Of armchair epiphanies in just one life…

I happened to see Delhi Belly last weekend and enjoyed it immensely. This weekend, I caught up with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, after a lot of prodding from a LOT of friends who assured me that I would ‘love it’. And guess what! I have some amazingly perceptive friends. Or, I’m so easy to comprehend, looking at it the other way.

To be honest, I was intrigued by Rajeev Masand’s generous review of the film as much as Baradwaj Rangan’s seemingly balanced trashing. While I’m sure what worked for me will be largely similar to what worked for you, let me stay away from a formal review and sink into ‘specific moments that worked so well for me that they made the entire movie for me’ moments in Rangan’s own bullet-point style. And, after that, let me launch a response to Rangan’s take on the film where he compares it to Rock On! and Wake Up Sid.

First, the bullet points.

– Sometimes, it is good to see caricatures look and act so well. I mean, most characters in the film had standard roles. Hrithik, the type who hasn’t even enjoyed the starry view of the night sky; Abhay, the painfully too goody-goody boyfriend; Kalki, the obviously chudail’ish girlfriend. These would make me cringe, usually, but in a melting pot like Hindi cinema, that would…or, should entirely depend on the overall package. Here, the package was a winner – yes, they are caricatures; but the situations they are going through has happened to me too (may be to you too) at some point in life and I may not have behaved in the way they do…caricatur’ishly. Does it make them less interesting? Not at all – which is also why when Amitabh hit back at the port henchman in Deewar, we all celebrated it.

– Every little thing that Farhan does, all across the film – no spoilers here from me. It looks like the sis has given the best of the 3 roles to her bro, hands down! This includes that superb Hindi-Spanish conversation between him and his new Spanish girlfriend after they make love in Buñol.

– The 3 adventure sport choice-wala crux of the pact between the friends and how it covers the film’s theme so well. Yeah, I know, at points, it starts to look contrived…like the sky-diving thing was so obviously derided by Farhan as something Hrithik chose to annoy him. But, the other 2 were very well integrated into the kind of problems each was going through, with or without realizing it; the 3rd one, in particular.

– Most reviews panned the film for being a tourism guide to Spain. You know, Indian films, till the 90s were gloriously touristy. We’ve had a LOT of movies that became a showcase for one country even in the black and white era. When Indians seemed to be starting to get affluent enough (a few Indians, at least) to travel abroad, the tourism guide became cardboard’ish, with only select songs being shot in exotic locations. Now, it has gone the complete opposite way – Indians are seen to be working and acting out of all those other countries. Even here, we have Hrithik working in London. The tourist brochure in this film was a coherent support to the plot, from many ways. From Farhan’s personal reason, to the serendipitous reason of introducing Katrina Kaif. And for the not-so-traveled, it does create that yearning to be there since some of the routes and locations used are so…how do I put it…less tourist’y?

– By the way, the way Zoya takes us to Spain seemed very similar to the way Farhan chooses Spain as the location for the road trip. A clever foil for something else, in both cases!

– Katrina Kaif. Where was this girl all this while in Hindi films? For once, she fits in and rocks. And, thanks to Zoya for making her ‘go back’ in that bike chase scene (no spoilers!)…a rare moment of women-empowerment in Hindi cinema.

– The film’s plot was something, in my opinion, that could work equally with less affluent people and locations. Take for instance, 3 guys who take off from Mumbai/Delhi, to say, Kerala – less affluent, less expensive, but enough stuff to make them realize life’s little lessons like it happens here. So the template is typical road-trip’py, but it is the nuances thrown into the trip that always makes for a good watch in road-trip films anyway. That’s perfectly blended here.

– Naseeruddin Shah’s fantastic matter-of-factly cameo. And Dipti Naval’s even better cameo. She still makes me watery eyed when she utters, ‘I love you too beta’ in her wavery, teary voice to Farhan after his Spanish epiphany.

– The music! I liked it as a standalone soundtrack too, but in the film, it took on a completely different trip! I didn’t really enjoy the poetry Farhan reads out from his dad’s repertoire, but the songs were both brilliantly used and sounded incredibly better than the CD! Particularly my favorite, Khaabon ke parindey!

– Thanks for all the things that I did not find in the film. Hrithik and Abhay do not accuse Farhan for using them and the Spain trip for personal motives after they find why he is there; thankfully and appropriately enough, this happens after they have had a lot of experiences. If Farhan had taken a right turn when Hrithik first asks him to, may be the meeting would have happened earlier and the other 2 friends may have ended up accusing Farhan of using them. No shooting star when Hrithik and Katrina were staring at the starry night sky. No flashback of how Farhan and Hrithik dated the same girl, the reason of much of the simmering resentment between them. The clever, manipulative decision of splitting a scene from Abhay and Kalki’s flashback and saving it for a later moment.

– I did not like Zoya’s debut as much as I did Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. In my view, the former was a LOT more caricaturish than this one; perhaps because it was caricaturing the already caricaturishly silly Bollywood film industry. Here, it was at least caricaturing real people.

Now, for the Rangan response.

“has all the weight of a television commercial showing sad people transforming into happy people in the course of thirty seconds”

“nothing ever seems to be at stake”

“Everything is frustratingly preordained”

“how you wish a few dashes of reality had been allowed to temper this unrelentingly feel-good fantasy”

“affluent characters in these films experience life-altering revelations with as much effort as sinking into a warm bubble bath”

“the audience isn’t allowed to “see” too much of their discomfort; we’re simply asked to enjoy, vicariously, this angst-free acquisition of emotional truth, amidst plush production values that make us feel that we should all have these problems, these eye-catching problems, and their greeting-card solutions”

“What if Natasha were a really nice girl, really in love with Kabir, and has waited for him a long time, and then he — for whatever reasons (maybe he fell for someone else) — faces the unpleasant but manful task of telling her he wants out”

“I suppose that would be too much real life for the multiplex audience, at least according to these directors, and it is probably to their credit that, at least occasionally, they spike their party punch with a splash of raw whiskey – the scene in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara where a son wilts under an understanding but unapologetic father, the scene in Wake Up Sid where Sid’s friend rues their estrangement, the scenes in Rock On where a practical-minded wife eggs her spaced-out husband to descend to earth”

“These films, therefore, are enjoyable on a superficial level, at an easy level, with real-life wrinkles airbrushed away with the skill of a Playboy-centrefold designer. There’s no reason to invest in the outcome any more emotion than you’d invest in a nut-strewn candy bar. You close your eyes and chew and feel euphoric for a few minutes and toss the wrapper away and forget all about it”

My take? One, why should affluent people’s not-so-life altering experiences seem uninteresting or superficial? Because they are not life-altering in a life and death way? That they don’t alter life with a lot of dirt in the shirt or a bullet hole, perhaps?

Why should Natasha be a nice girl? Is that a wish? Or a fantasy to make the plot more convoluted? She is as much a caricature as Parmeet Sethi in DDLJ – this character is a stooge, to help us empathize better (and instantly) with Abhay’s character. The crux was Abhay, never Kalki. So, why should the film invest more in Kalki and deviate from the point? In any case, how could we even start enjoying films if we asked ‘why?’ for all the decisions a film maker chooses to make? It, like film music, appeals, somewhat, or a lot, or it doesn’t. Can I go, ‘a violin phrase would have been so good here instead of guitar, you know’?

And what does “too much real life for the multiplex audience’ mean anyway? How much real life were single screens shown in the first place? I’m not going to bring the ‘cinema is an escapist medium’ argument here since it’s just a glorious cliche and would instantly put me into the Taran Adarsh bracket, the one justifying ‘escapist’ fare over everything else for films like Ready to the point that it becomes 80% of the review. The point, however, is that ‘real life’ was always sporadically used in films in India, multiplex or single screens.

There is a reason why films loaded with real’ness was dismissed as ‘art’ films – they were perhaps so life-like that it was a drugery to sit through them after paying for the damn thing, over and above having paid the price by being born in this world anyway. If the specific complaint is the fact that the film maker does not show all the emotions that these characters may otherwise go through…or chooses to show the arc of transformation in a way that seems too focused on the happy things than the sad ones, that’s perhaps how we all have started to behave too, at least the urban Indians. So, the arc is complete – from the melodramatic 60s and 70s, to over-the-top’ish 80s and 90s and now the matter-of-fact’ish 2010 and 2011s.

A mild, relevant digression: could that be because we all have so much to focus and savor these days, much like the internet itself? I mean, we had a few things to worry and prioritize back when we were growing up and now, there’s an explosion of things that we can do and indulge in. So, if breaking up and engagement is considered over a 3 week holiday trip, why should it seem like Playboy ‘air-brushing’? Isn’t it how we consider things these days, even though the situations are very personal to be considered as life-altering?