Thursday, December 25, 2008

The wrath of Gods: Rab Ne Banaa Di Jodi

After a long time, I submitted myself to the tortures of a mainstream (incidentally the main streams in India are the gutters running proud and gushing in the middle of the streets) Hindi movie.

The movie was Rab ne banaa di jodi – from the messiah of love himself, Aditya the Chopra.

Aditya Chopra was born in the year 1955 to a family of renowned surgeons. Unfortunately, he lost his father to a brain surgery that he attempted on himself, and his mother to an accident where she sat on a scalpel. After his adoption, the young Chopra spent most of his time sighing and drawing tattoos of breasts around his young nipples (Incidentally, in an interview, he claimed that he still has nipples the red of a Washington apple: thankfully, the reporter didn’t ask him to prove his claim).
It’s around this time that devotees claimed that Aditya first uttered the word – “love”. Adtiya, again in an interview, claims that the idea sprang on him when he saw a dog in heat hold in abeyance a horde of others for a bitch. Unfortunately, what had really sprung on him that day was a close friend, young Karan Johar, who, so far, had restricted his “weirdness” to begging his male friends to let him shake off the last drops of their pee.
This was the start of Aditya’s first relationship and, tho’ too timid for drugs, he confesses that he did experiment with agarbattis and dhoops.
Growing up, Aditya fell into a depression and confided in his dad about his condition. ‘Well maybe it’s because you’re so fucking stupid’, his dad helpfully suggested.

The rest of the story is well known. Frightened by the complicated adult heights that his father had taken the notion of relationships with movies like Silsila and Kabhi kabhi, Aditya plotted a return to a pristine-white naivety. Not for him the idea of cheating husbands and wives, the contradictions and ambivalence of relationships. For Adi all it takes to have a romance is billowing curtains, heroines in white drenching in the rains and SRK named Raj smirking to glory and lifting his eyebrows even higher than Jack Nicholson.

Aditya’s success that followed derived from a shrewd insight into three critical factors that make Indian romance flicks Indian romance flicks.

1. India is a poor country. And frightfully aware of it. Not for it, the reality waiting to bite outside the cinema hall: instead, throw in the white babes and the Swiss Alps.

2. Most Indians have repressed relationships. Most men and women in India do not get to date before marriage: even the marriages are arranged by the elders. Hence, most Indians do not get to romance.

3. The Indian society runs on clichés. Education is usually vocational and, hence, technical: subjects like psychology and sociology are restricted to the inner walls of a few colleges. Indians are not taught to express themselves emotionally, their social awareness of their conditions is abysmal, their ideas of sex chastity and virginity medieval in its morality, their treatment of women horrible and… to put things in perspective, in any survey, a romance from Mills and Boons will be voted as a “mature depiction” by not less than 95% of the respondents.

Aditya had seen the failure of his father’s Silsila and realized that most Indians do not want to see even this tempered down reality (in the last scene, in an attempt to reconcile the errant man and wife to their spouses, the director resorts to a plane crash rescue, no less!) Most Indians who come to see romance flicks do not come to see a reflection of their own experiences (coz sadly they don’t have much to share there) but live a dream vicariously. Since, with the taboos clichés mindless-customs, most Indians have very dumbed down emotional quotient, they crave for loudness, repetition, clichés and an idea of romance usually associate with early teens in the developed world. And yes, like the father in DDLJ mouths, they want their heroes to live the lives they never would have.

Hence, the swiss Alps, red sports cars, leather jackets, flash of gori-chamdi, and the myth of ascendancy of Indian values above everything else.

The success of Aditya’s first film, DDLJ, lay in not the intrinsic value of the film but how it successfully adapted itself to the naïve idea of romance in India to a T. In the movie, the idea of consenting adults is never even mentioned. Heroines, even foreign-bred, weepingly succumb to the wills of their fathers and heroes, when having the opportunity, refuse to run away with them. And, of course, their love is so pure that they never even kiss.

Sample this dialogue from the movie (source: IMDB) –

Raj Malhotra: Do you love me?
Simran Singh: More than anyone else.
Raj Malhotra: Do you trust me?
Simran Singh: More than I trust myself.

Now sample a few dialogues from Closer (I know it’s not a fair comparison but I regard the latter as a watershed movie in the depiction of relationships):

Anna: I'm sorry you're...
Larry: Don't say it! Don't you fucking say you're too good for me. I am, but don't say it.

Larry: Is he a good fuck?
Anna: Don't do this.
Larry: Just answer the question! Is he good?
Anna: Yes.
Larry: Better than me?
Anna: Different.
Larry: Better?
Anna: Gentler.
Larry: What does that mean?
Anna: You know what it means.
Larry: Tell me!
Anna: No.
Larry: I treat you like a whore?
Anna: Sometimes.
Larry: Why would that be?

I do not wish to present a contrast between the movies’ maturity quotients but their contexts. Imagine, screening a DDLJ to an audience nurtured on a diet of reality-probing films like Closer and releasing Closer to an Indian audience.

It is the quintessential argument most of Indian media has forgotten: a thing’s popularity is not a statement on its intrinsic value.

After DDLJ, Adi tried his hand on four multiple romances (five if you add the disastrous imitation of Pankaj Kapoor’s Santa by the under-talented Anupam Kher). Mohabattein was supposed to be a showcase “first time in screen together” for the big B and the small S but there’s little much to showcase when each of the stars is a horrible two-dimensional caricature: one mouthing pratishtha sammaan samriddhi even while taking a dump, the other playing violin and talking to ghosts. With veteran thespians like Jugal Hansraj, Uday Chopra, Preeti Jhangiani and Kim sharma, the movie is now best known for its stellar performances, lucky Uday’s minute-long pappi and Preeti’s kathak, or whateveritwas, in the rains.

RNBDJ is the third on the block from this purveyor of love.

It’s been three weeks since I saw it and much of my initial reaction is now tempered down. But if there was only one word that I could use to describe it, it would have to be – horrible.

I think the movie started with the director’s desperation to connect with the audience that he lost to his langotiya-yaar Mr. K Johar (in an interview, Aditya quoted ‘Pehle he stole my innocence, now he’s stolen my plots!’). Why not plant the idea of a SRK-Yash Chopra banner romance in every Indian romance. SRK quoted (and this is as an actual quote) that he picked the idea of his two characters for participants he saw on one of his shows. While the second character is played to a T, since it is essentially a small-town SRK duplicate, the main character – the resilient and silent Indian middle-class – is a farce. Is this how the director and the actor really see the character? I forgive Adi – the scion of a famous producer-director, his idea of middle-class India is susceptible to be a clichéd warp-zone. But what about SRK and his humble Delhi beginning? Is this how he understands the emotional constructs and motivations of the middle-class?

This actually demonstrates a theory of mine: if the daily activities of any man become constant news feeds, if the man is seen on interviews over interviews regarding his views from choli designs to world peace, if a man starts talking about himself in the third person, if his private jokes become grist for plot-lines and compering contracts: that man is gone. His sense of reality and self-perception as acute as ol’ Canute’s (tho’ Canute knew he could not order the waves back).

The premise is so stretched that even the director is not convinced about it. Hence, the hero has to mouth fifteen-minutes long rationale for his actions to a yaaraa, a mannequin and the audience (as stoned to boredom as the mannequin) after every half an hour.

One quality that needs to be appreciated in the movie is the principle of minimalism. Everything is there only for a purpose. Not for it, tangents and threads that clutter our daily lives.

Hence, the movie starts with SRK visiting a wedding at an old teacher’s place. The teacher has only a few scenes to plod the story along and is only present in those sequences: first to introduce SRK to is daughter as his best student ever (the best student goes on to bag an exciting job in Punjab Powers and the personality of a doormat), have a heart attack to the news of a tragedy and then get his daughter married on deathbed. The daughter, when she moves to her sasural, does not even carry a picture of him with her – so quickly are the dead forgotten.
The daughter is depicted as the socializing and bubbly sort: in fact, that, one guesses, is the reason for her grouse with her new hubby’s fidgeting inhibited personality. Yet no name is mentioned after the father’s death and no relative or friend comes visiting the bride. I guess that this might be a hidden tribute to the anonymity of character of Satya, of whom the only fact revealed was that he came from Hyderabad.

The heroine’s grouse with her new hubby tho’ is entirely justifiable. Not only had he gone to develop a personality befitting the gods, he also has the following strange characteristics: a habit of pulling his shirt-tails in front of his crotch every five seconds, a queer disinterest regarding sex (with a wife like that sleeping downstairs in another bed the – what one gathers – virgin hero coolly walks about in his pajamas with no tell-tale frustrated bulges on display), and ( in another tribute) no relatives and friends except for an impossibly mismatched yaaraa. The yaaraa tho’ is quickly explained: the plot needs his hair-dressing skill and saloon for the hero to transform into his other role.

As for the main plot, do you really want me to go there?

I think the movie might one day be hailed as the dawn of the absurd in Indian mainstream cinema.

For all its box-office collections, this movie is the first note in the death-knell of the half-career of Mr. Chopra. Do remember that even Khalnayak was a resounding success – nevertheless it did start the decline in the fortunes of Mr. Ghai.

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