Holding the mirror for Imtiaz Ali

Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017)

jab-harry-met-sally-380I am new to the films of Imtiaz Ali, but I’ve read enough about him to know that he is at the top of the list of romantic film directors in Bollywood. Rumor has it Ali’s vision of love will sweep just about anyone right off of their feet. You will become smitten with the eccentric dude who spends the first half of the film trying to convince us that he is much too hard on the inside to fall for anyone, and as his interior softens and he succumbs in spite of his best efforts, you will identify with his spiral of realization and his crisis of self. You will say, if only someone could fall for me in this way. If only I could be the source of this kind of revelation in someone as handsome as Shah Rukh/Ranbir. You will find yourself enamored by the outgoing nature of Anushka/Deepika. She will maintain and air of mystery as she dances across the European backdrop without a care. At first, you will find her annoying; she is immature, she lost her wallet/passport/credit cards/engagement ring, and she can’t find it without your help. She doesn’t know how to find herself. Maybe she can’t take care of herself? But she doesn’t care, and you find this cute. She will grow on you, the audience, as you see the protagonist grow because of her. It is interesting, because she isn’t all that complex. Not nearly as complex as the frustrated male protagonist, with his many moments of self doubt and the identity crisis that take up an entire half of the film, but still, you are drawn to her. You see how she shows the male protagonist how to become his true self, and you will find yourself asking Is there someone out there who will show me the way to become my true self? 

jab-harry-met-sejal-stillI am being a bit harsh. I actually did end up enjoying Jab Harry Met Sejal, even though it took me several days to get through (not entirely the fault of the film, but my own lack of time). After breaking at the 40 minute mark, I didn’t think that I would go back for more. I love Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma, but I didn’t like Harry or Sejal, and I didn’t really care for the story. There wasn’t enough going on to make me wonder how on earth Ali was going to get these two together before the end of the film. Sejal was entitled and shallow, and Anushka’s acting felt hollow throughout the first half (probably because the character doesn’t give her enough to work with), and Shah Rukh can only ham it up so much to convince us that Harry really is a misogynistic asshole (sure he is, but did I care? Not really). The love story felt forced. The songs, meh. But somehow, in the end, Imtiaz Ali really does use some kind of magic, because when Sejal found the ring, I was on the edge of my seat. When Harry realizes that he didn’t actually tell her that he wanted her, I was all like, omigod, I didn’t even notice that! When he shows up to her wedding, I was nervous for him. I guess that is the point, right? To be convinced that you care before the end of the journey. If so, he won. But how? 

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On the subject of mirrors…

Imtiaz Ali films appeal to the ego. Our attraction to others is often a reflection of what we believe that they see in us. In other words, they hold a mirror up to us. We want to become the version of ourselves that they admire, and so we aspire to live up to the ideals that they present. This is why people say that the ideal partner will ask them to strive to do and be their best self. Ali’s films depict this journey, appealing to our own search for validation. The protagonists make us wonder how we as partners might be able to inspire such dramatic reflection in another, and/or how we can be the recipient of such inspiration. In doing so, the audience essentially falls in love with the characters. They appeal to our want for someone to hold a mirror up to ourselves.

tamasha-BH-G131I  watched Ali’s 2015 film Tamasha, and I really enjoyed it (even though I must admit that I am growing tired of Ranbir Kapoor’s emo dude breakdowns. But then again, now that I’ve seen Shah Rukh in JHMS, I know to just blame Imtiaz Ali for that), but I did notice that the formula for both films is almost exactly the same: girl loses something valuable; boy comes to her aid, and in the process of helping her find what she has lost, boy realizes that there is something that he was missing all along; boy has an identity crisis; girl finds the lost item; boy loses girl; boy finds himself; boy finds girl; the void is filled; the end. I think I will refer to this formula as ‘the gift of the muse.’ The muse, for Ali, is essentially the manic pixie dream girl of Bollywood (oh look here, I found a definition on the Google: Manic Pixie Dream Girl – (especially in film) a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist). The Bollywood version is chaste and/or sexually unavailable, “Shame is a woman’s wealth,” Ved responds when Tara rebukes his suggestion that they just go ahead and get down to the sexy business right away. It isn’t that she isn’t interested, she is just looking for more. A competition of sorts follows the decision to abstain; who will give in first? Who will break the rules? Abstinence works with the Bollywood formula by adding to the tension and taking the subject of morality out of the conversation. So, the female protagonist, often referred to as the heroine in Hindi cinema, is, as she has always been, virtuous. But still, Ali’s heroine is on par with the manic pixie dream girl. She is shallow and exists primarily to support the hero. In Tamasha we are given the opportunity to glimpse the inner world of the heroine. We see that Tara lives in an expensive looking apartment, she has a career, she dresses well, but we don’t know much about her interests or her work life. She also has no family or friends to speak of. Our emotional insight is limited to her connection to the male protagonist, and any inner turmoil revealed to the audience revolves around her desire for him. The same goes for JHMS, where Sejal’s history is explained early on in the film, she is engaged, she has a business, her family is involved in her life, yet we are never really made aware of her motivations. We don’t even know what her business is. When compared with Harry or Ved (Harry, whose entire love life is played out for us, and Ved, who we basically watch grow up from childhood), we are given very little insight into the inner worlds of the heroine. Her purpose, in the film, and it would seem in life, is to hold a mirror up for the hero. Through her, he finds himself.

An important scene in Jab Harry met Sejal breaks this all down nicely. After dragging Harry all over the place in search of her ring, Sejal finds that the ring has been in her bag all along. This happens while they are tied up in the basement of a gangster’s warehouse, and it is important to note that they are surrounded by fake rings; the gangster is a forger. When we first meet Sejal, she, in a way, takes Harry captive. She makes him responsible for her and essentially forces him to participate in her search. He protests, but still, he helps her. She, like Tara, is sexually unavailable (she is engaged to someone else), and it is through his unfulfilled sexual desire for her that he finds emotional core. He wants her. He can’t have her. Surprise: he has feelings. Sejal, on the other hand, isn’t as transparent. She is having fun with Harry, but she is aloof; it isn’t obvious that she has any feelings for Harry because she seems so obsessed with her own situation. The realization comes about when she is captured by the forger. Surrounded by fake jewels, she hunts for a towel to clean Harry’s wounds, and low and behold, she finds the actual ring. It was there all along, but she couldn’t see it. The ring in this situation does not symbolize her newfound love for Harry. Harry is not the gem among the fakes, Sejal is the genuine article. She can heal his wounds. Harry needs her, and her fiancée doesn’t. Self actualization realized through the superficial. And, only when one is forced to recognize it, held captive to it. This theme is also apparent in Tamasha, where the meaninglessness of material and professional success is pitted against the freedom from reality pact that Tara and Ved made in Corsica (no truth be told). There is something very real in the center of this charade, and it isn’t the truth, it is the void that love fills. The meaning that love gives to that which is empty, superficial. Tara, like Sejal, is the revelation and the cure. Ved is trapped in a unfulfilling reality, and it is through love that he sees the truth that enables him to escape this captivity. It is through the gift of the muse.

So even though I had a hard time relating to the characters in Jab Harry Met Sejal, I could identify with their emotional journeys. This is exactly how Ali’s films win you over: deep inside we all want to receive the gift of the muse. We want the mirror held up before us, asking us to be our best and truest self. And this is why Imtiaz Ali can use the same formula over and over again and we love it (sometimes in spite of ourselves). 

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Talaash (2012) & back to back with the Khans of Bollywood

1280x720-tfkI’ve been on a bit of a Bollywood watching rampage lately. So much so, actually, that I want to start learning Hindi. This is what happened to me several years ago with Japanese films. I fell in love with Japanese movies, from Ozu Yasujiro to Koreeda Hirokazu, and became determined to study the language. And I did. For years. I majored in East Asian Studies and focused on Japan, and even lived in Japan two times on someone else’s dime: for one summer as a language student in Tokyo, and then in 2014-15 I spent a year at Kyushu University in Fukuoka as a Fulbright research student. As a Film Studies grant recipient, I was able to study language, film, and culture, while living with my husband and our son in Japan. It was amazing, and I miss living in Japan, a lot, but I don’t watch as many Japanese movies as I used to. When I was in Japan I found myself feeling overwhelmed with all of the translating that I had to do for myself and for my family from time to time, and I looked to Bollywood to escape it. The films were lighter than the Japanese movies that I was watching for my project, and I think that I needed them for balance. I must still need them, for something else perhaps, because I can’t seem to get enough of them. So here I am. Thinking about studying Hindi. Thinking about studying India. Thinking about studying film. So, I figure I’ll go back to writing and see where it takes me.

So back to that Bollywood watching rampage.

I’ve been dabbling in the films of the other Khans lately. For those of you who don’t know, the three reigning kings of the Bollywood box office are Aamir, Salman, and Shah Rukh Khan (no, they are not related). They are Muslims in a country that is predominately Hindu, which I have been told makes their success even more unlikely and therefore, amazing. They are the same age, born in 1965. They began their careers around the same time, mid to late 1980’s, and have been the biggest ticket sellers in Bollywood for well over twenty years; the younger generation has yet to surpass their sales or produce this level of superstar. It was Shah Rukh Khan’s films that made me fall for Bollywood in the first place, and I have probably seen around fifty of them to date (I’ll have to update the list), but I became curious about these other guys. So I watched a few, and I get it. I totally get it. I’ve seen too many om_id_335065_talaashf Aamir’s movies to start at the beginning and work my way up (like I want to do with Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, and several other stars and directors), but I might be able to do this with Salman. Hell, I’ll even make it a goal, but I’ll have to tackle a few more Aamir Khan films before I get started on that.

I started with Talaash (2012) and was blown away. First of all, I was surprised that a major Bollywood release would dabble with the underworld. The underbelly of the city, of the film industry and of the police force. It was dark, noir-ish, beautifully shot, and the acting was superb. I was all around impressed with Aamir. He was especially subdued in this role (I know this now). He wasn’t just a good actor, he apparently took good, different, rolerani-mukherji-in-talaash-hindi-movie-stillss. Rani Mukherjee was at her best. This was the first time that I had seen her in such a serious role, and it was also the first time that I ever forgot that I was watching Rani. There is something about Rani, maybe it is her raspy voice, or her look, but I can never seem to separate Rani Mukherjee the person from the characters that she is playing. But she owned this one, and was completely convincing. I have a newfound respect for her as an actor. I have always been fond of Kareena Kapoor. She is funny and charming, and it was refreshing to see her take on a role that used this to mask deep sadness. However, it was Nawazuddin Siddiqui who stole the show as Tehmur, a crippled lackey, who is scheming an escape from the ghetto. He was excellent. All around. I saw him in Bajrangi Bhaijaan soon after this, and cannot wait to see more of him.

I have read some criticism of the film, particularly the plot twist, which kind of surprised me. I have to admit that I saw it coming, but I was told a long time ago that we don’t watch Bollywood to see what happens at the end, because we can almost always see it coming (I mean, Bollywood films are formtalaash2ulaic. Duh.). So, we watch it for the journey. This film was an emotional rollercoaster of a different kind. I could see where the plot was going, but I couldn’t tell where it was going emotionally. I didn’t know if Surjan would face his past, or reconcile with his wife (and to be fair, I don’t know if he ever did), but it is apparent that he comes through this difficult period of time having faced something extraordinary. We may not get to see the results, but are privy to the journey, to his breakdown. As a viewer, I appreciate this.

I think it is worth mentioning that I was surprised that this film was directed by a female. This is something I find happens occasionally in Hindi cinema, where female directors are far from the norm, but when I find out that the film that I am watching was written or directed by a woman and I begin to ask myself: why I am even thinking about this? The fact that it even stands out says quite a bit about the lack of female directors in the U.S. (and in Japan – Naomi Kawase is the only one that comes to mind). Aside from Karyn Kusama (who is hardly recognized in Hollywood), I had a hard time thinking of a single famous female director (until my friend reminded me of Kathryn Bigelow). That is it (and please, if you know of others, enlighten me. Save me from my ignorance). Talaash’s director, Reema Kagti also co-wrote the screenplay, and was the assistant director on Aamir Khan’s films Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai (both excellent films that I plan to write about soon). I loved her technique in all of these films, and hope that she plans to do more.

Pardes (1997)

Pardes

Pardes (1997), director Subhash Ghai’s ode to India, opens and closes with a dedication to India’s 50th year of independence, which provides some explanation for the film’s patriotic tone (the song “I love my India” can be heard no less than three times in the first two hours of the film). Pardes examines the relationship between the diaspora and India and highlights differences between American and Indian values. Some viewers have suggested that the film lambastes American culture with its harsh portrayal of the Indian come American, but I disagree with this interpretation because Arjun and his crew who maintain connections to tradition also represent the diaspora. Ghai may compare the American diaspora to rural India in Pardes, but what is really examined here is how the loss of connection to one’s homeland can impact the ability to interact with it, or even in this case to claim it as one’s own.

Kishorilal (Amrish Puri) returns to India on business and visits his longtime friend Surajdev (Alok Nath) and he is thrust back into the traditions and customs of Indian family life. After meeting Surajdev’s daughter Ganga, he decides that his American son Rajiv should marry her, connecting the families and, with that, the traditions and values of India to the future generations of his family in the U.S.. Mahima Chaudhary gives an impressive introductory

Ganga
Mahima Chaudhary as Ganga

performance as Ganga, and by backing innocence with a fierce adherence to traditional values, she convincingly embodies Kishorilal’s ideal India; she is gorgeous and innocent, fierce and filial. Ganga comes across as annoyingly perky at times, her lines sound loud and stiff, but I believe this is done deliberately and even brilliantly by Chaudhary to emphasize Ganga’s lack of self awareness and innocence. Ganga is not worldly and this is apparent in her very first scene, where she lists Kishorilal’s accomplishments in the fashion of an excited child. Apoorva Agnihotri’s performance as Rajiv is not nearly as impressive by comparison, especially when considering the typical performance of other Bollywood villains, though he does, however, come across superblyas a spoiled rich American, and I believe that he is intended to be received in this way. The match between Ganga and Rajiv is made with the help of Arjun, Kishorilal’s ‘adopted’ son who hails from India. Shah Rukh Khan gives an excellent performance here, on par with that of Swades, and tames his charms for the role of a middleman who knows his place in spite of any feelings he may have developed for Ganga. Arjun has an innate understanding of India’s traditions and values, and acts as the cultural ambassador for Rajiv in India as well as for Ganga in America. And with this, we have our love triangle.

Khan and Chaudhary
Arjun and Ganga

The juxtaposition of the American Rajiv and the Indian Arjun is not the only vehicle for the contrasting values in the film, as ideals, both Indian and American, are depicted through the eyes of Kishorilal and Ganga (the visiting NRI in India and the foreigner in America). Kishorilal’s ideal India comes across with his opening statement as he stands before the Taj Mahal, “In America love means to give and take, but in India it means to give, give, give.” He arrives at Surajdev’s home where he is embraced by the family who treat him with great regard. So much regard in fact, that other NRI’s who have returned are put off by his presence and ask: successful or no, why should anyone suck up to this deserter? These other NRI’s are depicted as comically ‘worldly,’ with light hair and westernized fashion, but without the social graces that Kishorilal possesses. They have returned to India, but have failed abroad, while Kishorilal is successful in America, but returns as a visitor who holds India in high esteem. The picture of India painted in this first half of the film is Kishorilal’s vision, and not the reality: children sing I Love My India while dancing on fields of green and daughters happily dote on their elders. To Kishorilal, Surajdev’s family embodies India’s traditions, their interactions with one another are exaggerated to emphasize its social structure and values. Ganga exemplifies this vision during the first half of the film where she is devoid of the complex humanity portrayed while in America. She is objectified, just as the first half of the film depicts Kishorilal’s objectification of India. In the latter portion of the film we are shown Ganga’s America, which will be examined later, and her India, which contradicts Kishorilal’s ideal. When she and Arjun return to seek refuge with her family, the illusion is destroyed and the traditional ideal is turned upside down: her father attempts to kill her when he assumes that she has abandoned her marriage arrangement to have an affair with Arjun, and after he is stopped, she is made a prisoner in her own home. Ganga’s India is oppressive and exposes Kishorilal’s vision as nostalgic longing for connection to his roots .

Rajiv
Apoorva Agnihotri as Rajiv

Rajiv and Kishorilal embody some aspects of American values, but they are distorted to emphasize the fear and culture shock that Ganga is experiencing. Kishorilal’s Indian values are not reflected by his American persona, which is most apparent when considering his relationship with his adopted son. Arjun is more of a devoted employee than he is family member, as his interactions with the family fall in line with his duty and obligation to them. If Kishorilal describes India as a place where to love is to give, his relationship with Arjun is indicative of his perspective on America where “love means to give and take.” It is with this value system that he raises his son, who, in many ways, embodies this ‘American’ ideal. Rajiv is the antithesis to Arjun, who is selfless (to love is to give) and loyal, as Rajiv personifies the very idea of exchange and demands that he receive when giving. His relationship with Ganga is viewed as charitable, she will inherit his riches and therefore his commitment to her is one of generosity, so he treats interactions with her like a chore and demands that he receive his due. The scene in the Las Vegas hotel room drives this point home, as Rajiv pressures Ganga to give in to him sexually and as she pleads with him to wait for them to take their vows: traditions and values that he sees as contractual, and insists have no real meaning. Given this and other culture clashes, the problems that arise between the pair are not unrealistic and I believe are exaggerated to convey the emotional states of the characters, and not to proclaim either culture as morally superior. When Rajiv explains that in America people often have sexual relationships before marriage to his extremely disappointed fiancé, it seems as if the director is passing judgment on American culture by claiming that it is devoid of values, but it is important to recall that like Kishorilal’s skewed perception of India, Ganga presents us with a picture of America that is heavily informed by isolation and culture shock.

Amrish Puri as Kishorilal
Amrish Puri as Kishorilal

Pardes is not simply a warning against different cultures coming together and the erosion of values which inevitably follows. Subhash Ghai uses a ‘foreign’ perspective to expose contradictions in both systems of value and asks the viewer to examine what has been internalized more deeply. Just as Kishorilal’s India blinded him to its flaws, and Ganga’s America was devoid of morals, we are asked to examine our own ideologies so that we have a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. If Ganga is ‘India itself,’ as her grandmother suggests at the end of the film, then the lesson for Kishorilal would be that you can love it and leave it anyways, but you can’t take it with you. Just as status attained abroad does not make the homeland successful, taking ‘India itself’ to America does not make it India.

Watching Bollywood (for the not yet initiated)

In my last semester as an undergraduate student in Asian Studies, I was introduced to Bollywood through a sociology course on Indian cinema. Until that point, my studies had been on East Asia (specifically Japan), and I really enjoyed Japanese films from the postwar period (Ozu Yasujiro, Mizoguchi Kenji, Naruse Mikio, etc.).  Because I have never really liked musicals, I didn’t expect to enjoy Bollywood as much as I do. I realize that an instruction manual probably isn’t necessary, but I think that having been introduced to these films in a classroom setting made them easier for me to understand. I’ll share some of the information that helped me to understand and enjoy Hindi film.

  1. Suspension of disbelief is essential

Films that are based on/grounded in reality are popular in the West. This is probably because film in the West was inspired by the photographic still image (motion picture). For comparison, Japanese film was originally influenced by theatre, so early Japanese films looked like they were shot on a stage. Early Hindi films, however, take their influence from epic religious and mythological texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, so Bollywood films tend to be very dramatic and contain fantastical elements.

The very first Bollywood film that I saw was Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) (K3G, for short), and I found it difficult to understand how out of nowhere the characters could be transported via song and dance to the desert. I also wondered how Rahul and Anjali had managed to support themselves in London after being disowned by their family. My professor explained that Indian audiences probably do not ask these questions, as realism isn’t valued in India the way that it is in western cinema (you don’t have to answer these kinds of questions to enjoy the movie). Sometimes fantastic scenes are added without explanation, and we have to accept this in order to follow the story: we have to suspend our disbelief. When I find myself asking these types of questions, I find that they distract me from the film. I remind myself to let go and just watch.

Bollywood movies can be overly dramatic, sometimes even downright cheesy. One example from K3G can be seen when Rahul confesses his love for Anjali to his father. His father’s disapproval of their relationship is highlighted by loud thunderclaps and flashes of lightening (indoors). Each roar of thunder redirects the camera to a nervous and upset Rahul (who is actually trembling). Melodramatic elements like this convey the emotional states of characters and communicate the emotional intensity to the viewer. With each thunderclap we become aware of how these words affect Rahul, rendering further explanation (or response on Rahul’s part) unnecessary. Melodrama is used to summarize emotional states using sound effects, scenery, lighting, etc. The added layer of drama really works on an emotional level: at the end of the film, thirty year old bodybuilders in my class were brought to tears by Rahul’s reunion with his parents.

To enjoy Hindi cinema, we have to accept it for what it is, and not expect it to be something else (American, or Japanese, or…). I apologize if I have spoiled this film for you, but my next point might explain why that shouldn’t bother you too much.

  1. The outcome is usually predictable

So, if the hero always gets the girl, then what are we watching for? The focus of these films is not what happens, but how it happens. Come along for the ride: it is an emotional roller coaster. Bollywood films tend to be driven by the emotional experience, as opposed to plot and narrative. You know that the main characters fall in love, but if they hate each other during the first hour of the film, how does it happen, and is it believable on an emotional level?

  1. Song and dance

Song and dance are an important part of Indian culture, as whenever someone sings and dances, they are paying tribute to the Hindu god Saraswati. Song and dance are derived from traditional performance, which is still very much alive in the culture and is, therefore, integral to the film experience (in fact, many films made today are still based on religious texts). Dance sequences, aside from providing music and exotic spectacle (attracting audiences), convey emotional states, reveal social and cultural differences/similarities, and communicate these themes (and others) to the audience, often bridging generational, social, cultural, and linguistic gaps for the viewers (Indian audiences, for just about any given film or genre, tend to be multi-generational and contain people from various ethnic/religious backgrounds, economic classes, etc.).

The love song between Rahul and Anjali in K3G communicates the intensity of the emotional connection between the pair to the audience, replacing the need for an elaborate narrative build up. The rest of the film is about the circumstances surrounding the relationship, so by summarizing the beginning of their relationship with song and dance (in about five minutes), this important part of the larger theme is explained and put into perspective for the audience and the smaller story of how their pair got together does not distract or subtract from the larger theme. When I watched the film in class, the song was not subtitled (which is the case for many older Bollywood films), and in spite of this, communication was not lost: the dance explicitly conveyed the emotions with their complications and all. So, song and dance is sometimes spectacle, and sometimes it is integral to the plot of the film.

  1. Cultural context

It isn’t necessary to learn about all aspects of India and its peoples before delving into Bollywood. You don’t need to know that the film Devdas (2002) is based on a novel written in 1917 which has been the basis for several other films, or that the Ramayana has influenced just about every Indian love story ever in order to enjoy them. It is interesting to know that Hindi films often work around taboos like sex and sensuality through song and dance (and with the ubiquitous wet sari), but one begins to grasp these things after watching a few films. Just remember that there are some things that you may not know or understand. Try and keep an open mind, and you’ll figure it out.

Now go ahead and give Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham a try!

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KabhiKhushiKabhiGham_Poster
Now, go check out Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and see what I am talking about.