Waiting for Zoya

Amar Akbar Anthony had three men. It was larger than life and it was unnecessarily dramatic. It was silly in parts, unconvincing and stereotypical. Over the top acting and total Masala. Which meant you excused all trivialities in the name of cinema. It was the cinema of the 80s and a hit. With three big heroes. It did not speak to me as a child, a female child, at all. The songs I still hum but that is all. Today we have another film, with three big heroes, a lot of Masala and hardly a song worth remembering yet I have enjoyed it thoroughly.

What if there exists a film which screams sincerity in every frame and rings true and holds your attention without manipulating your emotions yet remains in the sacred realm of a Hindi film, which is – it is inherently grandiose, 70mm full frame glamorous and essentially surreal – would you care to watch it or would your social conscience prevent you from identifying with and laughing out aloud at rich people’s antics? Would your intellectual affectations come in the way of giving due respect to a frothy fare? Would your filmy experiments allow you to put aside your foreign parameters and look at a desi dilemma independently?

Why do you watch a film? Kabhi socha hai? Aalochinchandi. Think about it. Most people do so for entertainment. An evening out, a few hours in air-conditioned comfort next to your loved ones eating, sipping, answering phone calls, lovers’ tiffs, a lonely heart typing away a text message(how I miss you next to me, he says), while children shout and run about in the aisles, servers walking past with the latest order of samosa and chai, cool drink bottles being strewn under the reclining seats after a quick gulp, noises galore that have nothing to do with the action on screen, a bazaar, life as usual. This is the Indian theatre for you. Not during intermission which could be acceptable but while the film is going on!

Even for those who revere cinema, there has been no escaping this up market marketplace unless they raise themselves to higher realms of a home theatre but what can match the magic of a 70mm screen? What can compare with the collective enjoyment of watching Sridevi gyrate to “Jumbe re jujumba re” in a seedy theatre in Chandanagar, Hyderabad! Colourful 100watts bulbs, a few hundreds, placed all around the large rectangular screen keeping beat with the song, blinking on and off all, men jumping with joy letting go, a mass cathartic un self-conscious experience. Even a multiplex in India cannot escape this exuberance! Maybe there are no glowing bulbs anymore but the feverish hysteria is palpable even during the most insipid of films. Why would any filmwallah in her right mind want to miss this experience? This is food for writers. The Human Zoo for Rs100.

The Heroine in her green dress surrounded by men at her feet, paying homage, at the right cue the bulbs are switched on, so do the fantasies in everyone’s mind. Not all of these are sexual. This is a fantasy about an unattainable heroine, a goddess on screen. It would be sacrilege to imagine love-making with her! That moment still persists in memory’s crevices even after twenty years! It doesn’t matter if the chorus was copied or that Ram Gopal Varma elicits derision in some circles today, it doesn’t matter that this was just another chase movie, that her daughter is now ready to claim her mother’s mantle – as is the custom in our country – we cannot simply throw away our parental heritage can we? Must we?

Or that precise second when AR Rahman piereced one’s hearts via Roja’s honeymoon in Kashmir. Those new arrangements, the electronics that had more heart than most lyrics of the 90s. The visual splendour of it all, the perfect frames, the unmistakable irresistible urge that these films evoked – to take off, to fly into the scarlet horizon.

On my Kinetic Honda, which still had its Rajasthan registration, I rode quadruples (my sister and her two friends) to a theatre in Ramachandrapuram with just Rs100, no license in my pocket and no extra cash for bribes, just four tickets of Rs20 each (rest for parking) and what did I get: four stunned dipped-in-dream faces. Was that the moment that I decided that I should tell stories too? Did I want to participate in the process that involved traveling to exotic locales, picking out world-class talent, having a hand in every pie – music, art, literature? Conjuring a make-believe yet believable world.

These two films struck a chord at that time also because they did not insist too much on showing the female protagonist as the victim and if she was scared of heights (“devuda devuda…”) as in Kshana Kshanam it was acceptable since she was working, taking autorickshaws like a normal girl while killing men in self defence! All in a SINGLE costume from start to finish. It was empowering sitting in that theatre seeing a ‘heroine’ being allowed that grace after years of enduring –“Bachao, koi hai”. Especially after a ruckus on the road with some romeos who could not stand the sight of four girls on a scooter which smacked of freedom.

Who do you go to the cinemas with?

It also matters how you watch it. Alone or with family or with friends or with other film buffs. In India it is invariably with family or friends. If such is the case, I fail to understand where a Delhi Belly fits in. Does it even have an A certificate? Yes, it is what boys do, they wash their bums with orange juice. It is how they live – filthily. Accepted. It is how they talk about their bhabhis – ‘she is hot man’! Chalo woh bhee theek hai. What is exasperating is the sexualization of each and every female character in the film. Either they are taken or they take. Of course the woman on top wins the man finally since it is always about his gratification. His mouth might be between his fiance’s legs but he would rather that it be on the cellphone. Aren’t we so juvenile, excited about cussing on screen! Oh! there was a fake orgasm too. We have come of age. Really? The cinematography and detailing were the saving graces. Bad performances, fake accents and no story, do not a film make. Music might have been pathbreaking for some but I doubt DK Bose will stay with us in its current iconic form for another twenty years. So what was it about this film? Well, the boys identified with it, they could at last be themselves on screen and not apologize for it. Crass. Crude. Chutiyas.

If just breaking barriers makes us so excited after all these years, we should be a proud nation already. Inspite of all odds we have stuck to the song-and-dance routine unapologetically and look at the dividends this is paying us! The only reason anyone watches ‘Bollywood’ is for the songs. Yes. There is no question about it. Now we want to do away with that one and only aspect that made us special just because we read Cahiers du Cinema and see ourselves as lacking. Well, okay, Sight and Sound. If songs in Indian films do not make sense how much do Western music videos make sense? You go from real life to a TV set or a Studio, you watch half-naked women gyrating to usually a black man mouthing profanities and insults on women, their bodies and their beings. How is that not perpetuating stereotypes, how is that exempt from endangering races and sexes in its stultification of humanity? In our bid to save our honour on the world’s stage and at Cannes- which we cannot pronounce,we have become hijdas. Na idhar kay na udhar kay.

From Japan to Germany to Tunisia to Chile, yes, even Chile, guess what they enjoy most, what brings people out of their funk? What is it that helps them look forward to life with zest, what has guts and gusto? Yes, the larger-than-life, good-wins-over-evil, happy-ending, family-is-forever film which we are selling out on to fulfill some funny angst , a silly khujli that has neither name nor cure. One American Diplomat’s wife even blogged about finding solace in – guess – Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gum (Karan Johar, yeh tunay kya kiya) – during a very difficult time. How the bubbly boisterous bounce-back nature of our films can easily lift the veil off of a dark night. How could Rajanikanth become anyone’s idea of a ‘hero’ from ‘villain’ is a question only God can answer but his Muthu is a superhit in the Far East, spawning dance troupes of young Japanese girls thrusting their non-existent bosoms and hips that can shame any Malaika or Mallika. The original Meena is not the most attractive of them either! So what is it about this song? The inside information is, that it is the upbeat-ness, the unflappable-ness, the other-ness that excites. News for you my friends, once there is no ‘other’, there will be no ‘you’ either!

This brings us to What is it that we are looking for in a film. Many of us look for ‘fun’, whatever that might be since there is really no original Indian term for the same. We have ‘happy’, ‘joy’ and ‘bliss’ but no ‘fun’. We look for release, for relief, for rehabilitation, for reiteration, for recognition…..doesn’t it sound like a refugee camp? So,are films therapeutic? Largely so, Indian films most definitely are meant to be. That was how they started, as visual voices for mythologies. Myth is nothing but a story which soothes. Our Natyashastra, our Classical Arts, our Folk arts, are all based on the oral staged storytelling format: loud, dramatic and heavy with gesticulation. Our beliefs have thus given rise to a certain form of behaviour in our film making. This does great business for what it offers in its authenticity. To do away with that, with what we have without first acquiring a different set of beliefs is the problem. What is your foundation for this new age, artsy, parallel cinema? Does it spring like Katha and Sparsh from your local experience or does it exist as a script just because it breaks certain barriers, which might have actually existed only in your own head more than anywhere else?

This is when we come to Zoya Akhtar’s very different from Luck By Chance in scale and scope second film. While the debut assured us of her adherence to honesty, her detailing of scenes, her natural empathy towards a female protagonist, her one and only song-and-dance sequence in the film also gave us a foretaste of what was to come, that she enjoyed large scale musicals, had a feel for rhythm and was not shy about going the song-and-dance way. Much to the disappointed of her previous fans she is seen in a new avatar here. In Spain, with a foreign crew, indulging in cranes and aerial and underwater shots and importing tomatoes from Portugal, ayiyyo! they scream. Where is the small scale intelligent female brain that revels in meaningful stories. Three friends, road trip, Dil Chahta Hai anniversary celebrations with bhai Farhan in it. Avoid, says the trailer. The clunky name doesn’t help either. Imagine you at the ticket counter asking for two tickets for ‘Zindagi… Na… Milegi… Dobara..’. Just the very thought has kept many people away from the halls. She can’t be perfect. These are her only two faults vis-à-vis this film.

The biggest credit to a Director is when she can extract her scripted characters from her actors, which Zoya does with aplomb. She takes us on a journey cinematically, to Spain and very soon that country shall have more than it’s share of Indian tourists. Her vignettes are convincing, her revelations slow and endearing. That she chooses to stay put with her camera, allowing us to see Arjun or Imran cry, to sense their fears and insecurities, tells us how much she trusts the audience. The humour is not disgusting and for women who like it correct and propah what a relief this is! Yes, no one really thinks of women when making films. Ammas and Appas can accompany pothas and pothis without flinching and rushing to the bathroom in embarrassment. The drama is poignant and there is gravitas. Salman Habib and son share not a moment less nor a moment more. Getting under the skin of her characters without undermining their screen presence, such big stars in real life, what an achievement for Hindi cinema. Without an item number, without unnecessary villains, without farts and false provocations we have before us a work of art that is as smooth as Pride and Prejudice and as layered in its compilation of human responses. Finding one of the sexiest stars in the world on the beach in a hand-me-down blousy gown instead of a chic bikini a la the Bipishas or Laras was my cue, I would enjoy this film of course! Only a woman Director will not find it necessary to sensationalize her lead heroine by pandering to salivating males.

Not that she is coy. She deals with adults in a mature way. She shows us the before and after with finesse just as Delhi Belly shows us the during with equal panache but the latter somehow undermining the act all the three times that it depicts sex while the former is engaging in its tenderness and playful naughtiness. This is the reason I rejoice. This is how women want it. Including the Royal Enfield ride.

The Naipauls of the world may find the film too flimsy, too restricted, too elite but then cinema is as much for the classes as it is for the masses. If it can hold its own within its set parameters, that is more than what one can hope for in Hindi cinema. Her belief systems play out beautifully in the movie. There is an easy connect with the audience in the manner of all great films. What power Indian Cinema has and how sadly we have misunderstood it. Misused it!! Zoya Akhtar might yet show us the way.