big fight, when she told him she was going back to India, he came home early to find her masturbating with a vibrator. Which so shocked him that he insisted on a divorce, and started spreading the word that he had caught her “cheating”. And now he is holding her up for a big pay out before he will end the marriage cleanly. With the support of her friends, Swara decides to tell her parents everything and get the divorce no matter what. Her parents surprise her by laughing at the story and being supportive, it is all okay now that they actually know what happened, and of course they don’t want her to stay with a man who treated her like a servant.
Sonam was gooey and in love in high school, sure that her boyfriend Arjun was “the one” and they would be together for ever, she even picked her college for him. In the present day, she bumps into Arjun, now married and with a child, and says that he must have gotten over not wanting kids, and he looks uncomfortable. It also comes out that she was in a relationship with her boss until recently, not knowing that he was married with kids. And Sonam’s mother keeps nagging her to get married, despite her being a very successful divorce lawyer. Sonam meets with a potential groom from a matrimonial website, also a lawyer, very nice and proper, but wants her to sign a prenup. She invites him to Kareena’s Sangeet and, with her friends’ encouragement, tries to kiss him. At which point he calls it off, saying he wanted a wife not a prostitute, and Sonam finally stands up for herself, pointing out that she was even willing to sign a prenup for him and just because of a kiss, he is now giving up everything, clearly he didn’t really want a modern educated bride, he just wanted a perfect maid and worshipper. And then, high on anger and a little drunk, Sonam impulsively sleeps with the pushy overly flirty cousin of the groom. The whole experience, plus talking it out with her friends, makes Sonam finally talk to her mother and tell her that she tried, but she just can’t do the arranged marriage thing, and she is sorry. Her mother accepts that, but says she is still going to keep pushing, because that is who she is. And at the end, the cousin of the groom gets Sonam’s phone number from her mother and Sonam agrees to a real “date”, despite him not being marriage material, indicating that she is no longer obsessed with marriage, she is just happy with her life as is and will take relationships as they come.
Kareena is the bride, and the one with the most complicated subtle emotional journey. Hers was the house they all gathered in as children, partly because her parents were so cool, her funny loving Dad, her strong classy mother, and her delightful gay uncle. But on the inside it wasn’t perfect, her parents fought all the time, and after her mother died, her father remarried within months. Her uncle was furious at the remarriage and moved out of the family home, locking it behind him. Now Kareena’s father and young stepmother hardly talk to her, her uncle and his partner are the ones she is close to and the house she returns to in Delhi, and the loss of her mother is still a wound. Kareena ran to Australia after her mother’s death and is still living there, she has been with her boyfriend for 3 years, they live together, they are in love, and he proposes. He knows marriage doesn’t mean much to her and she doesn’t want it, but he does. And so out of love for him, Kareena agrees. She arrives in Delhi to be swamped by his family, they all love her and welcome her, but it is a bit too much, they want to throw this huge wedding with a thousand guests, they want to buy her all this jewelry, his mother calls her the daughter she always wanted, the whole family thinks she is a perfect angel. Kareena leans on her friends, but at the engagement party they all let her down, each dealing with their own issues, plus her father and uncle get into a physical fight, and her fiancé goes missing with his own family stuff, and finally when he is putting the ring on her as part of the engagement ceremony, she complains about his family, and he says without thinking “you don’t understand because you don’t have any family” and she shoves him, he falls and gets knocked out, and she runs away. The next day everyone is trying to find her, but her friends know where she is, at the old closed up house. They go there with the fiancé, she talks to him, he apologizes, she apologizes, and then says that she loves him but the marriage just isn’t going to work and calls off the wedding. And then goes to talk to her friends who try to convince her not to call it off, which leads to her throwing in their faces that none of them were there for her the night before. Each goes to their own separate corner to cool down, and then Swara sends out an invite suggesting they go on a weekend getaway to Thailand, just to recover from everything. While there, they each share their secrets and come to their own decisions, Kareena returns home wanting to talk to her fiancé and learns his father has been arrested for passing bad checks to pay for the wedding that ended up being canceled. Kareena goes to him, and gets Sonam to use her lawyer skills to get the father out, but is still planning to say good-bye, since he has to stay in India indefinitely to straighten out his father’s problems. Until her friends take a hand, realizing that the reason Kareena has such a hard time with marriage is because she doesn’t feel like she has a real family behind her. They force her father and uncle to make peace, and get her father to finally talk to her. He acknowledges that he and her mother always fought, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other and weren’t a family in their own way. And her father still loves her now. Finally, her father and her uncle give her the deed to the family house. Kareena goes to find her fiancé and surprises him (with his mother’s help) by proposing in turn. He gives her back the ring. And they get married at her family home with her friends in attendance.
(Whole cast together, Shikha’s nice white husband dancing for her and letting her dance with her friends, the bearded dude Sonam is considering dating, and Kareena’s nice fiance, plus Kareena’s uncle and his partner, and the fiancee’s enthusiastic dancing parents)
Sorry that got kind of long! But really it can all be summarized by the title. “Veere” means big brother in Punjabi, I guess the more common Hindi equivalent would be “Bhai”. The gang of girls calls each other their “Veere”. Not friends, not sisters, “veere”. Because the kind of friendship they have isn’t something that can be encompassed by the usual Indian terminology. It’s a particular kind of female friendship, one that (as I mentioned in my no spoilers review) doesn’t come to all women. But for the women in this film, it makes sense. All but Shikha seem to be only children, and Shikha seems to be one of many children. None of them seem to have those actual “veere” around, no brothers or cousin-brothers to help, and no sisters, no age mates to be with you, so you look for that in friendship. In Indian culture, your big brother is supposed to be there for you cradle to grave, he will raise you if your parents die (even if he is just a child himself, he is supposed to somehow find a way), he will get you married, he will guarantee your happy marriage, he will defend you, he will protect you, he will do everything for you. And that’s also what some female friends are like. They aren’t just women to gossip with and share secrets, they are that strong protector and defender and guarantee for your whole life long. Kareena is the one who most needs protection at the moment, the bride at a wedding is always in a vulnerable place. And so her “veere” gather around her, support her, defend her, protect her. Not like sisters or friends, not in the vision those words usually bring up, but as “veere” would. Even the wedding invitation, rather than a picture of the bride and groom or the bride’s parents or anything traditional, is a sketch Kareena’s mother drew of the 4 friends. It is Sonam and Swara and Shikha who are there to host and arrange this marriage from the bride’s side, no one else, the most important job a “veere” has.
That’s the biggest statement of the film, that female friendship (a relationship usually nonexistent in Indian film) is the most powerful driving force for Kareena’s life and marriage, that these 4 friends are the ones who make things happen for each other more than anyone else. But beyond that, there are all kinds of other forgotten relationships, or ignored relationships, that are brought to the front. Early on, Sonam is in the middle of a bride meeting and is told to bring in the tea, and the prospective groom is sent to “help” her. Only, Sonam comes into the kitchen to find the maid crying with a bruised face, and immediately picks up a clearly long running argument, asking her to let Sonam arrange her divorce. Sonam isn’t pushing it, no more than any friend would, not in a “I will make you do this because I am your employer way, just as a friend”. And it’s an important conversation that both woman are clearly caring about deeply. And then the groom comes into the middle of it, asking if he can help, and Sonam distractedly hands him the tray of tea and orders him to bring it in.
In most other films, the groom would follow her into the kitchen, find her with the crying maid, there would be a cute misunderstanding, love would blossom, etc. etc. The crying maid, and the conversation between the two women, would be just a device to set up the romance. But in this film, it is the romance that is set aside as unimportant. The conversation between the two women, the relationship between maid and mistress (a very close one that is rarely shown on film beyond a few words in the background), that is what matters.
(Dear Zindagi is another film that did a good job with this, showing the friend relationships and the close maid relationship)
Kareena’s marriage troubles have nothing to do with her groom, he is a perfectly nice person. No, it is an internal battle, that Kareena expertly shows to the audience with only the subtlest facial expressions, between Kareena’s dead mother and her living mother-in-law. That’s a universal part of marriage, trying to reconcile in your own heart how you manage to have two families without being unfaithful to one or the other.
The only other time I have seen this battle on screen was in the Telugu film Anand. And in that case, the living mother-in-law was a complete nightmare, our heroine simply wanted to wear her mother’s wedding sari and wasn’t even allowed to do that, leading her to finally once and for all end the engagement. In this case, the groom’s mother Ayesha Raza Mishra (who I recognized immediately but couldn’t remember where from. I just looked it up, she was in Befikre and Dil Dhadakne Do doing similarly interesting unexpected matron roles) is too loving and welcoming. She wants Kareena to call her “Ma”, she wants to pick out her clothes and shower her with love, she wants to give her a dream wedding. But it doesn’t matter how nice she is, she isn’t Kareena’s mother. Which means she doesn’t know Kareena, which means Kareena is losing herself and her own identity within this marriage.
(Come to think of it, both the fiance’s parents in this movie were in Dil Dhadakne Do. They must specialize in character and relationship driven films set in wealthy Delhi society)
That’s what marriage is about, in the end, two people figuring out how to become one but still stay two at the same time. And that’s what can be so terrifying for women about marriage. Not for men in most cultures, because most cultures have a tradition of the man being the head of the house, setting the tone, it is the woman who has to adjust. And so marriage is seen as the death knell for your own identity, who you were before. Even in the best possible case, when this lovely loving enthusiastic woman just wants to make Kareena happy, she is still making Kareena change who she is.
That’s what all of the 4 stories are about, weddings and what they do to women. Shikha has a happy marriage, but she got it by giving up her past, her family. The marriage is who she really is, the person before marriage was her fake self, and she was glad to let it go. But now she is beginning to consider if she has the strength to turn backwards and try to integrate that past self with her present. Swara tried to lose herself, to be a good wife, but couldn’t, wasn’t able to change herself that much, and the film shows that no one should have to change themselves that much, she married a man she ultimately had nothing in common with and didn’t even like, she couldn’t lose every part of herself in order to make the marriage work. And Sonam is cheerfully planning to do just that, to agree to whatever it takes in order to marry this very nice appropriate correct husband. And then discovers that she can never be what he is looking for, because what he is looking for doesn’t exist, he wants a modern successful woman, who will be a completely traditional wife. And so Sonam says good-bye to the whole idea of marriage for herself, and instead decides to just be herself and let that be enough.
And none of this is culture specific. Even arranged marriages, at least the version shown here. Sonam is just talking about meeting guys her mother picks out for her with the idea of marriage. Her experiences aren’t that different from what would happen anywhere once you get to be past a certain age and if you have a certain kind of parent. Most of the film is about love and relationships and friendship and mothers and fathers and weddings and all the things that are the same almost everywhere in the world. And I have to say, this movie got that stuff right better than any film I have seen from any culture. The challenge of a bride without a mother, the awkwardness of trying to put a name to nameless relationships (like Kareena with her uncle’s partner) as you explain them to these new family members, the feeling that you are somehow losing track of yourself, who you are on the inside, as all these new people put on you who they think you should be, all of this is a layer of complexity most films don’t bother with. They go for more of what the trailers for this movie promised, wacky wedding hijinks, misunderstandings, slamming door farce. The film masters the culturally universal, and the emotionally specific, all while dealing with the emotions that never get the screen time they deserve.
One final thing, this is the rare film that manages to be feminist without demonizing men in any way. There are no evil male characters in this film. Not even Sonam’s horrible arranged marriage prospect, he’s not “evil”, he’s just caught up in false standards and hypocrisy. The only really “evil” characters are the gossiping aunties who make fun of Swara’s parents for being depressed and having a failure as a daughter. On the other hand, there are also no saintly male characters. Kareena’s boyfriend gets impatient and lets slip the truly horrible comment that she has no family. And he also is a little selfish, wants to get married for himself even though he knows Kareena doesn’t want it. But he knows he said a terrible thing and shows up the next day ready to apologize and take responsibility. And when she calls off the wedding, he lies to his parents that he is the one who ended it, does the right thing there too. He’s human, mostly good but not always perfect. Kareena’s father appears to be “evil” too, possibly cheated on her mother, married too soon, never spends time with his daughter. But in the end we learn he was just human too, even though it’s easy for children to think their fathers are infallible, he isn’t. He fought with her mother because that’s how they were. He married soon because he was lonely. And he doesn’t know how to talk to Kareena without her mother to help, so he just stopped trying. He’s not evil, he’s just flawed like anyone else. The same is true for Shikha’s father, who welcomes her half-white son without hesitation, even if he had a hard time with her white husband. And on and on, every male character is good and bad at the same time. Instead of focusing on tearing down the male characters, this film tries to build up the female. Kareena doesn’t forbid her brothers from carrying her veil because they are evil, it is just more right for her friends to have that honor, because they are more “brothers” to her than anyone else around.