“Aiyyaa”… Curiouser and curiouser

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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16 thoughts on ““Aiyyaa”… Curiouser and curiouser

  1. Glad you talked about Amit Trivedi’s absolutely sublime background score, which none of the reviews thought worthy of being mentioned. Took me back to the Dev Chanda themes. And it was such a delight not see it getting butchered by the visuals, instead they acted as wonderful, delicate carriers for the smell trail scenes between Prithviraj and Rani.

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  2. I do not agree with you on Rani being “almost” upstaged by the oddballs … To me the movie worked only because of Rani Mukherji and Amit Trivedi …

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  3. rani is talented actress, but he is not going on right track, he must see ENGLISH WINGLIS
    she should work on acting themes.

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  4. BR, unrelated to this post – have you thought of reviewing English TV shows – old or new? Would be interesting to see your “dissection” of a TV series :-)

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  5. There was so much to love about Aiyaa but you leave the theatre with a sense of being at a buffet where you have had foi de gras and sticky sweet jamuns side by side.It did bring back a certain amelie-nes and rani brought that to life very well.One can see her as alice inwonderland spinning down that sensory tunnel and I loved the scene where she wanders through bylanes -through a seedy redlight area and then right into a procession of the frenzied devotees.This too is part of her subconscious..But then the tedium sets in when the pace is marred by too many repetitive oddball playing up scenes and the ending which crashlanded into one of those bollyowood tamashas.

    And prithviraj, who is one of my favourite cators in malyalam was eye candy at its best..!

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  6. @sarang saraf, I’m pretty sure Rani is a lady – her “track” has certainly gotten a little more interesting in the recent past with Jessica and now this. More power to her for experimenting. I hope she sees English Vinglish too and hope she gets more work on acting themes, whatever they might be.

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  7. Pingback: Y! Meta Review: Aiyyaa | The Alief Post

  8. to me what ruined the experience mostly was those scenes/song with mynah and meenakshi’s bro nana….WTH was that?! it completely spoilt the mood of the film.

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  9. Zico Ghosh: That score brought out a lovely uncertainty. In the sense, we know what she’s after but, like her, we too do not know how she’s going to get to the source and if it’s even worthwhile getting to the source.

    Did you get that “Alice in Wonderland” feel too? I wish somebody would do a mapping of who’s who? The dad is certainly Caterpillar :-)

    MP: Absolutely. At this stage, this is what Rani should be doing. “Aiyyaa” may not be an entirely successful film, but it’s more interesting on a conceptual level than “English Vinglish.” We need more actors with Rani’s courage.

    Anita: Not really :-)

    anamika: Agree with most of what you say. There were as many scenes that did not work as the ones that did. But Prithviraj, I felt, was intentionally shown as a near-mute object of art. It’s more a “presence” kind of role, and this was most strongly expressed in that scene where he’s perched on top, immobile, like a statue, like one of the models he draws inspiration from in art class.

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  10. Apropos the mapping, there’s a red vodka bag which Mynah carries around.. it seemed like a matrix-y red pill/ ‘Drink Me’ object like in Alice. And Mynah herself some sort of a cheshire cat, constantly changing form with those garish costumes and being Rani’s soundingboard, giving her advice from time-to-time. Then there’s the fact that Rani’s late to her own engagement (tea party) and her dad agrees to the wedding because he’s not sure whether he’s in a dream or whether it’s for real.

    Aside-Realized the wordplay in the (l)ijjat pappad song when Mynah dresses up in a bunny suit to entice Nana (including the ehehe ohoho just like the old ad).

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  11. Oh and Mynah even sings ‘I am a pussycat manchali’ in the ijjat pappad song. (There’s probably a good reason why this happens to be Sachin Kundalkar’s favourite song in the movie.)

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  12. Great review. I think in order to understand Aiyyaa, it helps to watch the original Marathi version, the first part of the film Gandha which is conveniently on youtube with english subtitles. I understood the story much better after watching the original which is truly the “French romance” you are talking about.

    I’m guessing that Kundalkar wanted the remake intriguing romance in Gandha but he also wanted something that the multiplex cinema-goers would relate to. Thus, he confused himself and us, by exaggerating scenes that needed not and putting in loud, sexy songs in between the romance.

    I also think that you are reading too much into the story and over-thinking it. Meena might like the book Alice in Wonderland, but I do not think that the script writers were aiming for such a connection at all. It’s just the Marathi version gone wakda.

    I loved the original, but I also loved the remake simply because of Rani and Prithviraj. I would follow Surya like Meenakshi if I saw Prithviraj too :)

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  13. Just wondering if anyone know the name of the background music played in the scene, where Suriya is perched up like statue in the market?

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