Curse of the comeback? Part three of five: Aishwarya Rai in “Jazbaa” (2015)

This is part three of a five part series looking at whether heroine-oriented comebacks are doomed to fail.

Last year’s “Jazbaa” saw Aishwarya Rai Bachchan return to the silver screen after five years, her preceding release being 2010’s “Guzaarish”.

Rai’s 1994 coronation as Miss World, followed by a high profile career with major hits such as “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam”, “Dhoom 2”, “Devdas” and “Jodhaa Akbar”, a large array of endorsements, a handful of English-language films suggesting she might be the first B-Town star to “crossover” (whatever that means), and annual appearances at Cannes all contributed to the creation of Aishwarya Rai the star.

The addition of a filmi surname of the highest regard, becoming Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and extending Mr. Bachchan’s film legacy into another generation created an additional level of glamour and mystique around Aishwarya.

That Rai’s return came after a five-year break was not initially intended, in fact she already signed up for Madhur Bhandarkar’s film “Heroine”, with a first look even released with her in the lead role. After she became pregnant with her daughter, her dates didn’t work and the film was released in 2012 with Kareena Kapoor in the lead instead.

The five-year break from films didn’t see Aishwarya completely away from the public eye however, and combined with the continued popularity of her films, she remained within public consciousness with a lot of hype and anticipation surrounding her return.

Given all of the above, 2015’s “Jazbaa” was an unusual choice for a “comeback” film for Aishwarya, a dark thriller not particularly similar to her biggest hits in any noticeable way, and so arguably was quite a brave and bold choice.

Despite this brave and bold choice, the film only garnered average reviews and average receipts in terms of return on investment or in comparison to the standout hits of 2015 (whether her ex- Salman Khan’s “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” or father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan’s “Piku”).

Therefore it is useful to break down what works and what doesn’t about the film, to figure out what contributed to this underwhelming response from critics and audiences.

The usual SPOILER alert – Jazbaa is a recommended watch (although an imperfect film), it has lots of interesting aspects to it, and so if you haven’t seen it, go watch and come back.

The trailer is below:

So what actually works about “Jazbaa”?:

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is re-established as a glamourous heroine, not despite, nor irrespective of, but including her real life (and reel life) motherhood as a source of glamour:

The opening scene and song of Jazbaa shows a svelte Aishwarya Rai Bachchan jogging and stretching around the city in a lycra suit as a message to all the haters who criticised her weight gain after her pregnancies (a natural and healthy phenomenon).

Rather in her return in Jazbaa, she represents the epitomy of health and fitness. She is then immediately cast in the role of a mother, shown waking her daughter for school.

On the school run, as Aishwarya’s character Anuradha discusses with her daughter the upcoming relay race, she mentions to her daughter she was also on her track team when she was at school, following on from her exercise we saw in the opening scene. Her daughter teases her:

Sanaya: Excuse me mom, this is a race. Not some case which you always win.

The image of Aishwarya Rai as “flawless” is emphasised successfully through the character she plays being portrayed similarly, specifically in her career:

Aishwarya, sorry, Anuradha of course wins the relay race. Whilst she is running her leg, this is when Sanaya disappears and it is this disappearance that drives the main thrust of the plot, when we discover she has been taken and Anuradha is forced into taking on a client under duress. Even during the call she receives from the kidnapper, he reminds us as the audience that Anuradha is such a top lawyer, in case we had forgotten.

Anuradha then heads to work, which, as has already been established, is as a top lawyer. An endearing moment when she takes off her flats to put on a pair of heals is hammered home excessively, with an unnecessary dialogue from her opposing counsel:

Prosecutor: I wish those high heels would help you win the case.

Irrespective of the high heels, Anuradha wins her case. Her client congratulates her and she corrects him by congratulating him instead. Through this we learn she takes pride in her success as a lawyer, but does not morally or ethically condone the actions of the people she is defending. She says she hopes to never meet him again when he offers his support if she ever needs it.

Irrfan Khan and Shabana Azmi were great choices to cast alongside Rai for this film, and if her own character were meatier and more complex, would have really allowed for their acting abilities to come through:

Irrfan Khan, for example, in contrast to Aishwarya Rai, is given more to do and able to show off more of his acting ability than Rai, even within the same (flawed) film, as his character Yohan is shown to make mistakes and has elements of grey to his character given the accusations of corruption against him.

In his introductory scene Yohan is compared with Rai’s father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan, famous for his ‘angry young man’ roles, and as a police officer, with Ajay Devgan’s Singham. These are iconic roles of historic and contemporary Hindi cinema.

An example of when Irrfan Khan does well as Yohan is when he and Anuradha break into the crime scene – and Yohan explains how the crime was committed.

Anuradha is able to assess the scene like an inspector, and already pieces together evidence that open the possibility that Niyaz didn’t commit the crime or that something is amiss. She builds a narrative of why the evidence against him might be there. All this seems quite sudden and lacks a little in plausibility.

Yohan later tells her to “stop trying to put Sherlock Homes out of a job”. His dark humour and wit is an enjoyable characterisation and well delivered throughout.

Anuradha then goes to a club and we have an awkwardly hemmed in video song and would have been better to leave this out or have a song more in keeping in mood with that of the film. Another awkward fit is the pseudo action scene as she confronts Benny, a confused junkie friend of Sia’s.

However, this improves when Yohan appears he apprehends Benny and threatens to arrest him for possession of narcotics, in turns into a humorous meta-commentary:

Benny: You’re not a cop anymore. I know my rights.

Yohan: Rights? Rights in INDIA?

[slaps him twice]

You watch too many Hollywood films

This is Bollywood.

He then plays good cop and offers to let him go if he spills on what happened. When this doesn’t work – he switches back to Singham-style policing. As a result, they get their intel – Benny mentions Sia changed after meeting a guy who became a bad influence.

The trial itself is probably the most compelling part of the film:

Anuradha’s case taken under duress is that of a convicted criminal who is appealing his conviction and sentencing, and who was sentenced to the death penalty in the initial trial. She is given a deadline of four days to have all charges dropped.

The case is to acquit Niyaz, the convicted murder and rapist of a 23-year-old art student called Sia. He has previous violent convictions and his DNA is all over the crime scene. We learn the inspector in charge of the case was Anuradha’s friend Yohan.

Loyalties to Anuradha are somewhat uncertain, as we as the audience understand her need to win the case, but naturally side with the victim and specifically with the victim’s mother, played by Shabana Azmi. There are a number of interesting conversations between the two of them, where perhaps the viewer may question Anuradha’s approach, if not her motives.

Throughout the trial, the questioning of witnesses and closing statements allow for discussion of issues around violence against women that are ripe topics for all kinds of forms of art and media – and most recently very successfully addressed by Rai Bachchan’s father-in-law in the movie “Pink”.

Anuradha is shown in court to be creating reasonable doubt by questioning the locksmith who couldn’t break into the apartment and the doctor who conducted the autopsy who both indicate that Sia must have known her attacker.

She follows by putting Garima on the stand, where her line of questioning is challenged.

She explains:

Anuradha: My motive was to draw the court’s attention to the fact that when girls in a broken family feel lonely they tread down the wrong path in search of love and support.

Garima: Sia wasn’t like that!

Anuradha: Then how was she Garima-ji?

Garima: My daughter was the most brilliant student of the JJ School of Arts.

Anuradha: But all the artwork in her studio is mostly incomplete.

Was there a void in her life too?

Garima: There’s a void in everyone’s life.

No one gets a complete world, Advocate Verma.

Anuradha: Can you tell us, how your daughter filled the void in her life?

Garima: Like most youngsters do these days, with their friends.

Prosecutor: Objection Your Honour.

This case is about Sia’s murder, not her personal life.

Anuradha: Your Honour, given the conditions under which Sia was murdered, her lifestyle had a big role to play in it.

Judge: Please continue.

Anuradha: Thank you, Your Honour.

[to Garima] Did your daughter have friends?

Gaurima: Who doesn’t? She had dozens of friends.

Anuradha: Boyfriends?

Gaurima: Yes.

She had male friends as well.

Anuradha: How was Sia’s relationship with her boyfriend?

Prosecutor: Objection Your Honour.

This is just an attempt to humiliate Sia.

Anuradha: I disagree Your Honour.

To find the real murderer it is important to find out who Sia’s friends were, what they did, who she hung out with, and how she partied, if she did.

This line of questioning where the relevance of a woman’s personal life choices to seeking justice after she has suffered a crime (and in this case, is not even able to either defend her choices, or face her attacker), is picked up again in scene shortly afterwards, and dealt with even more explicitly.

Anuradha: Did Sia have relationships with a lot of men?

[pause]

I’ll repeat my question.

Did Sia have relationships with a lot of men?

[pause]

Garima-ji, I hope you understand what I’m trying to get at.

Garima stands up for her daughter and outwardly criticises Anuradha’s approach and challenges the underlying judgement and shame. She reminds both the court and the audience that Sia is the victim, not the accused.

Garima:  I understand clearly what you’re trying to say.

You want to prove that my daughter was a loose woman.

On what basis?

Because she had a few male friends?

Advocate Verma, my daughter was clever, beautiful, emotional.

Men would hover around her.

So what?

Is that a crime?

Are you one of those people that think that it’s always the woman’s fault?

People who blame the girl and not the rapist after she’s been raped.

They blame her dress sense.

They blame her independent thinking.

They blame the very fact that she’s a girl.

Anuradha: Garima-ji, I’m sorry to hurt your feelings.

The following response clarifies their two positions – Garima as a traumatised mother who can’t get over her daughter’s murder, and Anuradha as a mother winning her case at any cost to protect her daughter who’s been kidnapped. There is a clear parallel between the two of them in this moment, but it questions Anuradha’s potential hypocrisy for victimising Sia further to save her own daughter.

Garima: No, Advocate Verma.

You are not sorry.

Right now you’re just a lawyer who wants to win her case at any cost.

If you had any humanity, or sympathy, then you would have understood my pain.

I dream about my daughter every night, where she says, “Mama, save me, I want to live. Help me Mama”.

Back when she was a kid, even a small hiccup would give me sleepless nights.

Imagine my condition when her scream resonates in my ears every night.

Prosecutor: Your Honour, I seriously object to this kind of questioning.

Anuradha: My questions are relevant Your Honour.

Judge: Proceed.

Anuradha: Did you know that your daughter took drugs?

Garima: Yes.

Anuradha continues by framing this information to support her case for reasonable doubt.

Anuradha: Your honour, please note, Sia was a young girl.

She lived alone.

She had a lot of male friends and she took drugs.

And that night, the lock of Sia’s apartment was impossible to pick from the outside. So obviously, Sia opened it from the inside.

And Sia’s killer who came into her apartment that night must have been one of Sia’s male friends who Sia invited over herself.

And not some petty thief who went there to steal money for his mother’s medicine.

That will be all Your Honour.

A recess is called and Garima approaches Anuradha outside of the courtroom. Rather than relate Anuradha to herself, she draws a parallel between Anuradha and Niyaz, an extreme position perhaps but it emphasises the power of shaming, and of the perverting of justice to blame the victim:

Garima: Miss Verma, what Niyaz did to my daughter was behind closed doors.

You just did that to her character in the open.

What’s the difference between you and Niyaz?

Nothing.

Aishwarya’s character is given an traumatic background within the film, leading to a conversation with Irrfan’s character that touches on issues such as gender selective abortion and boy child preference:

An interesting dialogue follows Anuradha is calmer after the meetup to drop off Sanaya’s medication. This plotline as such does a better job of ringing true (and allows Aishwarya to give a more convincing performance and flesh out her character a little more):

Anuradha: I almost lost Sanaya once before

I got pregnant.

And my husband found out it was a girl.

He said

“we can have a daughter later”

First I want a son.

Even my in-laws wanted a son.

I was so alone.

I had loved him you know.

I even stopped practicing law for his sake.

Settled down in America.

It was our child.

And he said “abort it”

Kill my daughter.

My Sanaya.

A man becomes a father after the child is born.

But a woman becomes a mother from the time the child starts developing in her womb.

A man can say “abort the child”

But not a mother

I fled from those murderers.

Away from the world that had no place for my child.

I almost lost her once, I can’t lose her again.

This interesting background is dropped however, and we learn nothing of how Anuradha went from divorced single mother returning to India after abandoning her career upon her husband’s request, to the hotshot superstar defence lawyer who the poor can’t afford and the press can’t stop profiling.

Anuradha Verma is a more engaging character at the points she is resourceful – either in her line of questioning or when she is attacked herself:

When Anuradha returns home after discovering about the involvement of the local politician Mahesh Maklai, he and his goons are waiting for her. They threaten her and tie her up, as he insists his son has “nothing to do with this case”. He then explains that Sam came home high one morning, with Sia’s body in his car.

They both assumed he had killed her in a fugue state, whereas Anuradha still insists at this point that Sam is the murderer. He explains that it doesn’t matter whether Sam is the murderer or not (where is the victim in all this you wonder) – but rather that his reputation is protected so he goes on to win the upcoming elections.

This plot point is meaty and not fully exploited, a great actor and performance for the role of Mahesh Maklai, and more time to flesh out his character to deliver this would help.

Whilst a morally grey Anuradha suddenly becoming a passionate defender of justice in the face of this new level of acceptance of immorality would be appropriate here, but neither does a flawed nor right on Anuradha seem to object much at all. “Please don’t do this” is her only refrain, but Aishwarya is also inconveniently tied up here, leaving her no option to use body language in her performance.

They plan to burn the place down with her in it – upping the stakes to the highest point so far in the film as Anuradha’s life is in immediate danger. Here she is somewhat entreatingly resourceful as she slides over to the nearest table and kicks as she is able, smashing a glass onto the ground – a piece of which she will be able to use to set herself free. She then helps the maid, checks she’s OK and switches off the gas.

The prosecutor presents his final arguments and is followed by Anuradha whose argument consists of admitting that Niyaz could be the murderer but creating reasonable doubt by presenting Sam as an alternative suspect. We haven’t seen any of this evidence actually presented in court until this point so this seems odd.

She does however, following Annalise Keating’s steps on How to Get Away with Murder (the sexy, soapy high drama ABC show without Priyanka Chopra):

The ending is relatively well executed – with Shabana Azmi standing out and most threads are tied up – and where this isn’t done neatly, it appears to be intentional:

We are shown, a final version of events where Niyaz does indeed rape and murder Sia, whilst Sam has passed out due to his drugged up state, and Niyaz puts the knife he used as the murder weapon in Sam’s hand before he escapes.

Whilst Anuradha is challenged for presenting these assumptions only at this point of the case, with no evidence, her response is to point to the lack of a murder weapon, and insist it is the prosecution’s job to prove the client guilty. Anuradha is well sold here as a competent lawyer. She points at the lack of equal justice provided to the son of a rich man with connections (Sam), and a drug dealer (Niyaz) as a genuine double standard.

At this point when we know Niyaz is the killer – our loyalties to this argument are somewhat divided. Anuradha, upon questioning by the prosecution, presents a motive for Sam – jealousy on finding Niyaz and Sia in a “compromising position” whilst he attempted to rape her. Sam arrives at the court just in time to act as a witness confirming he was there at the time of her murder.

He says he was there at the time of the murder but that she was already dead when he came to. We are shown a flashback of this happening, as well as him and his father disposing of the body.

Niyaz is granted bail (but not acquitted? Is he still charged? Is the case reopen? Is this even acceptable as a result for the kidnapper? – all unclear), and Mahesh and Sam are charged with the crimes Sam has just admitted to.

Sam appears in court as a result of Anuradha’s defending of the criminal Abbas at the beginning of the film, who Mahesh Miklai made the mistake of trusting as a hired goon to take on his dirty work of hiding Sam. Whether this criminal’s honour code is believable or not is probably questionable but adds an ambiguity that would have been better to run throughout the film more generally.

Niyaz is run over and killed on his release from prison.

Later Anuradha visits Garima to apologise for her efforts in setting Niyaz free.

She soon realises her involvement in the kidnapping, followed by an admission by Garima that she has vengefully murdered Niyaz.

Anuradha:

Why did you want Sia’s murderer acquitted?

We see Garima has paid off a goon, and we see that Niyaz is still alive but tied up. Garima walks in with an intense, vengeful look:

Garima:

You’ve no clue

About the things I had to do to get you out.

I did things to an innocent girl

Which a mother can never imagine.

You will die now.

A death you can’t even imagine.

Do you know why Ravan is burnt every year on Dusshera?

To remind everyone of Ravan’s crimes.

There’s just one punishment for physically abusing a girl

He’s burnt to death.

Niyaz: [sniffs his shirt] Petrol!

Garima: Can you imagine a death compared to which even the death penalty looks like mercy?

Niyaz screams.

Garima: This is how my daughter screamed as well.

I can still hear her screams.

She doesn’t let me sleep at night.

Echoes in my ear.

Niyaz pathetically screams “forgive me!” – as though Garima is in the mood for forgiving the rape and murder of her daughter.

Garima: Set my nerves on fire. It pierces my soul. My daughter’s scream can only be subdued by your screams Niyaz.

Garima pulls out a lighter and we see her red eyes as she watches the flames surround Niyaz. She is finding a perverse comfort in personally enacting this punishment. We see a single tear as she feels vindicated for her earlier actions as a kidnapper, as she has got the pay off she wanted so badly.

We are back to the scene with Anuradha and Garima explains how she burnt Niyaz alive.

Garima: This could be his only punishment to serve justice to my daughter

This is an interesting reference to justice in what seems like vengeance

You’re a mother too. I hope you understand.

Anuradha: No

I don’t understand.

What gave you the right to kidnap my daughter?

In order to get justice for your daughter?

Garima: Believe me, I took care of Sanaya like my Sia.

Yet I am guilty for all the trauma she went through

Even if I am sentenced to death

For giving Niyaz what he deserved

Then I will have no regrets.

Garima is then arresting for kidnapping and murder. Anuradha’s response is to enquire if they have an arrest warrant, and when she’s questioned why she’s even asking she declares that its because Garima is her client. This is a dramatic turn of events from seconds earlier when she insists she didn’t and couldn’t understand Garima’s motivations. The two finally connect through pain as mothers.

What would have made the film stronger – and more likely to succeed:

The set up to fail – “flawlessness” as an ideal for both on-screen heroine and off-screen persona is somewhat problematic, and leaves little scope for creating either a relatable character, or adding any real sense of moral ambiguity or bring out dark themes as the film appears otherwise to be trying to do:

The practically-perfect-in-every-way character played by Aishwarya, Anuradha Verma, is better compared with Mary Poppins, which, without the singing and the flying umbrella, makes for a relatively dull and largely unengaging character for her to play.

The fact she defends the worst criminals is explained by “the innocent can’t afford my fees”. That means, this is only because she is such an accomplished lawyer. She tuts and shakes her head at her friend Yohan for his suspension caused by his low level corruption, and doesn’t accept his excuse that the whole system is corrupt. She is therefore also established as a principled individual, and morally and ethically incorruptible.

Aishwarya is the perfect doting mother, perfect lawyer who never loses a case even when all the evidence is against her, is smart, kind, and of course, given this is a former Miss World, stunningly beautiful.

The mother / daughter kidnapping angle, in fact, seems intended to show Aishwarya as being a “serious” dramatic actress able to emote, present her as the super mother willing to do anything for her child (yes, Aishwarya just as much as Anuradha), and to ensure that Anuradha remains a likeable character as the audience understands this is only under the most extreme duress that she is representing such a client.

I would suggest cutting this whole aspect of the script, and recreating Anuradha as a fabulous lawyer, but bitter woman who gleefully takes on the most difficult cases to show off how good she is, and who expresses little remorse for defending the worst criminals in the process. She could have a mysterious past that could relate to a long-term missing daughter that might develop later on, but would create a credibility that she would be able to focus on the case rather than being distracted by concerns around her daughter’s whereabouts and safety.

Anuradha goes to meet Niyaz in prison for the first time – the combination of fear and disdain for him as a convicted murder and rapist is actually quite convincingly shown by Aishwarya through an understated reaction and her famously expressive eyes. We actually see some genuine vulnerability here and it allows for Aishwarya to give a more complex and interesting performance:

Niyaz states: These beautiful faces don’t win cases.

Mean lawyers like you do. Understood, old man?

Anuradha: [stands up] I will make sure you win. Trust me!

He reacts by trying to strangle her.

She then causes a scene in the middle of the road creating a traffic jam as she confronts the police who continue to follow her. She argues with them, not making much sense by saying her daughter is back safe but at the same time that the police can do nothing to apprehend the kidnapper. She then recklessly pulls the car keys out their car and throws them away before driving off.

Niyaz asks for her to return to meet him, and is shown reading clippings which identify Anuradha as one of the “highest paid lawyers”. (Thanks for the reminder, really makes her relatable to the common man or woman).

Anuradha tells Niyaz his narrative of what happened and how he is innocent, trying to craft a feasible story. She has written up the statement already and just needs him to sign it.

When Niyaz hears this – he laughs incredulously and declares: You’re good! You’re good! Very good. The newspapers are right about you.

Anuradha even has time to help her friend Yohan – she has posted his bail before he has even been arrested on the corruption charges.

At one point in the film, Niyaz compliments Anuradha on her legal approach, and jokes about Garima. Anuradha slaps him in response and says “you have no idea what a mother has to go through!”. This would be more interesting if it came without all the backstory of her character defending him only under duress, her daughter’s kidnapping and super mother status that has already been hammered down our throats.

It would potentially serve as a clue to understanding her as a more complex character, her motivations for taking on the case and as a sign of her internal struggles whilst doing so. Her next line, in case we had forgotten, is “[y]our case is being defended by a mother. Not a lawyer. Understand?”.

Overall to rework Aishwarya’s character as a morally dubious lawyer who represents “bad guys” and tries to get them off, but finds this her toughest case yet, would have been a more compelling premise.

Jazbaa is ultimately two films in one and that these two parts don’t really fit together:

Specifically those two parts consist of –

  • A drama/thriller showing from the perspective of a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped and the trauma she goes through
  • A thriller/mystery about a murder of a young woman from the perspective of the defence lawyer trying to win an appeal

We see this for example in a scene where Anuradha is rung by the kidnapper and warned that Sanaya is seriously unwell. She insists she is taken to the hospital to receive treatment. Instead the kidnapper agrees for a drop off of medications at a to be agreed point. In exchange for the medications, the kidnapper leaves a box with Sanaya’s clothes. We hear Sanaya call out in the distance as her head pops out of the car. Anuradha’s overdramatic (if perhaps believable within the plot) reaction and slow-mo running towards her as the car drives away.

Why Anuradha, if such a smart and successful lawyer, investigator and detective, as well as a supermom, and brave in the face of danger, would in this scenario focus her attention to the point of minimal distraction on getting a convicted murder released rather than figuring out who kidnapper her daughter in the first place and/or her daughter’s whereabouts is never really addressed and as such this plot doesn’t convince.

The screaming, tears and breakdown that follows don’t fit with the same characterisation of her character as a professional to a fault, poised under the most extreme pressure and leaves the taste as a result of a bizarre and unintended double role (which might have been a more interesting twist in fact!)

Only after hearing her screaming has the (detective!) Inspector Yohan realised Sanaya is not with her grandmother and even is made to look surprised when Anuradha says she has been kidnapped after all. In this scene however, Irrfan’s character comes across as believable but Aishwarya’s arc doesn’t add up.

She has just seen her daughter, alive and despite being told she was unwell (seemingly in good health), she is screaming “my Sanaya is gone” repeatedly, as though resigned to the fact her child is dead or going to die. A fighting mother as she is supposed to be portrayed would be fighting until the last second and chance, surely?

Yohan immediately puts his detective skills to work not on if Niyaz is guilty, but on who might be his benefactor and therefore have Sanaya. Anuradha focuses on the case and breaking into Sia’s computer is found by Sia’s mother. It instantly rubs off as strange that she seems to accept this quite quickly.

She remains relatively composed in a scene afterwards at the courthouse, but at least shows some signs of struggling to deal with her daughter’s kidnapping.

Interestingly, this is after we have seen Anuradha do something that can be considered morally or ethically dubious and doesn’t fit with her upstanding portrayal otherwise. This is, specifically, when Yohan introduces Anuradha to Sia’s mother Garima as the sister of a victim, and a writer “who wants to portray the pain of those who’ve suffered”.

Later at the courthouse, Garima is shown as concerned that Niyaz’s new lawyer may impact the outcome. She’s informed by the prosecutor that the defence lawyer is a woman and then spots Anuradha. She has been exposed. The tension here would have been more compelling here however if our sympathies fully lied with Gaurima rather than our heroine.

Anuradha: I had no intention of lying to you.

I was about to tell you the truth.

Garima: Tell me what?

That you met me in order to save my daughter’s murderer?

That you won my trust?

That you used me?!

Anuradha: I didn’t use anyone.

I was only doing my job.

Garima: Then why did you lie?

Maybe that pain in your eyes was fake too.

That deceived me.

Anuradha: My pain doesn’t need your certificate of authenticity, Garima-ji.

Nor does your pain need my sympathy.

Everyone has their own hell and everyone has to face it alone.

Garima: Just imagine, if your daughter had been through what my daughter did?

Would you still defend that rapist?

Fight for him?

Prosecutor: Advocate Verma, your firm defends criminals like Abbas.

I can understand that.

But this scum?

[….]

Garima: Miss. Verma, I’m not fighting for my daughter alone, but for all the daughters whose mothers are still waiting for justice.

The scenes in the hospital and all scenes with Sia’s boyfriend Sam are unfortunately melodramatic and seem yet another genre – a kitschy horror flick:

Yohan and Anuradha figure out that Sia’s ex-boyfriend was a son of rich man who became addicted to drugs, but Sam has an alibi as he was in hospital at the time of the murder. Sam is interviewed but only partially lucid, as he hallunicates and briefly even attacks Anu before self-harming. They leave and on the way back it is revealed that during the attack Sam left a note with Anuradha “I know who killed Sia” and they head straight back to the hospital.

They get back in by setting off the fire alarm (a dangerous and dubious task that would be again, more interesting if not under duress). Sam is shown as completely mentally unstable and of no use to support the case further. This diverts as such into another type of story altogether – a hammed-up, cheap horror flick with 2-D “crazy” baddies intended to shock and scare. Its unoriginal, out-of-place as does a disservice to the experienced and acclaimed actors in the film (Aishwarya, Irrfan and Shabana).

I would cut these scenes entirely – or if really needed for plot purposes, I would rewrite them and recast the actor playing Sam or give him entirely different direction.

Too much effort and time is spent on trying to demonstrate Aishwarya’s acting skills – she has already had a long and successful career, there shouldn’t be a need to so firmly re-establish this:

Was this film somehow trying to prove Aishwarya Rai can act? This seems odd given her career has seen her not just celebrated for her stunning beauty and commercial success but also that she had credibility as an actress with talent (this combination contributing to her being offered English-language and gaining a higher-profile in the West).

Niyaz’s wife Nazia is next to take to the stand. She reveals that Niyaz did in fact know Sia, as he was her drug dealer, unravelling the defence Anuradha has just created. She also testifies that he said he was going to Sia’s on the night of the murder to collect payment.

Anuradha confronts her client on why he hadn’t told her this in advance. He says that when he went to collect the money that night she was already dead. Anuradha has difficulty believing him and then he tells a story of raping and killing Sia.

Anuradha is played as horrified in her reaction – as though she had been genuinely defending an innocent client and that we are to believe that to convince her to defend an innocent client her daughter would have had to have been kidnapped. This is another point where the logic of the plot doesn’t add up and lacks plausibility, detracting from our understanding of the characters and interest in the plot’s development. But it gives Aishwarya the chance to show she can “react” as well as act.

Yohan discovers that Niya’s wife Nazia is in for a big inheritance pay-out if Niyaz receives the death penalty.

Anuradha signs for a package at the court – it is a fake “hand” as a warning of what will happen to Sanaya should she lose the case. This is not the most convincing or necessary plot point – a more subtle revelation or clue about her daughter’s whereabouts would have been more suspenseful and intriguing at this point in the story.

Anuradha and Yohan find photos of Sam at Sia’s funeral – proving he hadn’t already been admitted to hospital at the time of her murder. They also soon find out he’s been discharged, followed by the revelation he is the son of the local politician Mahesh Maklai we have seen has been keeping track of the case.

Conclusion:

Jazbaa actually has a lot going for it. A strong core cast of Aishwarya Rai, Irrfan Khan and Shabana Azmi. A relatively unique style and murky ethical territory with the lead character defending a convicted murder and rapist. Space to discuss victim blaming, violence against women, boy child preference and a number of other social issues from all angles within the context of an entertaining film.

Yet somehow Jazbaa fails to live up to expectations. It struggles as its so evident what this film could have been. To relate to other films in style and execution, it could have been a unique heroine-oriented comeback with the thrill and anti-heroinism of a “Kahaani”, the mystique and investigation of a “Talaash” and the social message courtroom drama of a “Pink”. Whilst far from a bad film, however, “Jazbaa” doesn’t stand up to these films for quality or likely longevity in impact.

An obvious fix lies in making the lead less “flawless” and peppering down the need for overdramatic scenes by removing the duress of her child being kidnapped for the reason Anuradha takes on the case.

This is well encapsulated in the end of the film, as Anuradha has won the case (kind of?).

Sanaya is returned, literally in a suitcase, and in a highly dramatized scene, as the child appears to be dead. We see first Yohan’s increasingly concerned reaction, as he can’t seem to find a pulse, followed by Anuradha’s arrival on the scene.

Anuradha’s extroverted denial of this seemingly morbid reality is poorly matched with her slow-motion running and a searing background score. Again this part of the scene just seems to be there to a) give Aishwarya a scene where she can show utter devastation (at this point in the film we’ve seen this enough times for it to lose impact), and b) all for another sudden plot twist and “feel good” moment as Sanaya turns out to be alive after all.

If any reunion scene between mother and child had come after Anuradha had given up hope of her return (and turned into a cynical lawyer defending rapists and murderers for big fees), this would have had a greater impact and allowed Aishwarya to show more of a character arc through signs of this grieving mother layered underneath a highly-competent, manipulative and successful lawyer.

It would allow for a “redemption” of sorts of her character that would make her more palatable to the audience but also serve as a statement on the inherently flawed nature of all human beings. Instead we have the practically-perfect-in-every-way, i-woke-up-like-this, utterly flawless Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the super lawyer, super heroine and of course, super mother.

The closing scene sees Anuradha visit Yohan to thank him for his help. She tells him she’s appealed his case (the bribery case we hear about in the beginning of the film), but he says he prefers his new life and has little interest in returning to life as a cop. They joke about Sanaya being with her grandmother (as this was also the excuse used when she had to hide the kidnapping). She departs with a promise to see one another again soon. They both seem lighter, with much less stress and concerns, particularly Yohan. This would have worked well as a nice prologue if they had both actually softened from their cynical positions through their experience. But as Anuradha was relatively principled throughout, and fighting for her child as the super mother she was shown to be, this doesn’t quite ring true.

There is actually an important message within this film, and one that needs special attention given just before the film ends in order to clarify this when we are shown a statement on rape in India (which unfortunately could also apply similarly in many other countries).

“There are more than 90 rape cases in India every day.

Every 22 minutes a woman gets raped

Only 1 out of every 10 cases is reported

From the ones reported barely 25% get convicted”

Jazbaa misses its opportunity to convey this message by “showing not telling”.

Verdict:

Despite its flaws, they are relatively interconnected, forseable, and if someone had the foresight, could have been fixable. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan remains a lucrative star, whilst not hugely profitable, the film didn’t do poorly, nor did Sarbjit which followed. A supporting role in Diwali-release “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” has revitalised Aishwarya Rai’s glamour quotient a fewfold and it suggests that with the right premise, script and delivery, she is far from destined to fail in her “comeback”, heroine-oriented or not. There is not enough evidence in the case of “Jazbaa” to prove a curse against heroine-oriented comebacks. “Jazbaa” is not Rai’s best performance, and she could have made a better comeback still, but all was not lost.

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Curse of the comeback? Part Two of Five: Preity Zinta in “Ishkq in Paris” (2013)

This is part two of a five part series looking at whether heroine-oriented comebacks are doomed to fail.

The second film looked at is 2013’s “Ishkq in Paris” which saw Preity Zinta, a hugely popular actress in her peak with blockbusters such as Veer Zaara, Kal Ho Na Ho, Dil Chahta Hai and Koi Mil Gaya, attempt a comeback following consecutive unsuccessful films, a shift towards non-Hindi and more arthouse projects, and then a five-year hiatus. Notably this break was not due to or corresponding with marriage and/or children (Zinta married rather this year [2016]).

Zinta’s most recent Hindi films, prior to her 2013 comeback in “Ishkq in Paris”, Jaan-E-Mann and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, were commercially unsuccessful and critically unappreciated, leaving Zinta to explore roles in other languages (including ‘The Last Lear’ and English-language film, and Punjabi and English language film “Heaven On Earth”. This put extra pressure on her return to be a hit, and the large a gap since her last successful Hindi films (2006’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and 2005’s Salaam Namaste as a lead) meant the film needed a gimmick or something instantly different to attract attention and get people buying tickets.

This didn’t happen. Rather, for “Ishkq in Paris”, which suffered a very poor box office run, there are very identifiable reasons the film was unsuccessful, not exclusively limited to the film itself.

The usual SPOILER alert – and whilst the film is not one that will stay with you forever, it was perhaps unfairly singled out as an example of what not to do. So if  you have some time to spare, check out “Ishkq in Paris”, especially if you are a fan of Zinta’s other work or of the romantic comedy generally. Trailer below:

The missteps of “Ishkq in Paris”, and how they could have been avoided:

A pure romance plot was not in-keeping with contemporary commercial films:

“Ishkq in Paris” missed the fact that sugary romance films are not as popular as they were in the 90s and early 2000s and the highest grossing films now incorporate romance but generally lead with action, comedy or drama as the main genre (e.g. Bajirao Mastani [drama], Chennai Express & PK [comedy], or Dilwale & Ek Tha Tiger [action]).

Profitable films in recent years without the Khans have also typically not been of the sugary romantic genre – this year Neerja [thriller], last year Tanu Weds Manu Returns [comedy], Queen [travel/buddy film], NH10 [thriller], Piku [drama], Ek Villian [thriller] and Pink [drama].

Increasing the comedy element of the film, a natural fit for Zinta, would have been an obvious solution, as an action or thriller element would involve entirely reworking the movie, and added drama would have lost the light and fun feeling the film attempts to leave its viewers with.

A more stereotypically youth-oriented plot unlikely to appeal to those who had grown up watching Preity Zinta:

The most successful recent films which could perhaps be categorised under this genre still had other box office pull such as Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (popular songs, buddy/travel film element, off-screen gossip around the lead pair), Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (youth market, popular songs), 2 States (youth market).

Preity Zinta fans, however, who had idolised her in films such as Kal Ho Naa Ho and Veer Zaara, even the youngest ones who would have been teens at the time, by the release of “Ishkq in Paris” would be 10 years older, having matured into adulthood likely with the responsibilities that come with that.

The Paris setting and Frenchness of the lead character meant the film lacked a desi quality needed to appeal to the Indian audience:

In Ishkq in Paris, Zinta plays a Half-French, Half-Indian character called Ishkq, who meets Akash a ‘Funjabi’ from Delhi, on a train from Rome to Paris. Arriving in Paris he asks her for a no-baggage night out in the city, to which she agrees.

The three aforementioned pure romance/romantic comedy films that were successful in recent years – 2 States, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania were all largely shot in India or promote the importance of home (note Naina wanting to remain in India despite her love for Bunny, and his return for the location wedding in Rajasthan; Kavya choses the local boy Humpty over the NRI Angad; and 2 States is set across Gujarat, Delhi, Maharashtra and the titular “two states” of Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

The film’s entire setting in Paris (although with some parts filmed allegedly in Lyon and Prague) that there was some interest specifically in shooting in Paris over any emphasis on creating audience interest. The setting lives the film ending up as a strange mix of Aditya Chopra’s upcoming film Befikre, 2014’s Queen – largely set in Paris and Amsterdam, Tamasha – with the first part seeming like an advert for Corsica’s tourist industry, Hum Tum – which involves a lot of scenes in locales in New York and Paris which simply involve Saif and Rani’s characters discussing the relationships between men and women, and perhaps the most obvious influence is the 1995 Hollywood film “Before Sunrise”, which perhaps indicates another reason why the film feels dated.

Failure to acknowledge the space the characters would really be in during their late 30s:

In the film whilst there is a small mention of Akash’s career as an agent, we know very little actually about Ishkq’s life in Paris – her career (if she has avoided long-term relationships, it would be highly possible she could have instead focused on being accomplished in her career), nor do we meet any of her friends (another possible focus of her attention). This film in another mould could have been a desi Bridget Jones’ diary – where Bridget is shown trying to advance in her career and also as having a close knit group of friends, but being “unlucky in love”.

This leaves Ishkq as an unrealistic character to be portrayed by Preity Zinta herself at this stage in her career. Zinta producing the film for Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan (a la Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania) as a modern day Simran and Raj would have had a better chance of succeeding in its current format. A version to relaunch Preity Zinta’s career needed to play down the impact of her parents (would even a Half-Indian woman who has lived her whole life in France still be living with her mother in her late 30s? Unlikely), and perhaps her learnt habits of living life as an independent woman that she might be unwilling to sacrifice. This would have made for a more believable character, script and more relatable film with a greater appeal and chance of success.

The songs were underwhelming – this meant a lack of buzz, and failure to capitalize of the Salman Khan cameo:

Akash leaves for London and we reach the interval. He stalks Ishkq on Facebook and is invited to a friend’s wedding in Paris and stalks her in Paris for real.

He asks Ishkq to do him a favour and be his +1 for the wedding. She agrees and when at the wedding claims she is there rather scouting for cute guys.

At the wedding reception Preity as Ishkq declares “I love Bollywood” in a meta moment when it is announced a major B-Town star is attending. The song breaks and it is indeed a major star – a cameo from Salman Khan no less, who unfortunately for the viewers, has not exactly established his popularity due to smooth dance moves (this is no Hrithik Roshan or Madhuri Dixit video song cameo).

A better soundtrack more generally (the use of some of Hindi film’s most popular playback singers in the likes of Shreya Ghoshal and Sunidhi Chauhan isn’t matched with catchy tunes). They also feel, like the pure romantic comedy genre itself, as not in keeping with the zeitgeist of popular tracks in 2013 when “Ishkq in Paris” was released. This is especially curious but also important as some of the tracks from Zinta’s biggest hit films have had lasting popularity and allow for repeat listens even in 2016 (including the title track to “Kal Ho Na Ho” and “Maahi Ve” from the same film, and the songs “Main Yahan Hoon” and “Tere Liye” from “Veer Zaara”. Such memorable songs in “Ishkq in Paris” would have helped create buzz for the film that would have increased the initial occupancy as the film opened.

So what did work?

Parts of the film are a fun watch – I enjoyed the “rolling of the dice” as a framing device setting up different scenes and locations, and the two of them acting out a “film within a film”:

Akash and Ishkq visit the Eiffel Tower, and after purchasing a “fun dice” from an eccentric Indian street-seller and after rolling “party”, they go to a night club for dancing and obviously the first song of the movie (which in-keeping with the point above, is unfortunately quite generic and forgettable).

They share best pick-up lines and break up lines, and then roll the dice again and land on “dinner”. At dinner they meet a psychic that predicts that Ishkq will marry within a few months and that she will meet her father very soon (the first taken lightly and the latter prediction receiving a much more serious and concerned reaction).

They roll the dice once again to try to cheer up Ishkq and land on “movie”. She remarks its too late in the night to catch a film and he wants roll again, with Akash hoping of course to land on “sex”. Iskhq shuts this down, and proposes instead making their own movie (somewhat of a meta joke given Preity produced and co-wrote the film). They act out their own romantic drama, during which Ishkq berates the improvising Akash for adding that the heroine has waited 8 years for the hero’s return.

“This is a rubbish love story” she declares, asking him if he thinks he’s Zinta’s Jaan-E-Mann co-star and friend Salman Khan. Finally, he puts on a more convincing performance, ending with a declaration of love. The Veer Zaara star remarks “[y]ou watch a lot of Yash Chopra romances”.

They spend the rest of the night discussing their fears and emotional baggage (so much for a no baggage night) and roll the dice again landing on coffee as dawn breaks.

That the relationship begins between Akash and Ishkq with a full third of the movie to go is a little less predictable:

We learn Ishkq has never been to India and of her father’s absence in her life since she was 7. They begin a relationship (somewhat less predictable than expected that this happens only two thirds of the way through the film rather than at the end).

There is a strong theme of women’s empowerment in the fact that Ishkq is not a character looking for a man to solve her problems. Rather her relationship with Akash builds on a flirty friendship into something more:

Whilst it is somewhat frustrating that the main obstacle to Ishkq and Akash’s relationship seems to be her “daddy issues” causing a fear of commitment, this short dialogue stood out in particular:

Akash: Don’t want to hear what Ishkq?

The truth that I love you?

That I want to spend my life with you?

And be the one to save you from ever being lonely?

Ishkq: Save me?

Really?

Save me?

I’m very happy the way I am!

And I can look after myself.

I don’t need a goddamn saviour, OK?

That this argument is the obstacle that causes their split is authentic and allows the audience to identify with both sides, to identify with Ishkq’s frustration with his need to “fix” her, but appreciate Akash when returns apologetic with an attempt at reconciling.

Ishkq’s mother Marie tries to help by explaining to Ishkq that in fact she and her father split amicably, and she discouraged her father from remaining in their lives. If this had been kind words from a mother attempting to do what was right for her child’s happiness, rather than the truth, this may have been a more interesting plot point. There is no indication this is the case however.

End scene as a taste of what this film could have been in another guise

A scene that is more reminiscent of Bridget Jones’ Diary and one of several snippets of what this film could have been is the scene at the end where Ishkq is running in a hoodie, jeans and a pair of Uggs to the Gare du Nord train station to catch Akash at the food court where she had highly recommended the laksa.

This is fully within the conventions of the romantic comedy genre, but adds a twist that is softly comical and in-keeping with the character. Preity Zinta has enough personality, film experience and screen presence that a fully fleshed out Ishkq could have become a great film character, but the disconnect between her characterisation as written in the script, and the casting of Preity in the role mean this never manifests.

Zinta as Producer and businesswoman

Preity Zinta has joined a growing club of heroines moving into production with “Ishkq in Paris”. Whilst this will undoubtedly lead to mixed results, Zinta contributed to supporting this trend and creating a role for herself, not relying on opportunities to emerge where there are fewer. The three Khans, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgan have all been heavily involved in film production, so it is encouraging to see other heroines also make similar moves, including Anushka Sharma in 2015 with NH10 and next year’s “Phillauri”, Priyanka Chopra supporting regional cinema with her company Purple Pebble Pictures and with Sonam Kapoor rumoured to be joining her Producer sister Rhea (who produced Sonam-starrers “Aisha” and “Khoobsurat”) in the production of the upcoming “Battle for Bittora”.

Perhaps learning from her producer experience, Zinta has now switched her focus to business ventures, notably her involvement as a co-owner of the IPL team Kings XI Punjab, where she has been celebrated for her success as a businesswoman and remains passionate cricket fan.

Conclusion:

“Ishkq in Paris” is a far from perfect film. It was, perhaps even destined to fail from the beginning, given the need for a new angle or gimmick to garner interest, after a significant spell away from Hindi films for the lead actress Preity Zinta.

Both the critical and box office battering it received, are however, unfair. Zinta does a fair job and in fact both leads are likeable and do their best with the format to engage the viewer. A seeming lack of clarity of what the film might be trying to say about relationships, however, is lost in an array of inspiration from romantic comedy films from both India and the West. It leaves the audience feeling that the film is unoriginal in concept and delivery – a likely reason why critics were particularly harsh.

It is worth considering to what extent gender factored in here. The film is produced by a woman, widely known for her independent mind and outspokenness in the industry, playing a Western character (of partial Indian descent), in a Western locale, in Western clothing. She has the guts to be the lead, literally naming the film after her character (or character after the film – its hard to tell), and casts a relative unknown actor alongside her as the male lead.

Most potently, the subject matter is romance and the genre is a light romantic comedy – considered particularly to appeal to female audiences rather than male ones. It could quite easily fit in the genre I’ve coined “lipstick cinema” – with upcoming films such as Sonakshi Sinha’s “Noor” and the Kareena Kapoor/Sonam Kapoor film “Veere Di Wedding” seemingly fitting into this genre.

It will be interesting to see what reception they receive by audiences and critics, and how they manage marketing in advance. Films which appear to directly market to women are considered as less serious, of lesser quality and are charged often even in advance of watching, as not worthy of even viewing.

Verdict: This film does suggest that heroine-oriented comebacks are held to a higher standard. “Timepass” films which engage the viewer’s attention for a couple of hours and end with a feel good conclusion are many in number, but few find themselves in front of either commercial or critical obstacles such as faced by “Ishkq in Paris”.

Whilst there are evident flaws in the premise and delivery detailed above, whether these would have truly lead to an acceptance of Zinta’s return to movies remains a question.

“Content is king” is a common phrase these days and holds true – but if there is an audience that watches the content in the first place. A disastrous first day collection set the course for “Ishkq in Paris” as a box office flop that was always going to be impossible to overcome. The film’s flaws largely lie within the context of the challenges associated with a film return when trends, style and execution have all changed in the meantime. The other main barrier deals with a catch-22 of a perceived in-authenticity for women over 35 to portray stories that suggest the youthful escapism cinema is selling to its audiences (this does not in the slightest apply to our male heroes), and a general lack of interest in stories that actually reflect the lives of women over 35.

As such “Ishkq in Paris” is the first piece of evidence to suggest perhaps there is a “curse” against heroine-oriented comebacks – sometimes there is a double standard, and sometimes the obstacles are too hard to overcome.

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Curse of the comeback? Part One of Five: Madhuri Dixit in “Aaja Nachle” (2007)

This is part one of a five part series looking at whether heroine-oriented comebacks are doomed to fail.

The first film looked at is Madhuri Dixit’s return to the big screen in late 2007’s “Aaja Nachle”, her first film since her memorable turn as Chandramukhi in “Devdas”, over five years earlier.

Madhuri Dixit, in fact made two comebacks – a second in 2012 with the film Dedh Ishqiya, which included the song “Hamari Atariya” which made the list of top 10 “anti-item songs” in a previous post, and as mentioned in said post, the film is unusual and provocative in several ways that warrant greater analysis generally outside this theme of “cursed” comebacks.

“Aaja Nachle” is a rather different comeback from “Dedh Ishqiya” as well, as Dixit did not, in fact, move back to India from the US, where she settled after marriage to an American, until late 2011, the same year as she began judging on the TV talent series Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa (the Indian version of Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing with the Stars).

The film was met with some positive, but largely mixed critical response, and disappointed at the box office. Given Madhuri Dixit’s still iconic status and lasting popularity, why this film didn’t succeed warrants analysis to determine if it was as it was a heroine-oriented comeback. This will help to decide whether all such comebacks are “cursed” and doomed to fail commercially.

Once again – here’s the SPOILER alert. Whilst far from a perfect film, watching “Aaja Nachle” is still recommended, and here’s the trailer below:

So, what actually works about “Aaja Nachle”?:

This is a dance film that actually has a plot and a message, and its interesting even if the film itself is not so sure:

The plot of the film sees Madhuri Dixit’s character Dia, return to the dance theatre where she first learnt to dance, to find it laid to waste and she is informed that her instructor has already passed away.

A video make by her teacher Makarand before he passed, specifically with a message for Dia shows him leaving as his final wish that the dance theatre Ajanta, which due to be demolished, is saved from destruction, as the land is due to be redeveloped as a shopping mall.

Dia meets with the local MP, Raja Uday Singh (played by Akshaye Khanna), to advocate in favour of preserving Ajanta, but on first meeting she berates him for keeping her waiting and mistakenly assumes he is too young to be the MP, and that he is rather the MP’s son. He dismisses the Ajanta theatre as ruins, and when Dia disagrees, he asks “you aren’t some activist type, are you?”. Both Dia and Uday emphasise that she is from New York (rather than Shamli).

MP Singh: Many NRIs like you come every other year for some social service and then go back. 

I suggest you do the same.

Dia: So you’re going to knock down our cultural heritage on a whim?

MP Singh: The day the people of Shamli can make a living off cultural heritage I’ll call you. Until then, let me do my job.

Dia: Is making a living all there is to life? Isn’t a little joy important?

She follows by promising to host “India’s biggest show ever” at Ajanta

MP Singh: Once the show’s over you and your team will leave for New York, and Ajanta will just be the way it is. In ruins.

He makes her an offer – if she puts on a show with only actors, singers and dancers from Shamli, he will leave Dia to do with Ajanta as she pleases. She agrees but not enthusiastically, presumably as she is quite aware of the mammoth task she is undertaking. She has two months to put on the show, but shows a greater confidence and fight in declaring she doesn’t need any more time. The stakes are not a particularly subtly flirtatious game.

However there is an argument here – what is the role of NRIs in influencing India? Do they stop caring? What is the meaning of returning and “giving back”? What role do they have to play and is it the right one? Where do the people who stay in (especially) small-town India fit into that? Through the prism of this conversation, and others throughout the movie, this idea is explored and the back on forth on what are the true answers to these difficult questions in a world of migration, of leaving, and of returning.

In the very next scene Dia declares: I’m Shamli’s whether she wants me or not.

Her daughter asks if they are going home to which Dia confirms. They arrive at her parents home and to the confused questions by her daughter she answers “[t]his is home”.

She has a “House That Built Me” moment where the new resident is bothered by her presence, yet the house still retains significant meaning for Dia. Bizarrely, they agree to rent Dia a room in the house.

She corrects her homesick daughter’s broken Hindi, refuses to return to the US (does her kid not have this thing called school?), and remains determined to revitalise Ajanta, as a symbol of her undying commitment to her hometown and home country, irrespective of whether she has established a life in the US or not. She determinedly prepares a poster advertising the show and will not give up despite the locals reaction (Nawazuddin Siddiqui is shown among the locals reacting to the poster), nor that Dia remains notorious in her hometown.

The songs – specifically, the title song “Aaja Nachle”:

“Aaja Nachle” is the best song of the film, and a spectacular performance, but it was unfortunately embroiled in a controversy before the film even released, around a lyric that was perceived to support caste discrimination (and fortunately later changed, but only after UP, Rajasthan and Haryvana announced they were banning the film). This poor PR around the film can’t have helped with creating a buzz around Madhuri’s return to the silver screen that the popularity of this song and her performance could have helped create.

The dance performance understandably goes down a storm with Shamli, but her speech that follows about heritage preservation is less well received. She announces they will put on a show in two months, to the amusement of the audience.

The show-within-the-film “Laila-Manju”, starts around 25 minutes before the end of the film and appears a delight.

These scenes are some of the most compelling in the film – especially captivating is the parts with Madhuri as the play’s narrator. If you have twenty minutes to spare, its well worth a (re)-watch:

Dia’s dynamic with Akshaye Khanna’s character MP Raja Uday Singh, shows they have good chemistry and their conversations lead to some of the most interesting dialogues in the film:

One short interaction between Uday and Dia’s daughter Radha serves a humorous, meta wink at the audience:

Radha: [to her mother, Dia] Can we go back to New York now?

Uday: That is a really good idea.

Radha: Sorry?

Uday: Well, I mean everybody else has gone and maybe so should you.

Radha: Who are you?

Uday: I’m the bad guy.

Dia’s first performance for Shamli since returning, of the title song, is followed by a direct interaction between the two of them. Despite the fight, he can’t help but compliment Madhuri, sorry, Dia, on her dancing skills. She purrs with confidence in response.

Uday: By the way, you dance very well.

Dia: I know.

Whilst the dynamic is left relatively unexplored, other than the aforementioned interactions, there is a truce made between them at the end of the film, which leave the audience to fill in the rest.

This happens, just as Ajanta is saved, when Dia is set to leave (the timing for which seems sudden) and is explained in the conversation below:

Uday: Don’t you think this city needs you?

Dia: This city needs itself. I just needed to come back once. I’ve fulfilled my responsibility.

Uday: I enjoyed fighting you

Dia: Me too

Uday: Don’t you think we should have another round?

Dia: What?

Uday: You liked it. I liked it. There must be something more to it?

Dia: I don’t like fighting without a reason

Radha hands her mother’s New York phone number to Uday (so she obviously approves of this “bad guy” in the end).

Where the film “went wrong” so to speak – and what could have been done to correct its course:

The set up of the film is bloated, detracts from getting into the plot, and wastes time that could be spent on showing Dia’s equations with Shamli’s residents in the current timeline:

Aaja Nachle opens with a dance scene – with Madhuri dancing (initially alone in the first part, and then joined by a class behind her) to a dated-sounding, English-language song (“Dance With Me”). We understand from this scene not only has Madhuri not lost any of her dancing ability, but she is playing a dance instructor in the film, presumably teaching somewhere in the West.

She receives an emergency call from India this is confirmed. Madhuri, as dance instructor Dia, takes the call. She learns her own inspiring dance teacher is dying and flies back to India with her daughter in tow. Her daughter asks her why they are going there when she swore never to go back. We cut to a flashback scene 11 years before in Shamli (cue classical dance steps to a Hindi song).

We are introduced to Steve, a photographer from National American Geographic shooting Indian dancers. They go for food and Dia orders extra spicy pakodas to his surprise in a light-hearted moment. Through a montage we follow their courtship and the disapproval of the locals. Her father slaps her on the way home and he and her mother announce they have arranged her marriage. With the blessing of her dance instructor and life teacher, Makarand, she elopes with Steve, leaving her family and home behind. Her betrothed is jilted and her parents leave town in shame.

It is narrated that Steve and Dia soon divorced, but that she was already pregnant, following which she embraced and found happiness in her role as a single mother.

Her American-born daughter asks: What are those cows doing in the middle of the road?

Madhuri: Welcome to India!

This is all rather cumbersome, and rather it would have been better to start the film with Dia’s return to Shamli, and for the reasons for her departure and the consequences they led to in terms of her reception back home, to be gradually revealed throughout the film.

The over-focus on supporting characters and set up of, essentially, a quite simple plot rather than focusing on Madhuri’s character, Dia, and her arc:

“Aaja Nachle” attempted to make space for character development for each of its key characters. In a film with a large supporting cast such as “Aaja Nachle”, this is beyond ambitious and becomes detrimental to the quality of the film. In a television series where characters each have space and time to develop individual and intertwining arcs over several hours, this is possible. But in a film, even if its a two and a half hour Hindi film, this becomes impossible to do and do with any great depth, meaning or authenticity.

The moments when the film focused on Dia’s character development, specifically her changing thoughts on the meaning of home, were some of the strongest and most engaging in the film, but were all too short, too infrequent and left under-explored. This seemed primarily due to time dedicated to the arcs of Imran, Anokhi, Farooque, Chaudhary, Najma, Mohan and Mr Chojar who all end up at different places than when they started the film. This should be evidence of a well-thought out plot, but in the light of the fact the film is a massy entertainer celebrating the return of Madhuri Dixit and throwing in dance songs for good measure, rather than an epic drama or character study, this distracts rather than attracts.

To compare with “Aaja Nachle” writer and producer Aditya Chopra’s release the following year, “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi”, similarly a film where dance plays an important role within the plot itself – in RNBDJ, unlike “Aaja Nachle” the focus remains squarely on the lead character, in this case Shah Rukh Khan’s, and carries the audience through his journey and development. His co-star in Anushka Sharma also gets a character arc to play, but beyond this, the focus is on these core characters, at the expense perhaps of supporting roles. It does, however, allow for one of SRK’s most entertaining and compelling performances hidden within a frothy masala film. A similar vehicle for Madhuri Dixit to demonstrate her abilities is lost within this film, peeking out at certain moments but drowning in the multitude of other characters taking attention from hers.

Interestingly, to take the comparison further – the key ingredients RNBDJ also had, beyond SRK’s star wattage, included the launch of a now major star in Anushka Sharma, and notably, the inclusion of a wonderful dance scene – an escapist celebration of Hindi film history, with cameos from five different heroines in Kajol, Preity Zinta, Bipasha Basu, Lara Dutta and Rani Mukherji (with SRK’s “Dil To Pagal Hai” co-star in Madhuri Dixit perhaps the notable omission). Such a scene with Madhuri alongside the three Khans and maybe Anil Kapoor and Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgan would have likely been received rapturously. Or even shake it up further and have say, Sridevi, Juhi Chawla, Kajol, Karisma Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai?

Similarly, there are a confusing number of male suitors – it would have been more interesting to focus on one or, at most, two, in order to establish a meaningful dynamic with Dia:

It would have been preferable to either understand why marriage to Steve failed (and cast a real actor, not just a random white guy) and solve the bloated set up as a result, or ideally if the whole introductory section would be cut and have the film start with Dia’s return to Shamli after several years, and have her past be revealed as part of the gossip spread by Najma later on, there would be even less focus on the character of Steve who ultimately functions merely as a plot point to move the story along.

Alternatively, Mohan could become the main love interest and be an advert for the small town guy (and Indian) with simple values over the exotic foreigner, with an extra dash of patriotism never going amiss in terms of turning a Hindi film into a success, or alternatively (and preferably) have Mohan’s character merged with the Uday character (that is make Uday the jilted fiancé who has become the politician he has in the meantime), or cut Mohan’s character from the script entirely.

The problematic (if unoriginal) advice Dia gives to Anokhi in order to win over Imran is inconsistent with Dia’s characterisation as independently-minded, empowered woman and that any man in her life would be wanted and want her, rather than needed or require her to change who she is:

Dia gives romantic advice to Anokhi, who proclaims to unrequitedly love Imran, despite him treating her poorly and even threatening her at one point. In this context, the advice to smarten her appearance to impress him and to play hard to get are obvious and not exactly women-empowering.

It would have been better to see Dia advise Anokhi in gaining confidence and self-esteem, achieving in the show for its own merits and it might have been good to show a boy in Shamli with whom she has more in common and treats her better (in your Hollywood romantic comedy this would be the previously unnoticed best friend or older brother of the best friend). Or alternatively Imran could have grown up and apologised to Anokhi. Whilst he does mature later in the film, he rather shares his feelings but there is no real apology for his former behaviour towards her.

This is scene between Dia and Anokhi followed by Irrfan Khan’s character Farooque confirming himself as our bad guy as he attempts to scupper the attempts to put on the show, by attempting to influence Uday and then yells at his wife, Dia’s old friend Najma, about how his business interests may be hampered if Ajanta is saved. Her asks her to spread gossip in the town about Dia to increase the chances that the show is a failure.

Farooque: Artists are free spirited but she’s too free.

First there was that American.

Then she left her parents.

This presents a strange (if perhaps, human) contradiction between Dia’s free spiritedness and self-confidence in the face of social pressure and judgement of others, and the advice she gives to Anokhi.

Mohan, who continues to have unrequited feelings for Dia, meanwhile, speaks to Imran and tells him to confess his feelings to Anokhi before time runs out, with the obvious sub-text of his own feelings for Dia.

Farooque manages to bribe Chaudhary to switch his allegiances back from Ajanta and Dia. Chaudhary is confronted by Imran who stands up for Ajanta and says he has finally come to his senses. Anokhi fights to defend him from the attacks that follow. This is a turning point for Imran when he realises he prefers Anokhi’s good character to the strong men types he has followed before, and that he cares for her more than he had realised.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s bit-part character gets to reveal to the remainder of the cast and Dia that Farooque bribed Chaudhary to oppose Ajanta again, and that Najma was speaking ill or Dia, to her and Mohan’s shock and disbelief.

Dia: You were right. Who was I to be a martyr to this city’s cause?

When people said I’d leave for America after this show, they were right.

It’s unfair of me to leave you with this mess. If you stand by me Shamli will make life difficult for you. So whoever wants to can leave, I won’t hold it against you.

Her daughter is first to respond: I’m not leaving.

None of the cast choose to leave and in fact Najma arrives to apologise and step in in the role of Laila’s mother.

Dia’s return to Shamli is shown to have ultimately inspired her friend Najma to stand up to her husband and refuse to support gossip and social shaming:

Dia: You’ve always been fearless Dia, and I, afraid.

I spent my life married to a man who was married to his business.

But Dia, when I realised that, my fear vanished.

It’s been years since I danced. Or lived. Teach me to dance once again Dia. To live.

Madhuri’s reaction to the whole town turning out for the show is a delight. She is genuinely relieved. This moment where we see she does care about what the town thinks is well sold, but would have been more interested if not for this lapse earlier in her advice to Anokhi.

Spending more time on establishing truly what Dia’s principles were around needing (or not) the approval of others and reflecting this consistently, including in the advice given to Anokhi, and her relationship with Najma, would have strengthened the authenticity of the characters in the film and the audience identification with them.

The lack of youth icon factor for what is, essentially, a dance film a la ABCD 2 or Madhuri Dixit’s own “Dil To Pagal Hai”:

“Aaja Nachle” could have cast two youth icons as the characters of Imran and Anokhi, who then play the lead roles of Manju and Laila in the show performed by the residents of Shamli. Interestingly, looking at today’s cohort of big stars outside the Khans, three current big stars in Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone debuted in Hindi cinema just three weeks before “Aaja Nachle” released.

Another, Anushka Sharma, debuted a year later in another YRF production, and in 2007, the likes of Kareena Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra were starting in their careers and have since proved themselves more than capable of both the acting and dancing sides of being a Hindi film hero or heroine.

The dance film – the 90s hit “Dil To Pagal Hai” with Madhuri alongside Shah Rukh Khan and Karisma Kapoor, still retains a youthful energy and excitement even as it has dated with the passing of time and our three leads are no longer believable as characters within the same moment in life as Pooja, Rahul and Nisha.

A more recent dance film that exploded at the box office was the Shraddha Kapoor and Varun Dhawan starrer, last year’s “ABCD 2” (or “Anybody Can Dance 2”), did much to further cement both Shraddha and Varun’s status as among the youth icons of Hindi film today.

Lack of casting of top dancers alongside Madhuri:

Two of Madhuri’s most popular dance tracks in the last 15-20 years have been “Ghagra”, alongside Ranbir Kapoor in his 2013 hit film “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani”, and “Dola Re Dola” in “Devdas” alongside Aishwarya Rai.

Part of the reason Madhuri’s cameo in the song “Ghagra” and her performance in “Dola Re Dola” were so celebrated was not just the wonderful choreography for either song, but that audiences got to see Dixit dance with a younger icon celebrated for their dance skills.

This further proves that by focusing on the authenticity of the supporting characters’ journeys as amateur dancers from beginners to performers, and casting accordingly, the opportunity to see Madhuri Dixit dance alongside a Shahid Kapoor or a Deepika Padukone was lost. These would have been sure to on-screen magic and meant that the film failed to capitalise on the combination of nostalgia for the grace, elegance and execution of Dixit in video songs from “Ek To Deen” right up to0 “Maar Dala” and their enthusiasm for new stars (such as for Kareena and Shahid in “Yeh Ishq Hai” and “Mauja Hi Mauja” from the (then) recently released hit, “Jab We Met”.

This is potent combination something that was either released later and contributed to the success of her stint on the small screen dancing show “Jhalak Dikhhla Jhaa”, or ended up as a retrospective proof of the potential success of this formula (only took a few years).

A failure to make full and appropriate use of a number of wonderful actors:

In addition to Madhuri herself, who acts with ease when she is given any meaty emotion to deal with in this film, Aaja Nachle discretely has some of India’s most acclaimed actors among the supporting cast – three National Award winners in fact in Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Irrfan Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma.

Konkona, however, has never been a youth icon in the mould as described above, and could have been better cast however as say a reworked version of Najma as Dia’s younger sister married to an older man and Dia’s last family connection in Shamli. Konkona Sen Sharma’s award-winning acting skills alongside Irrfan Khan would have been a more interesting pairing and the gaining of confidence and reconciliation between Najma and Dia could have carried more weight.

As mentioned above, the film could have rather launched or promoted two youth icons as Laila and Manju (any from among star kids Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Imran Khan, who were all launched in 2007-2008, or newly established stars such as Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and Priyanka Chopra).

It would also work better to recast Nawazuddin Siddiqui (admittedly at the time, he was not as celebrated an actor as he has become) as the rival politican to Akshaye Khanna’s MP Raja Uday Singh. Siddiqui would have made a lot of a role as the opportunistic and morally and ethically dubious Chaudhary Om Singh and it would have been great to see Madhuri Dixit interact with him more. The plot could have played up the rivalries between these two politicians further and swing back and forth on who both the audience and Dia identify with, and with Irrfan Khan’s character kept as the out and out bad guy (though redeemed at the end).

Conclusion:

Ultimately the film is far from a bad one. Actually, its enjoyable, entertaining fair, that has a feel-good, uplifting ending. It weaves in authentic messages and arguments about the meaning of home, community and tradition without, for the most part, contradicting a strong theme of women’s empowerment and supporting a woman’s right to make her own decisions and not to be judged for them as a man wouldn’t be.

Madhuri Dixit lights up the screen and continues to possess that movie star charisma – her years away from films seem to have done nothing to diminish that. Her dancing continues to be (even now, nine years after this was released), unparalleled in how much it is celebrated (justifiably). This film adds to Dixit’s canon that prove her ability and will sit among her legacy in cinema.

However, the film is not without flaws, and these largely contributed to the film’s underwhelming performance at the box office. The film focused far too much on making time for a large supporting cast, who, whilst containing a number of supremely talented actors, could have been more appropriately cast.

Despite Dixit’s dancing ability, an opportunity was missed to cast alongside her a number of young, popular actors, highly-skilled and celebrated for their dancing to satisfy audience curiosity of how they “match up” against her. That her most popular dance songs in recent years follow this pattern is not a coincidence.

The premise of “Aaja Nachle” in principle works. It had huge potential to work as a vehicle to relaunch Madhuri Dixit in Hindi cinema. Its failure to do so as much as it perhaps should however, therefore lie at the feet of the, at times, inappropriate use of the supporting cast, missed opportunities with the video songs, and particularly, too much distraction away from a focus on Madhuri Dixit’s character, and her own character’s development. If these key points had been addressed, there is no reason to believe “Aaja Nachle” couldn’t have been a hit.

Verdict: “Aaja Nachle” has enough going for it, and identifiable missteps that prove this film was NOT cursed, or destined to fail just because it happened to be heroine-oriented. Any such “curse” is not proven by “Aaja Nachle”.

Found this interesting?:

Piku (2015)

“Piku” starring Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan, is, as the trailer comically shows, about constipation. Really, however, the character-driven film tackles relationships between fathers and daughters by looking at a unique one in depth. The question is, does it say anything new about this dynamic or does the film merely retread old ground with a gimmicky twist?

In the two films discussed in depth so far on Women in Bollywood, the 2014 release Queen and this year’s Neerja, we see the heroines able to gain confidence and self-esteem in a context where they have positive and supportive relationships with their fathers, who offer emotional support, encourage and believe in them, and allow them to make their own decisions. Despite this relationship taking a back-seat to Neerja’s heroics or Rani’s adventures, I noted this factor when watching both films, especially so as they were both played by the same actor (Yogendra Tiku).

The fathers of Rani and Neerja contrast with some famous fathers of Hindi cinema, some memorable examples from the last 25 years are picked out below –

  • Nandini’s father in ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ (1999) – he is opposed to Nandini’s relationship with Sameer as he has already arranged her marriage with Vanraj, with the classical singer quitting singing in protest
  • Zaara’s father in ‘Veer Zaara’ (2004) – Zaara cannot realise her romantic relationship with Veer due to a perceived need to protect her politician father’s reputation and the taboo around Indian-Pakistani relationships
  • Jaggu’s father in ‘PK’ (2014) presumes Sarfaraz will betray Jaggu similarly due to the Indian-Pakistani divide, with the Muslim-Hindu religious angle emphasised in this film which revolves around misuse of religion
  • Simran’s father in ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (1995) – and Raj’s attempts to win his approval forming the crux of the plot of the second half of the film

Given that father-son relationships (and to a lesser extent, mother-daughter) relationships are more commonly portrayed in culture, I would propose by referencing the examples above as evidence that the father-daughter relationship is given more prominence in Hindi cinema than other film cultures.

So against this backdrop, can we consider the relationship between Piku and Bhakshor Bhanerji as a potential new paradigm of the father-daughter relationship? I propose for discussion a motion that the film “Piku” revolves significantly around establishing a new understanding of or paradigm for father-daughter relationships in modern-day India, and this subject far outweighs the importance of the attention grabbing and more humorous theme of dealing with constipation.

The evidence for and against the motion is discussed below. The usual SPOILER alert applies here – so if you haven’t seen the film, go watch and come back. The trailer for “Piku” is below.

Exhibit A: Piku’s professional success and head of household role

Case for the motion “Piku establishes a new paradigm for father-daughter relationships”:

Piku Bhanerji, our heroine portrayed by leading lady Deepika Padukone, is shown as the breadwinner and head of household. The film demonstrates this reality unapologetically both within the film and towards the audience. The household consists of Piku and her father, Bhaskor Bhanerji, as her mother has passed away and Piku takes care of her father in her mother’s absence. She remains a working woman however, and is shown as undoubtedly and unashamedly accomplished in her career.

Piku’s profession as an architect is interesting in that in Hollywood cinema and television the sensitive, creative but dependable romantic hero is consistently an architect by trade to the point of it becoming an absurdly boring trope. In Hindi films this trope is less common, but can even been seen seeping into the Western-influenced, multiplex-targeted films, such as ‘Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu’ where Imran Khan’s character is, you’ve guessed it, an architect.

Deciding Deepika’s character, as a new kind of heroine in Piku, would be an architect, has similar connotations of creativity combining with professional and financial success. That she is shown comfortably navigating the office environment reinforces this, whilst primarily used for the purpose of humour and establishing her dynamics with both her father Bhaskor and with Rana Chaudhary, the taxi company owner and Piku’s potential love interest. When Piku decides she needs to take a few days break from the office, her business partner Syed he questions “how am I supposed to run this firm?”, emphasising her indispensable nature to daily running of the business. Piku is not riding on anyone’s coattails.

It is worth also considering that architecture is a profession which requires years of study and sacrifice to even become qualified, beyond traditionally either marriageable age or at which most individuals have already entered the job market and are earning an income. Piku’s professional success is testament to an environment where this career choice and the time invested in studying would have need to have been supported.

Case against the motion:

A low key movie which had limited success in ‘Bewakoofiyan’ released the year before, showed Sonam Kapoor’s character Mayera as a higher earner and more successful businesswoman, and this set no new paradigm.

We also don’t see or hear too much of Bhaskor’s opinion explicitly towards Piku’s career and earnings, and it is not clear if or how he has supported her to become successful at all as this happens outside the timeline of the movie.

Exhibit B: Piku is shown as possessing a strong and unrelenting personality, and a willingness to question and challenge her father. She is presented as strong-minded and opinionated, and considered difficult to deal with by a number of different characters in the film. Notably this includes the taxi drivers reluctant to speed on her behalf, propelling the introduction and involvement of Irrfan Khan’s character, Rana Chaudhary, the owner of the taxi company.

Case in favour:

This presents a new paradigm of how fathers and daughters can love unconditionally but speak candidly. Fathers accept being challenged by their daughters and daughters do so without restraint.

Piku’s outspoken, blunt and even stubborn traits, however, are not shown as deep character flaws but rather humanise both Piku and her father, and establish their bond as somewhat similar personalities with differing but overlapping approaches and perspectives to life. Piku can understand Bhaskor even when she doesn’t agree with him, and Bhaskor can understand Piku.

Nevertheless, Piku is firmly the one in charge despite her father’s cantankerous nature. The film literally opens with her telling her father what to do. At the end of the film it is also Piku who makes the final decision about what to do with the house. Throughout the film she will openly chastise her father when she feels he is in the wrong, and whilst he will stick up for himself, his opinions and beliefs, he doesn’t deny her having her own opinions or berate her for challenging him.

Piku is shown at times as demanding, argumentative, and even aggressive. Or alternatively she is assertive, in charge, someone who knows what she wants with leadership potential. Quite remarkably for a piece of popular entertainment however, Piku is not held to a double standard for these traits as men usually aren’t (see the Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign “Ban Bossy” or “I’m Not Bossy. I’m the Boss” for what is meant by this – [link below]):

That Piku isn’t held to this double standard by her father, believing that if he is grumpy and difficult then Piku has the right to be to, lays the foundations for this lack of a double standard in the film as a whole and in the audience perception of the characters. We as an audience are still expected to root for Piku and Bhaskor, and understand Piku’s perspective in particular as our heroine and protagonist.

Case against the motion:

Bhaskor’s cantankerous nature is a different, but ultimately equally inhibiting, obstacle to Piku’s freedom. Her response to his behaviour and how it affects her own is merely that which induced by having to live with him for years and deal with this reality on a daily basis.

Bhaskor creates a number of problems that Piku has to deal with due to his hypochondria and all round grumpiness – from the message left for Piku at the office, to his accusations and paranoia leading to changing maids 5 times in 2 months, to Piku being interrupted by updates on his [normal] condition whilst on a dinner date.

After this latter incident and Piku’s complaining that her date didn’t go well, she is asked by Syed if her father called her which she confirms. This is followed by an argument around the reaction to this response and the subtext is that Piku feels she shouldn’t have to defend caring about her father, but that Syed sees this as the reason for her disappointing date and overall singledom.

Conversations early on between Piku and Bhaskor include some revelatory lines including, in the first instance, following the latest departure of a maid working in the house:

Piku:  Dad, we live in a society where we have to maintain relations with some people.

And when Piku has skipped out on a lunch date to calm her father about his hypochondria-induced health concerns:

Bhaskor: I’ve given you full freedom in this house

Piku: What freedom? I had to meet Ankit today for lunch but I’m here with you. Is this how I am going to lead my life? Discussing your shit?

Witness for the case against the motion: Rana Chaudhary

Rana Chaudhary has a number of discussions with Piku during the film where he raises the issue of how Bhaskor’s behaviour limits Piku’s freedom and questions whether she should accept this situation.

Firstly, he tries to clarify if Piku herself is like her father at all:

Rana: Tell me something, you’re really his daughter. I mean?

Piku: Yes I’m his daughter. And ten times stranger, weirder, more irritating, annoying…

Rana: No no no no. I didn’t mean that way.

Piku: No I know what you mean. I know it’s weird its ok. But I am like that.

Once they have gotten to know one another better, he still questions why she has stayed in Delhi to look after her father, asking her why she doesn’t run away and get married.

Later, during the same tour of Kolkata, with the obvious subtext of his own interest in Piku, but his acknowledgement (and likely unwillingness) to deal with her difficult father or his strong feelings against Piku marrying, he asks about her life prospects for the next 20 years, and whether she is willing to sacrifice any chance at marriage and children for her father’s sake. He doesn’t believe Bhaskor’s opposition to this is primarily due to opinions around women’s empowerment or Piku sacrificing her independence, but rather his own dependence on her and selfish concerns about losing her:

Rana: How old is your father? Must be at least 70?

Piku: Exact

Rana: And the way you’re being his doctor, he’ll be around for another 20 years. Which makes him 90.

Piku: Touchwood

Rana: And in the next 20 years, you’ll become 50 approximately?

Piku: So?

Rana: 50 years? Of just taking care of your father?

Piku: One minute. Why are you saying all this? You know my situation. You know he’s dependent on me. Can’t hear or see properly. Should I leave him?

Rana: No no

Piku: How will he manage on his own?

Rana: I am not asking you to leave him. I also haven’t left my mother. I’m just saying, I hope you realise he is a selfish man

Piku: No he’s not

Rana: Yeah he is

Piku: And even if he is, he’s my father.

Rana: If he’s your father then why do you behave like his mother?

Piku: Because Rana after a certain age parents can’t live on their own, they need to be kept alive and that is the responsibility of the kids only. So if someone wants to marry me…

Rana: He’ll have to adopt your 90-year old kid too?

Piku: Of course!

Exhibit C: Bhaskor does not arrange Piku’s marriage, and not only does not stigmatise her non-marital relationships, but berates others who may do so as well.

Case in favour of the motion:

Bhaskor is keen to break taboos, and this seeps into the film more widely as well, most obviously in the explicit discussion of bowel movements in a mainstream film, but equally could be said for its frankness around marriage and sex. Piku and Bhaskor are shown as able to discuss even taboo subjects with one another, even if it is shit, marriage, or sex.

Piku has herself adopted an unapologetic attitude towards her love life, responding Syed, her business partner who questions her meeting up with a “jerk” over lunch by saying “you can’t be so desperate”. Piku’s deadpan response, “Yes, I am. So?”.

Witness in favour of the statement – Mr Bhaskor Banerji

Bhaskor makes a number of statements defending his strong opinion against Piku marrying, rather than leaving it purely to Piku to decide:

Bhaskor: [To Piku] And this. Your relationship status? If you ask me, I think casual is fine. That works for me.

And later, when discussing why he thinks getting married is a “low IQ decision” for a woman, using as evidence his wife’s own experience and the unhappiness the related loss of freedom caused her as a result:

Bhaskor: All her life she just wanted to please me. That was her only purpose. No aim for herself. I wanted her to be independent. But no, she surrendered herself in my service.

And when questioned “so what’s wrong with that?

Bhaskor: Everything is wrong! Throwing away your identity, respect, brain, in the fire whilst taking the seven vows and then leading your life that way, well that is a low IQ decision. I don’t want Piku to take that decision.

Why he is even commenting on the matter rather than leaving the decision to Piku can be attributed rather to his overall personality and lack of tact or diplomacy – as he states “I am a critical person. Brutal and honest.”

His definition of “nice” is not that Piku isn’t moody or a virgin, rather he is proud of Piku for the following reasons, as he describes to a potential suitor:

Bhaskor: She has her own business. She’s financially independent. She’s sexually independent. Need based. Just looking for emotional partnership. So is this ‘nice’ according to you?

Whilst on the journey to Kolkata, Rana is introduced to Bhaskor’s unusual stance on marriage after Piku responds to Bhaskor’s complaining about her buying bangles during a rest stop:

Piku: You’re not going to let me get married. Let me enjoy my bangles at least.

Rana: Seriously? Most people would marry their daughters off they day they are born and he doesn’t want you to get married?

            That’s strange.

            This doesn’t happen even in Western culture.

Bhaskor: Western culture is not the benchmark of progress. Is that clear?

                    We were ahead of them always.

Bhaskor is not short of female historical figures he admires, and can list a number quickly off the top of his head. These are the figures he has raised Piku to try to emulate, rather than valuing marrying and having children above all else. His stubbornness about this issue is to force Piku not to want things because society tells her that she should just because she is a woman:

Bhaskor: That, err, Rani Lakshmibai, Sarojini Naidu and Kandimbini Ganguly, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Annie Besant, all these fine women spent their whole life serving their country. And all she wants to do is please a boy?

Piku: How many times I have told you that Annie Besant wasn’t Indian?

Bhaskor: Still she fought for our country’s independence!

Rana: But all these women were married

Bhaskor explains he is not opposed to marriage per se, but rather marriages which see women sacrifice their other aims and purposes in life in favour of the needs of their husbands:

Bhaskor: Yes, but with a purpose. Marriage is not wrong but it must have a purpose. All a husband wants is that a wife should serve food during the day and sex at night. But is that what a woman is made for? No! That is why marriage without any purpose is low IQ.

When Rana’s reaction is to say that not all women are selfless individuals who willingly sacrifice their needs for others (in the case of marriage – their husbands), and that some are manipulative or scheming, Bhaskor justifies such behaviour by holding women to the same standard as men (and almost revolutionary [given its infrequent nature] yet simple, idea:

Rana: Fine but not all women are nice and simple. You don’t know. Many of them are very manipulative and scheming.

Bhaskor: Women should be scheming, it’s not wrong. Because men are like that. That’s why it’s alright for [Piku] to be scheming.

Case against the motion:

In fact Bhaskor is opposed to the idea of Piku marrying at all. Ultimately this is limiting her ability to make her own choices, or at best, putting undue pressure on her as his daughter to respect and follow her father’s wishes. How this as such in any real sense differs from Nandini’s father in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, or Simran’s in DDLJ who oppose their potential love marriages in favour of ones arranged by them is questionable. In all three cases it is the father’s opinion that matters and determines whether his daughter marries and who.

This means that despite Piku’s assertive and opinionated character, there are certain boundaries she is unwilling to cross. She is not prepared to genuinely challenge her father on the matter of getting married in particular, and this is addressed in the subtext of conversations with Rana, including the one below during the overnight stay in Varanasi, where there is an obvious comparison made with the freedom to drive. Given Rana’s character has returned from working in Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t legally allowed to drive, it addresses the issue of women’s empowerment and whether Piku is determined enough to stand up for her own freedoms and choices. It starts when Piku questions why Rana has categorised some women as ‘scheming’:

Piku: you were calling someone scheming?

Rana: Not you

Piku: Better not

          I would have thrown you out of the car

Rana: How would your Dad have gotten to Kolkata then?

Piku: I would have driven

Rana: Really? Well had I known this earlier, I could have stretched for a bit

           Now you drive tomorrow?

Piku: [shakes her head]        

I don’t like driving

Rana: Why? What do you mean? Women in Saudi are fighting with the government for the right to drive. Even getting themselves in jail. And you say you don’t like driving. It’s weird.

Piku: Not really. Those countries are like that.

Rana: Your country is like that. Moreover, driving liberates a woman.

Piku: Are you saying all this to impress me or you really do respect women?

The next morning Piku is shown in the driving seat and Bhaskor is napping in the back of the car. When he wakes, he is both shocked and irritated to see she is driving the car rather than Rana. She attempts to convince him she is fine, but Bhaskor interjects that she’s never driven on a highway, insists she stop and switches place with Rana. After Piku pulls the car aside and gets out, he encourages her to come back by saying he was only testing her. Whilst this is Bhaskor’s way of apologising, it also sees Piku return to the car but only after handing the keys back over to Rana. In this argument she has given up.

At the end of the film, Piku is confronting her father (shouting through the bathroom door of course), finally questioning his interference in her love life and unconventional approach:

Piku: Yes I have had physical relationships but is this something he needs to tell every man I meet? Meet my daughter, she is not a virgin. Which father does this?

It is interesting to note this is when Bhaskor finally is able to go to the toilet, and after this release he passes quietly in the night. Bhaskor prided himself on supporting his daughter’s independence, frankness and outspokenness, even with him. So when she confronts him about the flaws in his approach, on the issue where she had accepted his perspective as her only possible reality, he is relieved both physically and intellectually. He has his ‘best motion’ ever and is at peace.

Exhibit D: The naming of the film after Piku, the prominence given to Deepika Padukone’s character as the definite protagonist, and the seemingly supportive cast and production company as regards issues of women’s empowerment, freedom to make their own choices and decisions, and unconditional love of families in this context. By putting the daughter centre stage, and committing to discussing such issues within the context of the film, which revolves around Piku and Bhaskor’s relationship, the cast and crew appear committed to putting across new ideas.

Case for the motion:

All of these factors look like they are clearly determined to set a new paradigm. That this superhit film, starring the internationally successful Irrfan Khan (seen in Life of Pi, Jurassic World, Slumdog Millionaire, and internationally acclaimed Hindi film, 2013’s “The Lunchbox”), and Hindi cinema’s greatest living legend in Amitabh Bachchan, is even considered a “heroine-oriented” film is somewhat remarkable.

Yet it is accurate.

Piku is the protagonist, it is her viewpoint we as an audience see most clearly, and the journey she goes on (non-literally in this meaning) is mirrored by those watching in terms of understanding her relationship with her father. Outside the film itself, Deepika Padukone was the bankable star that allowed this film to be the big success it was, drawing in huge audiences who had enjoyed her performances in previous blockbusters.

Check the collections of recent Amitabh Bachchan or Irrfan Khan movies (with Pink excluded as an outlying exception). Talvar, Madaari, Wazir, Shamitabh or Te3n did not gross anywhere near the same kind of figures as Piku. Padukone’s releases meanwhile, see there is a spike in collections wherever she features, in a way that some of her most bankable contemporaries such as Anushka Sharma (Bombay Velvet) and Kangana Ranaut (Katti Batti) have not even been able to match. Padukone is a bonafide superstar that justifies her fee and status as Bollywood’s highest earning heroine.

Shootjit Sircar and Amitabh Bachchan, meanwhile, by making and acting in “Piku”, and now mostly recently also the film “Pink” – which even more explicitly covers issues around gender equality, have set themselves as “allies” on the subject of women’s empowerment.

This stance puts them in a category with others such as ‘Cocktail’ director Homi Adajania, who also cast Deepika in a short video on women’s empowerment which released around the same time as Piku, titled “My choice” (see below):

Case against the motion:

My choice, Pink, and for the purpose of this discussion, of course “Piku” as well, arguably present themselves as providing a platform for women’s voices by putting them centre stage, but ultimately their direction and often also their words are determined by men. How a reality exists where male directors and actors are unquestionably celebrated for supporting women’s empowerment and female actors are, for example, considered as ungrateful and greedy for even mentioning the drastic pay disparity, makes it difficult for films which are directed by men and which prominently feature male icons of cinema such as Amitabh Bachchan to truly enable a platform for rather than silencing of, women’s voices.

Notably, the already beloved Mr Bachchan received his forth National Film Award for Best Actor, and superstar heroine Padukone was snubbed, a missed opportunity to award a strong performance and continued bold career choices whilst at the peak of her fame, popularity and earning potential. The role of Bhaskor Bhanerji is certainly a showier one than that of Piku, but I am going out on a limb her to give a bold opinion that Deepika Padukone’s performance is more complex, nuanced, creates a more realistic and believable character as a result, and as such was ultimately even more deserving for recognition.

Director Shoojit Sircar was also celebrated for his efforts in the film, catapulting his career to greater heights. Story, screenplay and dialogue writer Juhi Chaturvedi received less high-profile acclaim (although notably Piku won National Award also for Best Screenplay/Dialogues, these were shared with Tanu Weds Manu Returns). Whilst this is somewhat typical of an industry unaccustomed to recognising and rewarding scriptwriters, for this film in particular it is notable given the strong writing necessary for what is a character-based drama with comedic elements on a taboo and unusual subject. It is also meant that Sircar and Bachchan were celebrated for putting a woman’s words on screen in the mouth and viewpoint of a woman in Padukone as Piku.

Piku is also the only particularly prominent female character. Her two aunts, whilst memorable personalities, feature rather seldomly, and their discussions relate to Bhaskor and his attitudes or Piku’s marriage prospects and love life. That is, their discussions are about men.

Closing arguments:

Against the motion (the old paradigms still stand):

Piku is a well written, acted and entertaining movie. However, it does not establish any meaningful new ideas around the father-daughter relationship. The daughter in Piku is still constrained by her father, and his life choices, opinions, and needs come above hers and limit her freedom to do the same. Her father still believes he knows what is best for her in decisions around marriage.

Additionally, despite casting Padukone in the lead role, the film itself sees limited interaction between Piku and other women, and arguably fails the Bechdel test as a result. All of Piku’s conversations with other women in the film (with the maid and with both her aunts) revolve around discussing her father. So is it really that paradigm shifting to cast one of India’s most bankable superstars as the lead in a film just because said star happens to be a woman?

In this light any such conclusions that the director Shootjit Sircar’s and co-star and film icon Amitabh Bachchan’s support for the film and for the issue of women’s empowerment should be viewed. Whether they are genuine allies is irrelevant, as they operate in an environment where even the appearance of attempting to set new paradigms is celebrated as bold and brave for men, yet women speaking for change (such as Pakudone or Chaturvedi) are, at best, ignored, and at worst, delegitimised and demonised.

This film doesn’t represent changing father-daughter relationships any more than DDLJ does – in 1995 every Indian father didn’t suddenly start approving their Simrans to marry Rajs as Amrish Puri does at the end of the movie in a radical shift towards love marriages or in the case of Piku in 2015, a raft of fathers accepting their daughter’s professional success and not wanting them to sacrifice this freedom in favour of a husband, for example.

To return to the film, that the movie concludes with Piku free to establish a relationship with Rana due to her father’s passing is damning evidence that ultimately, her father’s wishes continue to come before hers.

The case against rests.

In favour of the motion:

The character Bhaskor Banerji is not a perfect person, or a perfect father. He is, as in his own words, a “critical person”, who is “brutal and honest”. At times this makes him particularly insensitive. His need to share his judgements and opinions at all times, even when he is seemingly sticking up for Piku or for her freedom to make her own choices and against her being held to a double standard due to her gender, can be seen as at times unnecessary at best, or at worst, patronising “mansplaining”.

Arguably the film recognises this contradiction in Bhaskor’s perspective and for the astute viewer, the irony of its portrayal can cause a sly smirk or laugh in a few key scenes. Despite all this, Bhaskor’s radical approach to raising his daughter should not be downplayed. It is through his opinionated critiques that the audience is introduced to several key arguments around the double standards many women face: when it comes to what they are prepared to sacrifice in favour of a husband, in terms of speaking their mind openly, in terms of whether they can and should be “scheming” and in terms of what is “nice” or desirable for a woman to be. These are all important points that quieter and more diplomatic male characters are curiously silent about.

Bhaskor has raised Piku to be the tough and uncompromising character that we see in the film. That she is reluctant to fully challenge him over issues which are potentially very sensitive to him such as her choosing to marry (and potentially leave the home as a result), is not necessarily something Bhaskor craves to be the case. Rather he is relieved when she finally does.

Whilst Bhaskor does not leave Piku total freedom to make her own choices, and does assert his opinions on her, he does so from a position of not wanting her to internalise society’s expectations of her due to her gender or to want something because she “is supposed to”.

One interesting example of this stubbornness against societal expectations occurs when Piku discovers Rana about a knife she discovers in the back of the car, after pondering the decision for a moment and her father evening warning her “this is very dangerous”. She appears confident in doing so. After discussing the knife’s origins, Bhaskor strongly insists Rana throw away the knife, but is confronted by Rana’s need to protect Piku.

Rana: I can’t throw [the knife]. The whole journey is left and there is a girl with us. How can I throw it?

Bhashkor: Girl? She’s my daughter.

Rana: Fine. But how can I throw it? She’s also my responsibility.

Bhashkor: You will. Otherwise I am not going.

Rana: Keep screaming.

Piku: FINE! [throws the knife herself on the ground]

OK? Now sit inside.

Bhashkor: What? No you tell him to pick this up and throw. Throw it otherwise I am not going.

Rana: I am not throwing it.

[Piku sits in the car and waits]

[After some time]

Piku: Why won’t you throw it?

[Rana looks at Piku, shakes his head and throws the knife into the field to the side of the road]

In this we see that indeed Bhaskor’s personality is dominating, he gives both Rana and Piku little room for manoeuvre. But he does so to insist his daughter is not treated differently do to her gender, even if this is supposedly “well-meaning”, as in the case of Rana seeking to protect Piku, well aware of the prevalence of gender-based violence (given they are on the highway at the time – perhaps he watched NH10!). Bhaskor rather prefers for Piku to be smart and resourceful, independent and able to take care of herself, even if this increases the risks she may be exposed to as a result.

Irrespective of these redeeming features of Bhaskor Banerji in terms of his love and respect for his daughter, it is through his flawed persona that these ideas and viewpoints are able to be heard without becoming a preachy, self-righteous public service announcement. Now that is due to astute writing, smart directing and quality acting. These things don’t happen in a vacuum and don’t happen without effort. There is therefore, a clear intent to redefine father-daughter relationships through a humanised portrayal of one such relationship, with two flawed and therefore relatable and complex characters. That the film is entertaining, well-made and acted, enables “Piku” to successfully accomplish this attempt to redefine the father-daughter relationship beyond its portrayal in any other Hindi film.

The case in favour of the motion rests.

So my jury, have you reached a verdict? (comments welcome below!)

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