Between Reviews: The Unbearable Flightlessness of Being

Posted on August 7, 2010



The find-yourself story arc may be fairly predictable, but the detailing is the thing that makes this superb first feature soar.

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AUG 8, 2010 – AT A TIME MAINSTREAM MOVIES have mostly forgotten how to employ songs – all we seem to get are overblown item numbers or montage-laden emotional stretches – an off-the-mainstream film comes along and shows how music and lyrics can embrace and enhance mood. Udaan, Vikramaditya Motwane’s accomplished first feature, is the story of 17-year-old Rohan, a young poet-at-heart forced into a life of practicality, and the director uses Amit Trivedi’s superlative soundtrack like a Greek chorus. Early on, when Rohan is at a crossroads after being expelled from school, the chorus wonders if this is the end or just the beginning. (“Kahaani khatam hai, ya shuruaat hone ko hai / Subah nayi hai yeh, ya phir raat hone ko hai.”) And these words are amplified to anthemic proportions by the end (at the tail of Aazadiyaan), when, again, Rohan finds himself at a crossroads, though this time entirely due to his own doing.

If Antoine Doinel from The 400 Blows had waited to grow up before launching his freeze-framed bid for flight and freedom, he might have ended up in Udaan. Like Truffaut’s young protagonist, Rohan is a free spirit reined in by barriers – the tall walls of his boarding school, the barbed-wire fences of his home, and the gates of the steel factory where he’s been put to work by his improbably tattooed father, Bhairav Singh. Rohan, however, wants to become a writer. That dream, the fulfillment of that destiny, is Rohan’s udaan, his escape – and Motwane not only laces his lines with literal references to flight (for instance, when a kid breaks an ankle and yet insists that he can reach someplace, he’s asked if he intends to fly), he also gives us teasing allusions to flying. Rohan is a Superman fan and the license plate of his car bears the number 747.

In films where a sensitive son attempts to escape the shadow of a domineering father, the domineering aspects of this father are hammered home a little more insistently than necessary – so much so that we don’t see a man as much as a monster. Motwane takes care to skirt that landmine. The father in Udaan is certainly guilty of monstrous behaviour. Like a major in the military, Bhairav insists that his sons – Rohan and the much younger Arjun – call him “sir.” He treats them less like children that need upbringing than wayward cadets in need of disciplining, and when Rohan returns from boarding school after being expelled, the boy is made to haul his heavy trunk up the flight of stairs to his room, all by himself. The barbed wire that surrounds the compound of the house makes it look like prison or a concentration camp.

Motwane uses his camera meaningfully (and at times, perhaps a little too “meaningfully,” as in the recurrent shot that lingers behind Rohan’s head). At one point, Rohan is seen contemplating a cheetah in captivity, and it’s easy to see his affinity to a creature that has been confined in an unnatural environment. Elsewhere, Rohan’s face is literally “confined” – within the snapping maws of a machine in the factory (which makes it look like he’s the one being forged, which is surely his father’s intention), or else within the crook of an akimbo arm of the father sitting in front (which makes it look like he’s being strangled). The point, in all cases, is this: Bhairav is holding Rohan back from what the boy wants to be – or worse, he’s shaping Rohan in his own steel-factory mould. As many I-want-to-break-free movies down the years have taught us, these are the acts of a monster.

But close to interval point, this man becomes human in our eyes. Rohan’s constant complaint is that his father never visited him in boarding school, not once in eight years. And an inebriated Bhairav reveals that he did visit – once. But Rohan was playing with friends, happily so, and Bhairav confesses that he didn’t want to come in the way of that happiness. His words are simple and searing: “Khush lag rahe the, is liye tumse baat nahin ki.” This is not the sign of a bad man – merely the sign of a bad father, or rather, a man who does not know how to be a good father. After all, Bhairav loves his younger brother Jimmy, and he laughs with his colleagues and there are indications that he loved his now-departed wife.

It’s just that, with some men, the ability to be a good sibling or husband or neighbour or co-worker does not extend, organically, to the ability to be a good father. Like a generation of parents who did not know how to be sensitive and affectionate to children (probably because their parents did not show them how), Bhairav can only muster up this confession to his son while drunk. Straight sober, the armour is back on. He’d rather sit alone with his cigarettes and booze, in front of the television, than do something about the fact that Arjun has forgotten how to smile. Perhaps it’s because he’s lonely, having lost two wives. Perhaps it’s because his wife bore more love for Rohan than for him. Perhaps it’s because, like Rohan’s college senior, he too regrets being stuck in recession-time Jamshedpur when people around have moved on to bigger, better things. And instead of facing the failure he’s become, it’s become easier to deal with the perceived failures of his sons.

Like many fathers of that generation, Bhairav has perverted notions of manhood. Rohan writes poetry, and when he recites one of his poems – seated with his father and uncle on a park bench, shot from behind, in what appears to be a subversion of the signature Karan Johar shot – Bhairav sneers that this doggerel is only for magazines like Grihashobha and Sarita, which are, of course, women’s magazines. And Jimmy, the uncle who wordlessly attempts to console Rohan by placing a hand at the back of his head, is dismissed by Bhairav as a namard, a eunuch who cannot sire children. When the androgynously handsome Rohan confesses that he’s never had sex, Bhairav sneers that he’s not a boy but a girl. (“Ladka nahin ladki ho tum. Shakal bhi ladki jaisi.”) And in a fairy-tale moral comeuppance, by the film’s end, Bhairav’s sons leave him and he’s left with the daughter from the woman he eventually marries – he’s reduced to the father of a mere ladki.

No other figure is as flawed and as fascinating (though the others are certainly a lot more likeable) in Udaan, which is about fathers and sons and brothers. Bhairav is the alpha male in this movie about men. There are no girlfriends or mother figures, save for the pneumatically endowed male-fantasy heroine in the soft porn film that Rohan sneaks into and, later, a fleeting glimpse of Jimmy’s wife. (That Jimmy and his wife, the childless couple, are more loving to Rohan than Bhairav is may be a point to ponder over. Perhaps it’s easier to lavish love on other people’s children than your own.) Rohan’s best friends are all male. Rohan’s go-to guy in times of distress is his uncle, who, Lost in Translation-like, whispers inaudible advice into his nephew’s ear towards the film’s end. And Rohan’s most significant relationship – a “falling in love,” in a matter of speaking – is with his younger brother.

The relationship between Bhairav and Jimmy is contrasted with the one between Rohan and Arjun. Where the former moves from amiability to animosity, the latter begins shakily and gradually becomes stronger – and these are amongst the most touching passages in the film. When Rohan has had enough and runs away from his father, I felt a pang that he’s leaving Arjun behind to fend for himself. And then I felt that that was right. The teenaged Rohan, after all, is hardly equipped with the means – either logistical or emotional – to raise a child. And it’s only fitting that Arjun, after growing up, should become the architect of his own deliverance – thus emulating Rohan’s example. But for all its airs of ragged edginess, Udaan is, at heart, a feel-good fairy tale, and it allows Arjun an early happy ending, with Rohan returning to claim him. In a world without women, if men don’t look out for one another, who will?

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