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.

Found this interesting?:

Neerja (2016)

I chose to start this blog with a piece on the movie “Neerja”. Why?

Well, Neerja is box office gold in 2016, one of the biggest movies released and the highest grossing with a female protagonist. It sees India’s “number 1 fashionista”, the star kid Sonam Kapoor, in a totally new avatar, producing almost certainly her finest performance to date. It received rave reviews and most likely will be a critical darling at awards shows rewarding the best films of 2016.

BUT actually I started with this film for none of these reasons.

Ultimately, I chose “Neerja” to begin a discussion of “heroine-oriented” cinema as it is a rendering of a true story of a real life heroine – an inspiration for women and men, boys and girls and for Indians, Pakistanis, Americans and Brits alike. Neerja is the story of the 22-year old flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, who saved the lives of 359 people following an attempted hijacking on Pan Am Flight 73 on the 5th September 1986 at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on a stopover between Mumbai, Frankfurt and New York.

Portrayals of such heroines are important in all kinds of media, and if a reason was needed to justify why films with women protagonists are important, then it’s for reasons such as the need to tell stories such as Neerja’s. Critiques of “women-orientated” films (the same applies for literature and television) can often be that they are not serious and inherently superficial. This is a whole other discussion for another time. Nevertheless, it provides a context where it is particularly interesting to witness Sonam Kapoor, arguably one of the actresses in Bollywood today most commonly maligned in such a way, to lead this super-hit movie and for it to not only address a serious matter, but to demonstrate that stories of and about women are important to be heard.

SPOILERS ahead – if you don’t like them, I highly recommend you go watch the movie, and then come back. Trailer is below.

“Neerja” tells a compelling story, made gripping through strong performances and quality direction, despite most audience members likely being already aware of the outcome. Throughout the movie, Neerja is presented as a positive archetype for a number of different roles – and does a good job of inspiring without setting unobtainable expectations that depictions of “flawless” or “superhuman” women in media can sometimes create. I have described examples of some of these below.

Neerja as a Bollywood fan – like the audience herself

Neerja opens with scenes showing her personality, family life and portraying her as a “normal” young woman that the audience can relate to, in spite of her courageous and ultimately, tragically sacrificial actions that will follow. Her interest in Bollywood automatically connects her with the audience whilst her Rajesh Khanna fandom and declaration of his superiority as B-Town’s top hero over Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan mirrors the debates today between fans of the three Khans. That her mother is played by a frequent co-star of Khanna at the time, Shabana Azmi, perhaps only adds to this connection between Neerja herself and the Bollywood viewer.

Neerja as a “normal” young girl

The film passes the Bechdel test within the first 15 minutes, in a charming scene between the convincingly sleepy Neerja (played with the familiar youthful energy Sonam Kapoor brought to other heroine-oriented films such as Aisha and Khoobsurat, but also a seriousness and steeliness that has been less at the forefront of her work to date), and Neerja’s mother Rama (played by the iconic Shabana Azmi). The two discuss Neerja’s job and her mother’s worries related to her safety, which is laughed off by the pair with an intense foreshadowing of the tragic events to come.

Neerja as a girlfriend and a wife

Neerja is shown to have a relationship with Jaideep, who drives her to the airport, and reflects on her brief, and failed, arranged marriage. A flashback scene shows her husband berating her for ordering take-out and her mother for not having taught her to cook, accusing her of not understanding the meaning of “hard work”. It paints a rather unflattering picture of him and their marriage, especially in light of the heroics of the last few hours of Neerja’s life which will form the bulk of the film.

A brief scene presenting her “pious” vegetarianism in contrast to her husband’s aggressive meat eating is perhaps one of the most contrived moments in the movie, but it soon has greater significance as she is prevented from socialising or being presented publicly among his friends, being told to literally stay in the kitchen (!) and clean up after him.

Her isolation in Qatar and due to the break she is forced to take from working outside the home (in this case – her modelling career) is ruptured through a the supportive words of a progressive father who prioritises her well-being and happiness and teaches her to value strength and bravery over submissiveness and obedience.

This contrast of Neerja as a girlfriend, in a relationship she has chosen and supported in her work (presented positively) and as a wife in an arranged marriage where she is relegated to the kitchen (presented negatively) is a progressive view of the role of women, and given the truth in the story, legitimate, if somewhat simplified if taken as a broader message. However, if the message can be taken simply that women should be free to make their own choices, including in matters of marriage and career, and are not simply cooks and cleaners for their male spouses, this message is to be welcomed in the context of this movie celebrating life of, and commemorating the tragic heroism of, a truly brave woman.

Neerja emerges as a heroine

Rama is shown to have a mother’s instinct that something has happened, and when she is called about the hijacking by Harish, Neerja’s father, a journalist who hears about the situation through his work, they are both clearly extremely concerned but also try to maintain composure. The viewers can see this steeliness in Neerja’s reactions such as when the plane is first hijacked – her initial shock at the sound of shooting, her curious walk towards danger, her command to the rest of the cabin crew to close the door to prevent them entering (which is almost successful), and critically her alerting of the pilots of the fact that the plane has been hijacked, which critically gives them enough time to escape and prevents them from being forced to fly. Whilst a crucial act towards saving not only the pilots’ lives but also, ultimately that of the majority of the passengers, this act forces the young Neerja to take on the responsibility of becoming the most senior cabin crew member on a plane attacked by a terrorist group.

The alerting of the pilots and their escape also draws attention to Neerja and causes her to become somewhat of a target. She does not shy away from this however, volunteering to make an announcement on behalf of the hijackers in place of a traumatised colleague. They attempt to identify the radio controller on the plane, but Neerja discourages him from identifying himself in an effort to protect him.

Other key efforts to protect passengers that put her at greater risk include the hiding of American passports after an American passenger is murdered. This traumatic event sees Neerja barely avoid being shot, but after composing herself in the toilet, interspersed with a flashback to an even-more dejected looking Neerja during her brief marriage, when she sought a moment of solace in the bathroom. In the present timeline, she uses this moment of regaining composure to devise the plan to collect and hide the passports.

Neerja as de facto negotiator

Neerja’s compassion is seen extending even to the hijackers themselves, although she never condones their actions. These include from as early as her first announcement to the passengers on their behalf; to her plan to collect and hide the American passports under a rouse of giving out water, when she appeals to them by comparing their “duty” and “job” with her own towards the services of the passengers on the plane. She even attempts this after the auxiliary power expires and the hijackers panic, assuming they are about to be attacked. When this proves futile and they start shooting, Neerja rushes to open the emergency exit as quickly as possible and begin to evacuate the passengers and crew as quickly as possible.

Neerja as a survivor of abuse

Neerja’s bravery is framed as one that has either developed due to being a survivor of abuse, or an inherent part of her character that enabled her to escape her marriage.

The turning point where she is seen to realise her fighting instinct is shown in another flashback scene where Neerja is back in India with her family. One of her brother’s is notably supportive and her father Harish is particularly quiet and keen to avoid discussing why she is at home in India.

Her mother Rama is shown as less supportive and rather encourages Neerja to stick with the marriage, and persist in her attempts to adapt, somewhat insensitively dismissing her unhappiness as a burden that all married women need to take on. Rama’s stance turns however once Neerja reveals letters written by her husband to Harish, her father, detailing his dowry-related complaints, and recalling his psychological and even physical abuse towards her, and she appears to recognise this is not an acceptable situation. Sonam gives a convincing delivery whilst reading the letters, with the summary conclusion that “she is of no use to me” encapsulating how Neerja has been disparaged through a form of abuse and that intends to imply that therefore “she is of no use [whatsoever]”. Ultimately however, this narrative is not just challenged for its offensiveness, but in light of Neerja’s heroism, also absurd to even suggest.

This scene is also important as it shows that it is often other women who justify or seek to normalise abuse – and commonly in the name of love and support of a close family member. This means that the fact that Neerja’s insistence on escaping her life in Qatar and returning to India, and indirectly asserting her own worth and value in spite of being “of no use”, is ultimately heard and acknowledged by her family, especially her mother, all the more important. This serves as an assertion that the happiness of ALL women is important and ALL women have use and value.

Neerja as the romantic heroine

Curiously, although perhaps unsurprisingly, Neerja is also painted as a romantic heroine within the movie. A common trope of Hindi cinema, particularly of the last 20 years, is the romanticisation of “love marriage” for an audience that still overwhelmingly (although in decreasing frequency in some urban areas) continues to practice arranged marriage as the primary establishment of a relationship between romantic partners. However, romance developing after marriage is rare enough to be be an outlier among the majority of Hindi films released in recent years (some examples of such outliers that spring to mind would be Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Namastey London, Rab Na Bana Di Jodi, and most recently, Dum Laga Ke Haisha).

Given the facts around Neerja’s failed arranged marriage, the idealisation of a romantic relationship established prior to marriage, as she has with Jaideep, is perhaps unspectacular. What is more interesting in this regard is the prominence and significance this is given within the movie, especially giving the thriller aspect of the hijack and the inspiration of her heroics. This trope is used predominantly to emphasise loss and tragedy, with Neerja’s acceptance of her role as the romantic heroine coming at a point where she appears to have accepted her likely demise – she opens the birthday letter from Jaideep prematurely as she recognises she may not be able to wait until her birthday. Her tears of joy are accompanied by a genuine pain that she is unable to fulfil the proposal written within. Neerja’s last smile however is shown whilst in reflecting on this letter and the love it represents.

Jaideep, the supportive and loving husband that can never be, meanwhile, is seen awaiting news whilst sitting in front of a billboard with Neerja as a model. That Neerja is literally modelling bridal gear is a far from subtle nod to the fact that Neerja is being cast as the ultimate bride.

Neerja as Mother India

Neerja’s final actions, also demonstrated in a range of moments throughout the film portray her as a protector of children. She is ultimately shot after returning the line of fire in order to protect and evacuate a group of unaccompanied young children, acting as a human shield. Her last words are to a young boy she acts as a pseudo-mother figure to.

Neerja’s role as an archetypal mother figure plays into a subversion of one of the most famous of all “heroine-oriented” Hindi films, namely, “Mother India”. In this subverted ending however, our “mother to society” self-sacrifices literally, and can only protect “her” children, by being shot herself instead of acting as the shooter.

Neerja’s mother herself has a speech at the end of the movie, reflecting on her loss and on Neerja’s life. This is obviously partially to make best use of a powerhouse acting legend such as Shabana Azmi. But in the context of the film it also works to emphasise Neerja not just as a heroine, but also a more human figure – a daughter, a sister, a fiancé and a friend.

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