Huh. Interesting idea at the center of this, which somehow completely failed to pay off. Oh well, sometimes these movies can be more fun to talk about than to watch.
Whole Plot in Two Paragraphs:
Amitabh’s wife owns an old falling down Haveli in a prime location in Lucknow. They rent it out in small room sections to a dozen long term tenants. Everyone shares the bathrooms, and the pump in the courtyard. Amitabh and the tenants are at war, he steals small things like lightbulbs from them and refuses to repair or even paint the building. But the tenants have old rent rates from decades earlier and refuse to move out as they couldn’t afford any other place, Ayushmann’s family being one of the oldest, 70 years in the same rooms for 70 rupees a month (about $2.50 in American money). Amitabh and Ayushmann go to the police after another battle and are told there is nothing they can do, Ayushmann has tenants rights, but Amitabh still owns the building, they are locked together. Vijay Raaz overhears and then introduces himself to Ayushmann and suggests another way. If he can convince the government to take the building as a historical monument, the government will have to find alternative housing for the tenants. Amitabh at the same time is working with a lawyer to confirm sole ownership of the building by getting all the other potential heirs to sign away their rights, the final challenge being to get his elderly wife Farrukh Jaffar to sign over her rights to him. Ayushmann’s smart sister Srishti starts working with Amitabh’s lawyer, thinking they have a better chance by selling the building and getting part of a pay out for making the tenants go easy. And then it twists, Vijay was actually working for a high level politician who wanted him to find a fancy house he could use his influence to get declared a monument so the politician could move in on it. And the lawyer was actually working for a rich developer who wanted to make Amitabh do all the legwork to get the papers done so he could swoop in and buy. Developer and Politician both show up to take possession, Ayushmann is horrified to learn the tenants get nothing either way, and then a third party is announced. Farrukh Jaffar has been secretly working with her own lawyer and successfully signed over possession of the house to her old boyfriend who she has now run off with. The tenants are evicted and no one gets the house. A year later, both Ayushmann and Amitabh stop by the outside gates of the house to see the party inside for Farrukh’s birthday, before going to sit by the river together.
The surface hook of this movie is the idea of a tenant-landlord conflict. And the whole setting around it, the falling down building, the families that lived there for years, the challenge of not being able to attract new tenants without repairs but not being able to afford repairs without higher paying tenants. When we open with Amitabh sneaking in to steal lightbulbs and then selling them while Ayushmann fumes, that’s fun.
The bigger story is about the impossibility of fighting the power structure. Amitabh and Ayushmann are sitting on a goldmine, but they don’t have the resources or intelligence to see it. While they are bickering around about tiny rent payments, there are larger forces at work exploiting them to take what they have. That’s a good theme too.
But it isn’t balanced right. We spend too long building up to the reveal that Vijay Raaz was working for the politicians, and that Amitabh’s helpful lawyer was working for a developer. I got bored with the back and forth between Amitabh and Ayushmann and lost track of why it mattered. We spent so long on Vijay Raaz without knowing the key motivation of him working for the politician. We rush through this sudden reveal, and then move right into the shock of Farrukh secretly pulling all the strings. The underlying theme of the powerlessness and blindness of the lowerclasses gets fuzzy somewhere.
It should be very tidy. Ayushmann and Amitabh are fighting each other and not seeing they should be united. The government and the private sector are equally powerful and able to see a big picture. But ultimately it is the old royal powers that prevail, knocking out all these newcomers. Until Ayushmann and Amitabh are left equally helpless, having destroyed themselves by failing to see the greater forces involved. And the audience should be left feeling satisfied, happy that the overlooked old lady got her happy ending and the house stayed with someone who loved it.
But it’s not that tidy. For one thing, not sure if this is a failure of the director to understand the script or a failure on the script level, but Ayushmann’s sister Srishti should be the lead and isn’t. She is the oldest of his three sisters and has just finished college. She sees through Vijay Raaz early on and switches allegiance to the lawyer. She is the only one who is involved on both sides of that battle. And for perfect parallelism, we should see that the woman who Amitabh dismisses and ignores (his wife) has her only equal in the woman Ayushmann has dismissed and ignored (his sister). Instead, we see Srishti in just glimpses. She meets with Vijay at a hotel room with no lead up we have seen, clearly ready to have sex with him in return for favors, and instead recognizes his uncertainty and fear and begins to question how much power he really welds. And then suddenly we see her working with the lawyer, no consideration of how that transition happened and who made the decision. She works with him, she is there for key scenes, and in the final scene, she disappears! She is there upset in the crowd when the politicians and rich man show up, but Ayushmann is alone when he learns Farrukh has left the house. And then we leap forward and see Ayushmann and Amitabh in their new lives, and finally even Farrukh. No Srishti! Where did she disappear too? I am always aware when watching a film that I will tend to relate more to young woman characters than anyone else. But this is more than that, the structure of the script puts Srishti front and center, the only one who knows all kinds of important things, and the directing of the film shuffles her to the side.
Along those same lines, and I have to think this was unintentional based on Juhi and Shoojit’s other work, there ends up being an oddly misogynistic message. Amitabh is the much younger husband of his wife, Ayushmann is sleeping with a woman who won’t marry him until he gets a better place to live, and Srishti is ready to seduce Vijay in order to get what she wants. At the end of the film, Farrukh has triumphed and is living in wealth and ease, Ayushmann’s ex-girlfriend stops by his wheat mill to make fun of him for working for a living, and Srishti has disappeared from the film, never able to explain to the audience a motivation for seducing Vijay beyond wanting what she can get from him. Even the final shot, we see the chair Amitabh took from the mansion when he left, and which he sold to a pawn shop for almost nothing, being placed at an auction house for millions, and the person putting the price on it is a well-dressed woman.
It’s an intentional/unintentional misogyny I think. Each moment in isolation was a separate decision, but put them together and it creates a pattern of meaning in the film. Put each separate decision together, and it creates a pattern of prejudice from the filmmakers. Farrukh surprised us by escaping Amitabh and “winning” in the end. The main point of that was the triumph of ancestral powers over the state and the capitalists. She just happened to be a woman, so the audience could be even more surprised, and so Amitabh could play the role of the spouse. Ayushmann’s love interest also just happened to be a woman, because he was a man, the point was to show how he accepts his fate when he sees her again, isn’t even angry or bitter since his character has lost the will to fight. And Srishti was removed because Ayushmann and Amitabh’s characters are the leads and there wasn’t time for her. Put it all together, and you end up with the poor abused men being used by these powerful women who delight in their powerlessness. And you end up with a vision of filmmakers who will always choose a woman to show wealth and power over a working class man, without thinking about that choice. Why did the figure at the auction house at the end have to be a beautiful well-dressed woman? Because beautiful well-dressed woman are status symbols, just as much as valuable antiques. At least, in the eye of the director putting this together.
I wish it wasn’t so confused because, at the heart of this story, is a fascinating re-imagining of Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam. SPOILERS In the original film, our hero is a middle-class educated man now working for the government and excavating an ancient Haweli. In the past, he was a young man just arrived in the city and renting a room at this Haweli. He befriended the young bride of the royal family and wanted to “save” her from her misery, but instead her family suspected their friendship and killed her. Now, in the present, he excavates the house and finds her body where the family hid it. END SPOILERS. It was a film about changing India, the way the middle-class and the government took over these royal homes and royal families, and about the essential powerlessness of the women of these families, trapped in their rooms as the house fell apart around them.
This movie flips that. The middle-class man and the wealthy landlord are now equals, both scrounging for money. The government bureaucrat is only slightly better, working for politicians instead of some abstract concept of right and wrong. And the capitalists have risen and risen until they are equal in power to the State. But the surprise of it all is that the upper class woman trapped away in her room has been working against them all along to regain her power. This time, instead of being buried away, she has saved herself and is the one in triumph at the end. It’s a statement on modern India versus the India of the past, it’s a statement on the possibilities of woman taking their true power, it’s a statement on all kinds of things. But that’s all lost under the easy to see statement of “WOMEN! They just always win, don’t they?”