Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Redressing the Balance: still more minor thoughts on Jaane Tu

As I said in my last comment, I'm not sure how I moved to an extreme position on a film that I enjoyed for as long as I was watching it. I'm going to attempt to outline what I liked.


There are three marriages represented in the film. The first one we see is between Savitri (Ratna Pathak Shah) and the dead but in the picture Amar Singh Rathore (Naseeruddin Shah). This marriage is officially finished by the death of Rathore Sr. while on a typical Rajput outing, but continues in the conversations between Savitri and Rathore's portrait. Now this is a clever riff on those filmi conversations that typically take place between the pious widow and an unresponsive photograph (often garlanded) of the dead husband. These interactions between Amar and Savitri are witty and both these characters are a delight to watch.

But consider their marriage: Savitri* is all for non-violence and is bitter about her husband's Rajput machismo that lost him his life and deprived their son of his father. Determined not to taint Jai's life with these notions of Rajput honour and with their habit of arguing with their fists, Savitri leaves (after her husband dies). And spends the next several years giving her son a completely false idea of what his father was like, so that he may not follow in his footsteps.

But Rathore, in his portrait, has other ideas. Of course, he does not speak to anyone else except Savitri, but he does appear - or contrives to engineer - Jai's dreams, filling them with mysteriously masked men on horses and dunes. This is clearly absurd, but it's a delicious absurdity. (It will be mirrored at the end, when Jai 'understands' the dream about horses and becomes a knight on a white charger riding to rescue his princess.**)

This continuing non-serious bickering between the portrait and the mother about how to bring up their son is one representation of a marriage.

The second one is between Meghna's parents, played by Rajat Kapoor and Kittu Gidwani. Meghna tells Jai that her parents fight all the time but actually love each other and can't live without each other. It's significant that she also tells him on this occasion, that he's the first man she's taking home with her to introduce to her parents.

That dinner is one of the best scenes in the film for my money. Jai is polite, willing to adapt himself to his company. The father presses him to drink more, the mother is snide and Meghna appears to be oblivious to the tension between her parents. She chirps in an extremely annoying way and you can see the scales fall from Jai's eyes. You can see him reviewing her games of 'What's This' in the context of her home life. Kapoor, in one cringe-inducing moment, requests Gidwani to refrain from flirting with Jai and Meghna appears to concur. She says, 'He's all mine.' There's a wealth of suggestion in that one line. It leaves you wondering what it would be like to view this family without the modifying presence of Jai.

This is, clearly, the kind of marriage that no one in a romantic comedy wants to aspire to. It states the proposition that people who are wrong for each other can only be unhappy with each other. Meghna and Jai are wrong for each other and if their relationship continues this - or something like this - is what they can expect.

The third marriage is one between Aditi's parents, Jayant Kriplani and Anuradha Patel. They appear to be a couple in perfect concord with each other. They give great parties; agree that, since Jai and Aditi have been so constant through five years of college, they ought to announce their engagement; they are understanding when the two kids claim they're not in love with each other and give them advice instead; they arrange for Aditi to meet someone else when Jai starts going out with Meghna. And they play Scrabble with each other.***

Which kind of marriage will Jai and Aditi, separately, choose?

This is where that other very interesting character comes in: Sushant Modi (Ayaz Khan), son of Kriplani's colleague, black belt in judo, a man who works hard and parties harder and whose walls are covered with trophies - photos of places he has been to, former girlfriends, titles (judo black belt). The viewer is inclined to be suspicious, because clearly Aditi and Jai are meant for each other and clearly this is a relationship entered into on Aditi's part for all the wrong reasons - because Jai is in one and there has to be symmetry, because if there's no Jai it doesn't matter who it is, and because he doesn't seem bad.

And he doesn't. He talks entirely reasonably most of the time. He says he values a continuing friendship with his ex-girlfriends and says he would expect the same of Aditi. When they go out, he demonstrates his machismo in ways that should satisfy Aditi (she thinks Jai is not aggressive enough) but doesn't because she is not the object of his solicitude; his ex-girlfriend is. It's a position she understands reluctantly, because she would expect Jai to do the same for her.

Sushant's violence, however, is clearly wrong. It's not one that's born of necessity but out of a territorial instinct: no one messes with 'my' woman. He is, in fact, that Rajput ideal ****- a man who will fight because that's how things are settled. He also drinks (a lot) but believes he can handle it. He drives when he's several drinks down and brawls at parties every time we see him at one. Oh, and he hits Aditi when she admits she loves Jai. It's an admission he's forced out of her under false assurances.

He's the kind of person who leads a relationship by misdirection and half-truths; the kind of person it's hard to gauge because he's so contradictory in his speech and actions. He's also one of the most interesting characters in the film.

Jai and Aditi, if they're to achieve a marriage that can be considered successful, have to learn their lessons - on Aditi's part, that machismo is not quite the cute, college canteen fight she thinks it is; on Jai's part, that violence is sometimes necessary though not a default reaction - while still retaining the fundamental strengths of their relationship, which is friendship and affection and yes - that chimerical beast - love.

All of this is there in the film and all of this works.

My grouse with the film is that its world is a very narrow one. It's one that many people aspire to, I admit, but in the absence of showing, in the film, whose aspirations these are, it assumes too much while giving too little.

*An ironic naming, surely; this Savitri could not cheat Death of her husband and this Amar is and is not immortal.

** That the dream horse is black and the real one is white is also worth noting.

***And yet, something about their son signifies a failure on their part. Sure, he could just be a different (refeshingly different) person, but they're also clearly afraid of what he might say when in the company of those they don't yet consider as family (Sushant).

**** But one unleavened by humour. Which is why it's ugly. In this film, a Rajput will fight, but in a light-hearted, humorous way, because it's fun to - in the characters of Bhaloo and Bgheera. As a counter, there is the Rathore portrait to remind us that serious violence leads to death.

Monday, July 21, 2008

More minor thoughts on Jaane Tu

I'm not really sure why one instinctively asks these questions about substance. Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na was a fun film. Popcorn fare, but good popcorn, with lots of butter and just enough salt.

The salt is in two stories the film did not dwell on for long enough: the troubled marriage that Meghna's parents have and why Aditi's brother, Amit, is the way he is.

About Amit, we learn that the family has moved often (why? We're never told) and though Aditi has made many friends everywhere, Amit never has. Aditi is, in fact, Amit's only friend; his lifeline to the outside world, as it were. Because he doesn't work - he doesn't need to , being the son of rich parents - and seems to spend all his time in paint-bespattered clothing. His parents are slightly nervous about having him meet Sushant, the guy Aditi gets engaged to. Why? What in Amit makes him unfit for company and why does our one foray into his room - that ultimately private place that should reveal character - tell us nothing more than that he likes his pet mouse (we knew that anyway) and slanting light from windows?

About Meghna's parents we learn more: we know that Meghna thinks it's cute that they fight all the time; we learn that though she says they cannot live without each other, the truth is somewhat different. Her father drinks too much, her mother is hard and sarcastic and they are the kind of couple that make you cringe with the way they conduct their arguments in public. Yet Meghna is delusional about their relationship - deliberately, as it turns out, because she does not want to face the truth. She's not ready for it, she says.

We could say the same about the film. On a good day, it's popcorn, that well-buttered and lightly salted one I talked about. On a bad day, though, it's like a game of Meghna's 'What's this?': an escape into a fantasy that sets your teeth on edge, because you believe you see the world for what it is.

This may or may not be a justified interpretation. More often than not, it says a fair bit about one's own capacity for delusion. Perhaps I'm inclined to be charitable. Why do we believe that films, to have 'substance' must be gritty, hard or real (whatever that is) ? Why is it not acceptable for a girl, faced with a near-alcoholic father, uncivil parents in an unhappy marriage, to deal with it by escaping into a fantasy world?

And what else is Jaane Tu, with it's knight-on-a-charger end; kids who can leave college without actually having applied already for further studies, or a job, or anything; who can do foreign holidays on their parents' money; who can drop 500 bucks a head at sundry nightclubs and go on camping trips where food is supplied by the poor whose faces you don't even see properly, if not an escape? If the world it attempts to escape from is uniformly too hard to bear, we do not see that world at all.*

The alternate interpretation is a little scary to contemplate. That would be the one where the film is a true reflection of the world of college-going kids today. I refuse to believe that the 21 year olds of today are as empty-headed (though well-meaning and generally likeable in small doses) as this bunch in the film. I refuse to believe (if we consider that what the camera sees is an exact representation of what the characters see) that nobody sees beyond their little sad worlds of midnight 'surprise' birthday parties, college-leaving parties, drives in cars, cosy chats on beds, stairs, sea fronts, dining tables and on the manicured lawns of mansions.**

I prefer to think of a film as a muted manifesto for the escapist fantasy genre, where what is uncomfortable is glossed over, because to see it clearly would be to give up a carefully maintained jollity. It's an artificial jollity, but everyone knows that and can live with it or even because of it. We just leave it for the audience to know that this is the reason they go to the cinema: for the tinsel that makes the drabness of daily life bearable.

I think Abbas Tyrewala has immense potential. He's written the screenplay, after all, for Maqbool, the dialogues for Munnabhai MBBS and sundry other very popular and successful films. I just think that Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (though I enjoyed the film) it was an opportunity squandered. I'm hoping that now he's done testing the waters, he will do something one can chew over a bit. Popcorn is all very well, and it has its place in the food chain, i guess. But it kind of leaves you thirsty.

*Savitri, Jai's mother, also makes an escape - from Rajput machismo - quite literally. She makes out Jai's father to be an ideal, Gandhi-like figure; a complete fantasy, as it happens.

The film's take on marriage is actually quite interesting. Either it's an unhappy business or one that appears to have worked because one person represents it (in the permanent absence of the other) as something it never was. The third marriage - that of Aditi's parents - is another unbelievable ideal: where they play scrabble with each other and arrange another perfect marriage for their daughter.

**But I'm just delusional that way. Yes, Alok?