Going by ReviewGang‘s calculation, the average rating for Sachin Kundalkar’s Aiyyaa is a poor 4.5/10. But almost every reviewer mentioned it that Kundalkar explored many interesting things in the film which never came together. Also, everyone felt that it was too long. On twitter, the most common word used to describe the film was “bizzare”. That made me more curious to find out how “Gandha” became such a wakdaa. I still haven’t seen the film but surprisingly got a post in my inbox which was on similar lines. So over to Shvetal Vyas-Pare and her take on the film and its Marathi original Gandha.
Aiyyaa is a difficult film to like. It can be easily dismissed as having no plot, dragging out one idea for too long and then jumping into a quick conclusion. The tone does not help either – it is neither entirely realistic nor entirely parodied. The actors seem to constantly shifting from subtle to over-the-top, which makes them irritating – both as characters and as actors. However, I’ve been thinking about the film. It hasn’t grown on me, nor will I claim that it is actually a wonderful film that has been misunderstood. I want to use this blog post to think through certain things that I found interesting about the film, and about my reactions to it.
The premise of any story can be outrageous, and it is up to individual viewers whether the story resonates with them or not. Logically, it is absurd to suppose that a wife would not know her husband in a different get-up (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi) or that a man could pass off a concentration camp as a massive game (Life is Beautiful). I’ve heard people tear the former apart while waxing eloquent about the latter. I’m sure there are also people out there who love Rab Ne… and don’t mind its logical inconsistency. I’m not saying that the two films are at par with each other. The point I am trying to make is that both films accept seemingly outrageous premises as givens and go ahead with their narratives. As I strongly feel that films/books should be allowed to tell the stories they want to rather than those that seem more logical or natural to any individual viewer/reader, an outrageous premise rarely bothers me.
Aiyyaa too has a premise that seems illogical, that of a woman who is attracted to the way a man smells. Come to think of it, smell is difficult to convey on film. You have to rely on familiarity and on audience experience. Like all human experiences, smell is subjective. It is difficult to explain the power of the smell of the mud after the first rains in India to someone who’s never smelt it. It is easier to make films about colour, about touch, about sensation and Aiyyaa too brings in colours – yellow for Rani and blue for Prithvi – and uses them to play around with notions of smell. Perhaps they thought that colours would make smells more tangible. Aiyyaa also reminds one of the odour that one so completely takes for granted in India, showing public toilets and garbage lying open on the streets. Who in India has not scrunched one’s nose, and then passed on?
The other major motif of the film, intertwined with smell, is desire. Meenakshi desires Surya, and is somehow convinced that he is not the monster that everyone else thinks him to be. There is no logical reason behind this belief, and part of the disconnect you feel with her character is because of how illogical her behaviour is. Yet it is good to see the woman rather than the man as the desiring subject in Bollywood cinema, though of late this has become more common. Dreamum Wakeupum (and Ijjajat papad!) are pure genius on the part of Amitabh Bhattacharya. All those thrusting, pumping, heaving dance steps in all those Hindi films over the ages – they were all metaphorically sexual, and this song dispenses with the metaphor.
Another major problem area in the film is the ‘falling in love’ narrative. Meenakshi tries to speak to Surya often, but never actually gets to do so. Until one miraculous evening, wherein they talk, the mystery about him is solved, they confess their feelings, and get engaged to one another, all in the space of one evening. This is again something that induces impatience – how illogical can you get? Behind this impatience however is the assumption that other things that are shown in more realistic narratives are more ‘natural’, whereas they just have become more sedimented in our minds as ways of being in love, ways of performing romance.
Aiyyaa juxtaposes desire, as represented through smell, and the stifling nature of social life in India, as indicated through the odour of the garbage that haunts Meenakshi even in her dreams. The film finds some subtle moments here and there – walking around the clean, rose-garden terrace of a man whom Meenakshi does not find attractive does nothing for her. This garden of red roses must presumably smell great, and brings in notions of conventional romance, but she is entranced neither by the smell nor the appearance of this ideal space because this is not the man for her.
The Marathi original, Gandha, is actually a combination of 3 different stories, each dealing with the motif of smell, and the story that goes on to become Aiyyaa is crisper, told in half an hour. To stretch out the narrative, Aiyyaa adds a younger brother and a rival suitor to the mix, as well as making the boy Tamilian and putting Meenakshi through the task of learning a new language and a different culture. Not just that, the friend of the heroine becomes more bizarre.As ideas, all of them are interesting, though some translate well and some not so well.
Gandha is not as quirky as Aiyyaa and captures its particular Marathi milieu well. In many ways, it is less imaginative than Aiyyaa, perhaps because it is under less pressure in terms of time, and so is more straightforward in its storytelling. Amruta Subhash does an excellent job of conveying the vulnerability as well as the charm of the protagonist. Rani Mukherjee does a good job, but it is easier to understand and relate to Veena in Gandha than to Meenakshi in Aiyyaa.
What seems a small change in the script from the Marathi to the Hindi version brings to light one of the biggest silences of Bollywood cinema. In both versions, the hero is a painter by day and works at an incense factory by night. However, in the Marathi version he had done a diploma in repairing refrigerators and works at the factory to make money and pay for his art education. In the Hindi version the hero is the owner of the factory, left to him by his father, and works alongside his employees. A Bollywood hero cannot be a simple employee, he has to at least own the factory. After all, how could he think about romance otherwise? As if those who repair refrigerators do not have love stories of their own.
Ultimately, my reaction to Aiyyaa is as much about my expectations as about the film itself. I like films to stick to tones and genres. The realistic feel of a college library – the old computers, the library membership cards, the dust on the books – was good. The presence of an overtly sexualised librarian, however, was jarring – such a person would never exist in such a space. But do films have to necessarily be either realistic, or fantasy as accepted by Bollywood convention (i.e. either melodrama or a fantasy of excess, a la Karan Johar or Salman Khan), or totally bizarre? Can a film not be a little bit of each?
The attempt to make a film that is a little bit of each is jarring, but I think that it is a brave attempt. It would not have been that difficult to make Aiyyaa a bit more like Vicky Donor and English Vinglish: emphasise the Marathi – Tamil aspects of both families, show them as more lovable and less quirky, remove the bizarre, give the hero-heroine more conversations, show the heroine as the underdog who finally convinces her family that she has the right to choose her own life partner and so on. I do not think Anurag Kashyap and co. are stupid enough to have not thought of this alternative, safer option. It would have been an easier option to sell too, and that is often a big criterion that drives the way films get made. While I do not quite like the final product thatAiyyaa is, I do admire the fact that they made it their way – bizarre, quirky and idiosyncratic.
(PS – You can watch Gandha with English subtitles here)
(PS – A different version of the write-up was first posted on Shvetal Vyas-Pare’s blog)