Such a good movie! And especially rich in actresses, Konkona and Dimple and Sheeba. And yet, Juhi is still something special.
I never take notes when I am watching a movie. I don’t have to, I can remember the broad strokes and my thoughts and what I want to say without any effort. A great gift when I was in grad school, I could watch a film once in class and write a paper on it, no need to go back and review and research or anything. I took notes this time because I needed to separate the parts that I needed notes to remember from the other parts, the “regular” film. Because the “regular” film was so incredibly absorbing, I could have easily lost track of the non-regular parts, the commentary on the film industry and what it all means and why people join it. So, this is the review of the “regular” film, with no notes. Oh, and also no spoilers! So please try to keep it spoiler free in the comments, this is a cult hit after all, so I am guessing a fair number of readers haven’t seen it yet and I want them to get a review that won’t spoil it for them and will help them decide whether or not they should watch it. But don’t worry, spoiler review is coming soon.
I love Konkona in this movie! But I think I love Zoya more. Konkona does a great job with her leading role, but it is Zoya’s writing that really makes it work. This is the kind of woman who comes across as wise, as though she always knows everything already, but in fact she is fooling herself, she is too foolish to see her own weaknesses. And, more damaging than that, her own strengths.
That is the ultimate point of the film, we start with Konkona and we end with her. And along the way we, the audience, get to see all the things she is blind to, all the things she thinks she understands but doesn’t. This is a coming of age story, but the coming of age of a grown woman. How unusual! To focus on an adult woman, and acknowledge that she is still growing and changing, instead of on a man, or on a younger woman.
Farhan appears to be the hero, but that is only because that is how the world would view him, of course the promising young man is more important than the older struggling woman. And I think the casting points to that. Farhan is good in the role, sure, but he doesn’t have the depth onscreen that Konkona does. He does now, I loved him in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, but this is his first film and he is young and skinny and scared onscreen, while Konkona is mature and rich and fascinating.
As for the rest of the actors, setting aside the meta qualities of the casting for a later post, they are all fantastic. Zoya/Reema have a great ability to pull unique performances from their actors. Talaash, Honeymoon Travels, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and this one, great cast that breaks through to a new level of performance, outside of their set patterns. This is my theory with female directors, Gauri Shindi and Faraha and Reema/Zoya, there is a need to build a relationship and put in the time to really get to know your cast because nothing is handed to them. The only way they can get their films made, after years and years, is to convince their actors that they are worth making, that they will have a good time on the set and be challenged by the role and all of that. You can’t just boss and pressure people into doing what you need, you have to charm them into it. And in the end, that charm will bring out a better performance from your cast.
Juhi is charming, Rishi is a kick, Dimple is fantastically entertaining. But it is the two unknown actresses who really stood out for me. Isha Sharvani, who I saw most recently in Iyobinte Pustakam, really throws herself into the “empty vessel” kind of performance. It’s not a hard role to play, but it is a hard role to commit to, to resist the urge to put in some kind of depth or emotion to the character.
And then there is Sheeba Chaddha. Who, somehow, ends up feeling like the heart of the film. The same thing happened with Talaash, only that time Reema/Zoya were smart and actually made her the heart of the film, the one character who ends better than she started, who gets the “blessings” of the plot. And she should turn into the heart of the film because what Konkona’s character is playing is what she is in real life. A working talented but not famous actress.
The look of the film is fantastic. Every shot is perfectly framed and colored. Isha has a pink bedroom to rival Sandra Dee’s from Imitation of Life, there is an amazing moment when we first see Farhan’s new fancy apartment from outside, one lighted window in a square building next to a dozen other identical unlit windows. He may think his new fancy apartment is a big deal, but there are a dozen others just like it.
(I am sure this is accurate as to the kind of place that would be rented for an audition, but it is also great in giving the kind of factory/store room feel. These actors are products like any other, gathered into a store room, sorted out, and distributed. Very dehumanizing)
Speaking of Imitation of Life, the over all tone of the film is very Imitation of Life-y. Classic 1950s style melodrama. American 1950s melodrama, not Indian which is a little different. A little less slice of life with a series of characters, and a little more focused on one main story. But American 1950s melodrama, that was all about society as a whole, unfairness of life, and so on and so on. A very cynical “we just survived a World War and what did it get us?” kind of attitude. I guess closer in flavor to Indian 1970s. Anyway, that’s what I was thinking of, Imitation of Life and even more directly A Place in the Sun and Sweet Smell of Success.
A large part of these films is the mise-en-scene. The Brechtian breaking of the wall by showing us how false this world is, combined with a statement on out of control consumerism through the way possessions build identity. And Zoya picks up on that here, but with care. Consumerism has not reached India to the degree it reached 1950s America, I don’t think really it has reached anywhere to the degree it reached 1950s America. The luxury hotels, the fancy apartments, the elegant restaurants, they all have a carefully crafted “look”, because they are sets as much as a film set is a set. But Konkona’s apartment, that is messy and different and her. And so is Rishi’s office, Hrithik’s dressing room, these are the “real” places, not the sets, where they are real people.
That realness at the heart of it, the reminder that while the world may be cynical and cruel, the people in it aren’t, that comes through primarily in the songs. Can I say again how much I love Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy? LOVE THEM! I started calling them my favorite composers back in 2006 when I first heard the Lakshya soundtrack, and I am sticking with that. The reason I love them is, in almost all their films, it truly would not be the same movie without the songs. Wouldn’t even be a complete movie, would feel empty and tensionless and sad. The songs give it everything.
And Zoya knows that. She builds around the songs (just like she builds around the stars), not in spite of them. The opening song in particular, sets the tone immediately that this may seem like a silly empty story, but it is a story about real people with real hearts that can be broken and dreams that can be fulfilled and lives that need saving. And the closing song closes that circle, tells us again that this silly world with silly people has value and purpose and can help people live better richer happier lives.
Without the songs, this would be another angry screed against the industry, railing at fate and unfairness and shallowness of the world. But with them, there is love there, and hope, and purpose, and meaning. Well, with them and with Konkona. The two go hand in hand to turn this film from a cynical comedy into something a little deeper and a little richer than that.
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As the movie played out, I kept trying to get a grasp on who was supposed to be “good” and who was supposed to be “bad”. Partly because it is a story about filmmaking, and we have been trained by media stories that there always has to be a “villain” in these. The evil producer who abuses actors, the star who breaks a contract, and of course the star kid who benefits from nepotism.
But by the end of it, I realized none of those people are necessarily bad. There are only two really “bad” people in the whole film, Alyy Khan and Farhan. And what makes them bad is that they are willing to chew up and use others to get their own way. Everyone in this film is self-focused, is ambitious, wants to be successful and have a good life. Because that is what everyone wants, why should we hold film people to a higher standard than others? But only two of them succeed by abusing their power, by trying to defeat others in order to achieve their own goals. That is the message, that this is an industry made up of people and you should be kind to the people around you, as kind as you can be without damaging yourself.
And both of them, Alyy and Farhan, are ultimately rejected by the industry. The “real” industry, represented by the triumvirate of Dimple, Juhi, and Rishi. The family producer who has been building relationships for years, whose wife has kitty parties with the wives of all the other family producers. And the aging actress who came up the hard way and knows more than anyone else about how the industry really works and what needs to be done. There are moments, slight moments, where you can see a turning away, a hesitation, a reluctance to spend time with Alyy. He married his way in, but he hasn’t earned his place. Dimple doesn’t even want to waste time looking at him if she can avoid it.
Farhan is on his way. He is a rising star at the end, so they have to treat him well. But no one likes him. That is what Shahrukh warns in his cameo, that Farhan has to remember the people who were his friends before, because no one else is truly his friend. I wonder if a sequel would show Farhan as Hrithik’s character, on top? Or if we are meant to see that he could fall as soon as he rose, his tactics won’t work in the long run? That the “real” industry will turn away from him?
It is the “real” industry that Zoya wants to show us, and wants us to love. Juhi and Rishi, who are crass with their ridiculous clothes and over the top attitude, and faith in numerology and spiritual advisors. But they love each other, Rishi has a young photo of Juhi sitting on his desk, she comforts him when he feels sad, and she is his true partner, there for most meetings and consultations as a matter of course. And they love her sister, Sheeba Chaddha, who has no influence, who is shy and sweet and excited to be helpful. They welcome her for her sweetness and innocence. These are good people. It is easy to make fun of them, too easy, to talk about ripoffs of Hollywood films and how they aren’t “classy” or “artistic”. But they just want to make a living, and to help other people making a living, without hurting anyone. And what is the harm in that?
Dimple is terrifying. And brutal to her daughter. But she does that to survive. She has given her daughter a great life. We forget that nepotism is ultimately selfless. Dimple isn’t trying to make her daughter a star in order to live again through her, or not exactly, she is trying to teach her how to survive the only way she learned to survive. The same way a different kind of parent might teach you how to change a tire or balance your checkbook. Dimple wants her daughter to do well, but not at the expense of anyone else. If you don’t cross her, she won’t cross you.
Hrithik’s character is the most complex. He seems to be the God that all revolves around, the star that can control whether or not a film is made. Who children worship. And yes, he does a bad thing, he drops out of a film. But only after internal debate and consideration. He does it for his career, but he knows there is a price to be paid for doing it. And he weighs what he has already done for this producer (agreeing to be in many other films with him in the past, agreeing to be in more films with him in future), against this one mistake. And ultimate chooses the path that he knows is wrong.
And then there’s Karan. This is the real “God” of the industry. Him and Shahrukh and Aamir. Each of them only glimpsed once, because they are so far removed from the actions they put in play that the “common folk” aren’t even aware of them. Karan calls Hrithik up for a big film, Hrithik leaves a smaller film, Rishi and Juhi and Dimple are thrown into turmoil, and Farhan gets his chance. Aamir does one scene at the beginning with Konkona and she starts to realize how insignificant her career is. Shahrukh talks to Farhan at the end, and he starts to see his whole life in a new way. They are benevolent Gods, but they are very busy, they don’t have time to think about every little action they do and the effect it might have, they have a whole industry to run.
Bringing it briefly to the real world, remember Kangana twitting Karan because he told someone not to hire her back at the beginning of her career? What does Karan care! Does he even remember? He is making big big decisions every day, he isn’t trying to destroy the life of every struggling actress, or any struggling actress, he has a lot more important things to think about. Any harm he does is unintentional, he is too big to wish harm on anyone else.
That’s the thing, they are so powerful that it would be inappropriate for them to care about what happens to the little people. That’s what makes Farhan and Alyy so “wrong”. Farhan shouldn’t be forcing these big people to notice him, blackmailing them into paying him attention. And Alyy shouldn’t be going below his level, abusing those far below him for his own pleasure. Stay respectful to those above you, and kind to those below you, and you deserve to succeed. Abuse from either direction, that is the greatest wrong according to the moral universe of this film.
And one of those power levels is men and women. Way back at the beginning, a female student in Farhan’s acting class asks if a heroine needs all these skills too, and the teacher blows right past it, says “yes yes, of course of course”, but clearly doesn’t mean it. Farhan as a man can become a star, can have multiple chances, can try many different things. Konkona, Isha, Dimple, they are restricted. They can’t afford one wrong step, or their career will be over. They have to struggle to even have a career, Konkona ran away from home and made it on her own while Farhan is there with the blessing (and money) of his father behind him.
That is the greatest hidden evil of the industry, the way it can chew up and spit out women. Even protected Isha suffers from it. Konkona, “strong” Konkona falls prey to it. And we learn at the end that this is what made Dimple into what she is today. The only women who “escape” are the wives. And even they don’t really. Juhi does, she is happy in her husband and her life, she is not spoiled and protected, but she has the life she wants without having to suffer for it. But Sheeba, again, she is the only real innocent in the film. And she is suffering in her own way, stuck with a husband who doesn’t want her, who clearly married her just for her connections, not for her mind. A kind good woman who deserves better and who we are grateful to Juhi and Rishi for protecting.
Late in the film, Konkona confronts the possibility of this “happy ending” for herself. Leaving her film career, marrying Farhan, becoming the spoiled star wife. And she turns it down. Because she has seen that even that, at least with Farhan, would be no better than what she already has. The worst thing would be to be dependent on someone else for everything, once again.
Although ultimately the point of this film is that we are all dependent, we are all connected. The film industry survives because all of these people from all these different places come together and work together and help each other. And it goes right down the line, from Karan Johar to the chaiwalla at the tiny single screen. That’s what Konkona learns to appreciate in the end. This world doesn’t exist to give her a chance, or take a chance away from someone else, it exists to just keep existing, for everybody.