I am so proud of myself, I watched a non-Indian movie! That is, a movie made in India but in a style totally unlike Indian film. And I understood it! Mostly!
This is about as unlike traditional Indian film style as possible, while telling a very classical Hindi film sort of romance. It’s an interesting artistic achievement, and for an audience familiar with Hindi film it’s a fun way of making us see the stories in a new way. For an audience unfamiliar with Hindi film, it is a reassuringly familiar style to introduce them to a new setting and a new kind of story. And if you have no context at all, remove all of that, it is still a very well-made film that anyone could enjoy.
And now I have to go off on a little angry tangent for a moment, fully aware that this is a tangent and does not belong in this review, but there is no other place to put it. This film tells, in spirit, the exact same story as Jab Harry Met Sejal. But in style, it fits with the European art film tradition. I don’t even mean “style” like performances or details of how the narrative unfolds, I mean very specific stylistic choices like using a digital camera and natural light, making a movie that is an hour and 45 minutes instead of 2 hours and 40 minutes, and having background music that uses European style instruments and musical forms, lots of tinkly piano. The universally bad reviews of Jab Harry Met Sejal among the Indian English language writers did not say “this would be a good movie if only it used natural lighting more”. They said the story was unbelievable, the characters were trite, and so on and so forth. No one criticized the style. And this film, which is THE EXACT SAME STORY, got rave reviews. Because it doesn’t have songs, and it doesn’t star Shahrukh Khan. Suddenly the things which were unbelievable and trite before are now magical and real and perfect.
I know I need to review this movie as its own thing, but it got to a point when I realized what kind of story it was going to be telling where I was severely distracted by comparing point by point with Jab Harry Met Sejal. I don’t think Batra was influenced by Ali, it wasn’t THAT close. But they are both telling the same sort of character piece, two people who fall in love with each other and also with what the other represents for them (home and future for the man, and freedom and escape for the woman).
And what both of them are also doing is taking the sort of romantic fantasy set-up Hindi film excels at and showing how it isn’t actually a fantasy. It’s not impossible for two people to fall in love at first sight across great social differences, there are reasons it could happen and could work out for them, ESPECIALLY within Indian society. It’s an achievement to take this fantasy and make it work in a way that the audience can understand what is happening and why it is happening without all the big declarations and drama of traditional Hindi film style.
Okay, FINALLY I have reached this film. The most distinctive stylistic element of this film is the choice of what NOT to show. Our two lead characters, Nawazuddin Siddique and Sanya Malhotra spend something like a month together. And all the audience sees is small moments of that time. Not the most significant moments, either in terms of narrative or their emotional journey, just random moments. We are left with the feeling of this enormous amount of unknown events, things we can fill in for ourselves. The story feels bigger for what is left out, like seeing a tiny spec in the middle of the sea. And the same is true of the two central performance. Sanya and Nawazuddin spend most of their time silent, when they do talk it tends to be commonplace utterances, I lost track of how many times Sanya’s only dialogue in a scene was “thank you”. And again, it makes the story feel that much bigger, that the little surface we see of each of them and of them together implies a far deeper reality.
In terms of visuals, as I said Bombay as never looked more beautiful. And original. That is an achievement. Bombay has been endlessly recorded thanks to over a 100 years of a film industry located there. Finding a new angle and a new location for this city, something to surprise the viewer, that’s a challenge. This movie shows us an upper middle-class apartment, a workers room, and also golden colored sidewalks, benches under trees, little places we’ve never seen before. And of course India Gate, possibly the most filmed landmark in Bombay, but with the focus on the people moving in front of it instead of the gate itself. The experience of watching the film is pure joy, pure beauty. The story is almost beside the point.
It is a lovely story though. A bit of a Rorschach test of a story, there is so little shown to us, we have to fill in the feelings and happenings ourselves. But what is shown is so beautiful, that you are left with beautiful ideas in your mind, and a beautiful spirit inside of you for all those other stories happening all over that you will never really know everything about.
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Nawazuddin is a photographer at India Gate. He takes your photograph, then prints it while you wait. He works extremely hard and saves all his money to send home to his grandmother, living in a small room with 3 other men. Sanya is a young woman studying for her chartered accountant test. She lives in an apartment with her parents and a maid, spends her days in training classes and her nights studying late alone. One day Sanya goes for a ferry ride to India Gate and then impulsively has Nawazuddin take her photo. His printer malfunctions and she leaves before he can give her the second copy of the photo. Sanya loves the photo and shows it in class, where her teacher Jim Sarbh takes it from her. Nawazuddin learns his grandmother in the village is trying to get him married and, to stall her, sends Sanya’s photo with a letter saying this is the girl he loves. But then his grandmother announces she is coming to Bombay to meet this girl. Nawazuddin finds Sanya through her training classes and follows her around, finally approaching her after she indicates she is open to talking to him. He gives her another copy of the photo and she agrees to meet his grandmother. It is just a one time meeting, but Sanya shows up to meet them again the next day. For days, Nawazuddin picks up Sanya and they spend time with his grandmother. Twice his grandmother is spending the day elsewhere, the first time Nawazuddin takes Sanya to the movies, the second time to his rooms alone. Meanwhile at home Sanya is offered a proposal. She meets the young man, but turns him down. She also talks with her maid to learn more about life in a village. Nawazuddin’s grandmother encourages him to stop sending money home, stop trying to buy back the family house and start fresh in the city. He starts looking into a way to produce the old cola that was Sanya’s favorite and finds an old man with a bottling plant for it. And then the movie ends.
So there isn’t really a “plot” as it were. There is just Sanya and Nawazuddin meeting, and then continuing to meet for no real reason as they each slowly work out in their own minds what a shared life together might look like. And in the middle of this, it all ends. We don’t even see Nawazuddin’s grandmother leaving, they are all still in the city, Nawazuddin is considering starting his own business, and trying to find Sanya’s beloved “Champa Cola” as a gift for her. Sanya is talking with her maid about village life and thinking if she could live that way. Will Nawazuddin propose with the gift of the cola? Will Sanya ask to go to the village with him? What happened when they were alone in Nawazuddin’s room? Or will this magical time turn into nothing, will they fail to meet up one day and never see each other again? It is up to the audience to decide.
This is a story of every Hindi film romance ever. The struggling poor boy, the rich girl who falls in love with him. But in the usual films it isn’t a hero who looks like Nawazuddin or a heroine who looks like Sanya. Or an apartment that looks like Sanya’s bland middle-class home, or an arrangement engagement that falls apart with as little drama as Sanya’s, or a job that has such a lack of danger as Nawazuddin’s, and most of all just the lack of drama in general. Sanya’s parents want her to meet this boy, but they are already a little uncertain about the engagement. She meets him and says no and they are fine with it. Later in the film Sanya’s teacher Jim Sarbh sees her waiting for Nawazuddin and tries to get her to go for coffee with him. Nawazuddin arrives and calls to her, she goes to him. No fight between Nawazuddin and Jim, no declaration of love from Nawazuddin in the aftermath, just Sanya quickly grabbing his hand in the cab afterwards. This is the story of every Hindi film romance ever, but as it might play out for people in “real life”, without the sparkle and drama and fantasy.
And without the narrative tidiness. There’s a reason Hindi films tend to end with a wedding. It puts a nice period to the plot, we feel like the story is complete even though the characters will keep living and changing and doing things while we aren’t watching. This film has no tidiness. There is no one moment when Sanya and Nawazuddin fall in love, they just slowly spend more and more time together. We end without seeing them declare their feelings, let alone get married. This is the middle of the story with no clear ending or beginning.
But it works because we can feel for these characters. We can see why they fit together as a couple, and we can imagine why they feel things for each other and what their future might be like. They are two characters who have made a virtue of self-denial. Someone telling them to relax and enjoy life is impossible, but finding a partner to step with them into a more joyous life is possible,
Nawazuddin’s parents died when he was young leaving him and his two sisters orphans. Their grandmother raised them, and Nawazuddin grew up with that scar of the poorer times. He found the money to get his sisters married and now he is trying to save up the money to buy back the family house for his grandmother. He doesn’t buy ice cream until the last day of the month, he saves almost no money for himself at the bank, he won’t even consider getting married because that would mean doing something for himself. Nawazuddin’s grandmother doesn’t want him to live like this, she wants him to find happiness for himself and be proud of what he has already accomplished, but Nawazuddin won’t listen to her. It isn’t until Sanya enters his life that suddenly he lets himself go just a little bit, goes to a movie for fun, buys an ice on the street, that he lets himself open up to life even more and consider letting go of his father’s debts and doing things for others and instead think about building a future for himself. We don’t need a lot of dialogue to learn all of this, the character is so clear and so well drawn by the director and script and performance, that he leaps off the screen and we will follow him into any story.
Sanya is slightly less well-drawn than Nawazuddin, but part of that is on purpose. That is, one of the first things we learn about her is that she used to love drama in school. She knows how to hide herself behind a mask and does it better than Nawazuddin. And yet, we still know a lot. She is her father’s pride, having already passed the first accountants exam at the top of the list. But no one in her family seems to really know her. She spends her days alone, walking around the city. And she spends her nights sitting up and studying. It is the maid who is kindest to her, sitting up with her to offer tea and biscuits. They aren’t cruel, they are trying to do what is best, we hear her parents discuss whether they want to offer her the engagement or if it would be better for her to finish her studies. But no one seems to really connect with Sanya, she is lonely. We can fill it in, a young girl who loved drama, pressured by her parents into giving it up, and from then on hiding away any part of herself that might want something beyond what she was “supposed” to want. A young woman raised in a home without a lot of love or laughter, craving that gentleness around her, that community, and that freedom to figure out who she was and what she really wanted instead of having her life planned.
In another film, we would constantly see Sanya and Nawazuddin together. In this movie, the director Batra sets up a pattern. We see Sanya and Nawazuddin together, and then we see them apart silently thinking about their time together. It’s not a romance about two people falling in love, it’s about two people falling in love and then separating into individual people and thinking about what this love story means for themselves as individuals.
This is why we don’t get that marriage happy ending. Because it’s not about the romance. It’s about what the romance inspires within them. Sanya turns down the MBA fiance and reaches out to her maid, sees a new part of the city and a new part of life, and starts to move towards finding a different way to be happy. Nawazuddin considers changing his life, starting a business and settling in Bombay. That is enough. If the romance doesn’t work out, they will still benefit from these changes.
In the same way, this is why we don’t get the magical start of the romance. Because it didn’t start when they met each other. It started when Nawazuddin got his sisters married and started looking for a new neverending challenge and reason to deny happiness, or when Sanya was forced out of the drama in school and started feeling dead inside. The romance is just a part of all of it, part of everything happening in their lives. They fell in love with each other because of where they were in life, they started to change their lives because of falling in love, that is the story. Not love, but what love can inspire us to do, the way it can be a moment of sunshine and happiness in our lives that is as clear as a photograph.
(oooo, that is such a good ending line! Let’s all sit here for a moment and admire it.)