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.

Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)

ImageIn Jab Tak Hai Jaan director Yash Chopra takes us back to London for his directorial finale. The story begins in a flashback, with Akira Rai (Anushka Sharma) reading the journal of military officer Samar Anand (Shah Rukh Khan) which describes how he fell in love with Meera (Katrina Kaif) in London some ten years before. Samar and Meera begin their relationship when she asks him to teach her a Punjabi song for her father’s birthday and he, in turn, asks her to teach him good gentleman’s English. After a night of wild dancing, he tells her that he loves her, and with a kiss a seed is planted and Meera is faced with a dilemma: she is engaged. She asks Samar to pray with her and ask Jesus to help her remain strong so that she doesn’t “cross the line” and go against her father’s wish for her to marry her friend Roger. A timely visit with Meera’s estranged mother follows, and we learn how she was able to find true love only after following her heart and leaving her family behind. Meera decides that she too should do the same and admits her feelings to Samar. In true Bollywood style, song and dance highlights their romance while the pair paint the town red. The affair comes to a close when Samar is hit by a car while excitedly riding his motorcycle and shouting ‘I love you’ to Meera as she heads to explain her decision to father. She watches as paramedics struggle to save him, and offers to sacrifice her love for Samar in exchange for his life with a prayer. Having lost his love and his passion for life, Samar returns to India determined to prove to both god and Meera that he is in control of his destiny, and becomes known as ‘the man who cannot die’ while defusing bombs for the Indian Army. A documentary on the famous bomb diffuser for Discovery Channel and his friendship with its director, Akira Rai, brings him back to London where he is hit by yet another car, and the subsequent memory loss from the accident brings Meera back into his life to help with his recovery. There is, of course, a love triangle, more drama, and some personal revelations which bring the film to its conclusion.  

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 The love story is unlike any other Bollywood films I have seen, as the hero’s adversary isn’t a strict father or a villain, but God, or rather, his lover’s relationship with God (more specifically, Jesus). In fact, the film almost entirely lacks the presence of any family at all, with the sole exception being Meera’s father, portrayed by Anupam Kher (a personal favorite of mine). I think that because of this, certain things are allowed to take place in Jab Tak Hai Jaan that wouldn’t necessarily work in other Hindi films. The romance, for one, is very western, and there is no hinting around premarital sex, as Samar and Meera are shown rolling around in bed together, eating and dancing in their underwear, and having romantic liaisons on a rooftop. I have to admit that I was completely caught off guard by these Imagescenes, as I have been immersed in Bollywood cinema as of late and have become more conscious of sex on screen that I might ordinarily take for granted. However, this is done very well in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and I find that the presence of actual kissing brings their chemistry to life. When Samar kisses Meera in the station you can see him blushing as he backs away, nervous, yet self-satisfied. I felt nervous. Excited. If emotions are the driving force of Hindi film, then Jab Tak Hai Jaan has hit the nail on its head. 

 As is the case with just about all Bollywood films, there are several aspects of Jab Tak Hai Jaan that aren’t meant to be taken literally (see Bollywood for the Not Yet Initiated). The scene where a blonde European actress depicts Meera during her childhood as she prays to Jesus that she not be married to a dark skinned Indian man, for example, is not meant to suggest that Meera was actually white when she was a child, but is a comedic display of her Britishness. The other misrepresentations of British culture should also be taken with a grain of salt -a fishmonger might not necessarily be the best person to buy foie gras from, but perhaps this is meant to paint Samar as a jock of all trades- because these scenes don’t impact the progression of the plot, nor do they affect the emotional exchange between the film and its audience (which I believe is at the heart of Hindi cinema). We should suspend our disbelief and accept them not on the basis of a misrepresentation of ‘reality,’ but as a subtle metaphor that doesn’t have a significant impact on the film on the whole.

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SRK does an excellent job of separating Samar in London from Samar the military officer while putting across that we are still seeing the same character throughout, even if they come off differently down to their very physicality. Samar is full of life in London, and his excitement comes across with his passion to succeed (working multiple jobs to build his life) and his love for Meera. Whereas In the military, Samar’s passion turns in to utter determination, and his hardened exterior reflects the emotional baggage he carries. SRK’s performance is more subdued than some of his other roles where he can come off as self-aware and camera-aware and turns the charm all of the way up (consider his performances in Chennai Express for contrast). Katrina Kaif is great as Meera, a wealthy NRI who grew up in London, and she seems to fit in with the landscape in a way that Samar does not, which makes sense given that Kaif herself was partly raised in London by a British mother and an Indian father. Meera walks and talks like a cosmopolitan, and is emotionally restrained but is able to let go and open up in just the right way when she does. The pair make a convincing couple, which makes it all the more difficult to watch Meera ask Samar to leave London: his

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 anger and her anxiety come across superbly, and his feelings here set the stage for Samar’s military persona, making it apparent that he has absolutely nothing to lose. As for Akira Rai, I didn’t find that the role complimented Anushka Sharma’s ability as an actress, though I do feel that she did the best she could do with what she was given. It isn’t that Akira is all that bad, and even though her free spirit and passion for life is meant to conjure memories of Samar in London, I found that her character lacked dimension, and because of this, I couldn’t sympathize with her. This being said, I felt that the film was well cast, all around. 

The departure from the Bollywood formula may have impacted the reception of Jab Tak Hai Jaan, with its inclusion of premarital sex (and not to forget Shah Rukh Khan’s first onscreen kiss), but the film did make my heart skip a beat, and, as I have mentioned before, the ability to connect with the audience on an emotional level is the very essence of Bollywood. I believed in their love and I believed in their frustrations, and because of this, I feel that Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a solid culmination to Yash Chopra’s body of work: a love story that goes straight to the heart.

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 .

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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.