“Aiyyaa”… Curiouser and curiouser

Posted on October 14, 2012

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Sachin Kundalkar, the director of Aiyyaa, knows how to conjure up a mood and maintain it. His problem is that he cannot decide what mood he’s after – he strains so hard that his film snaps into two dissimilar halves squabbling for supremacy. On the one hand, we have a very traditional Bollywood love triangle. Meenakshi (Rani Mukerji) wants to fall in love first and then get married, but her family, already worried about her age, issues a matrimonial ad in the papers and begins to court prospective grooms. This is the half of Aiyyaa that warrants its beginning, where Meenakshi – a lover of movie melodrama whose bedroom wall is a collage of her pictures amidst those of Hindi-film hearththrobs – bursts into songs and scenes from Tezaab, Chaalbaaz, Mr. India and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. Even the grooms align themselves in accordance with show timings, arriving at her house at 6 pm and 9 pm.

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On the other hand, we have the delicate and determinedly idiosyncratic story of a woman who wants something but does not know how to go about getting it. In a daze, she follows its scent like a confused animal going in circles tracking spoor – and Kundalkar renders this aspect literally, by showing Meenakshi as a woman with highly developed olfaction, and setting her on the trail of a  swarthy Tamilian, an artist named Suriya (Prithviraj, who is showcased as some sort of mute art object himself, a statue even, perched on a pillar). This half of Aiyyaa suggests that the film, at the beginning, should have referenced not commercial Hindi cinema but experimental French musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and A Woman is a Woman, where the music wasn’t so much the excuse for a lively set piece but a key to unlocking character. (An exquisite background piece plays out each time Meenakshi is confronted with Suriya’s smell, and it syncs us with her thoughts in a way the stretches with dialogue really don’t.)

Throughout Aiyyaa, we are left turning between a lovably loud Hindi film and a  more dreamlike French romance that might have featured Audrey Tautou – and the effect is whiplash. A musical sequence like Dreamum wakeupum – an expertly staged parody of the Padmalaya ethos – belongs in the first kind of a film, but clashes horribly with the sensibilities of the other film. And a song between two supporting characters – Maina (Anita Date, who’s made to look like a cross between Olive Oyl and a Folies Bergère entertainer) and Meenakshi’s brother Nana (Amey Wagh) – is staged like absurd theatre. It has no business in a Bollywood movie where Meenakshi’s fiancé, Madhav (Subodh Bhave), breaks into a gently ruminative tune from Saath Saath. And what, really, are we supposed to make of Meenakshi’s confession that she identifies with the heroine of Alice in Wonderland, except that we’re in a film that’s getting curiouser and curiouser?

Most curious of all is Kundalkar’s conception of Meenakshi. Is she Alice? Is that why she keeps slipping into Technicolor dream worlds? Are we in the kind of movie where a father who smokes constantly is some sort of descendant of a hookah-clutching caterpillar? There are certainly enough eccentrics here, who’d fit right into Lewis Carroll’s universe – like Meenakshi’s visually impaired (and sometimes prescient) grandmother, who scooters around on a wheelchair and whose teeth are all made of gold, or Nana, who nurtures neighborhood dogs and dreams of building a multistory canine home. Or is the film’s terrain not so much fantastic as Freudian, with id and ego represented by Suriya and Madhav, respectively the unconscious dark (and dark-complexioned) desire and the pull of practicality? In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Madhav gasps with disbelief that Meenakshi is unaware of the Farooque Shaikh-Deepti Naval oeuvre, and launches, with his untrained voice, into Tumko dekha to yeh khayal aaya. Meenakshi, naturally, slips into a dream sequence with Suriya, where the same song plays out in Jagjit Singh’s velvety vocals.

All of which is another way of saying that Aiyyaa, though by no means a misfire, is more fun to chew on than digest. And it’s laudable that an actress with as wholesome an image as Rani Mukerji picked this part, spiced with erotic undertones. While Meenakshi’s sense of smell is not fetishised, she does like men who don’t button their shirts all the way to the neck, and she fantasises about Suriya in a decidedly unchaste manner. (This song sequence, however, is too much.) As good as she is, she is almost upstaged by the supporting cast, filled with game and unfamiliar actors who create a memorable gallery of oddballs. I still laugh thinking about some scenes, like the one where the grandmother takes in her daily dose of TV while facing away from the screen, though an equal number of scenes – like the one where Meenakshi visits Suriya’s house pretending to be a sari-seller – don’t work at all. Leaving the theatre I wondered what someone who was lured in with those Dreamum wakeupum promos was going to make of Aiyyaa, which is the farthest thing from a kitschy romp. Doesn’t producer Anurag Kashyap, by now, have enough of a loyal audience that he can lure them with promos truer in spirit to this strange and unclassifiable film?

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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