The leads aren’t all that they should’ve been, but the unhurried atmosphere around them makes for a moderately engaging diversion.
AUG 8, 2010 – AISHA, THE BOLLYWOOD ADAPTATION of Jane Austen’s Emma, is a minor entertainment whose major accomplishment may be that it pinpoints where exactly the problem with Sonam A Kapoor lies. She’s been a charming presence in her handful of films so far, but something was missing and you couldn’t quite put your finger on what it was. Seeing Aisha, you know. It’s well-rounded womanliness. With her girlish giggle and the lightest of lisps, Sonam floats around like a perennially giddy schoolchild – and Rajshree Ojha, the director, makes good use of this quality by quite literally reducing Emma/Aisha to a child. When we first set eyes on Aisha, she’s behaving like a spoilt child, racing through Delhi roads (the vehicle, naturally, is a Beetle, hardly the most grown-up of cars) in what might be a metaphor for her life – with little grown-up regard for pedestrians and road signs, she blunders on, just like she will barrel blindly through the love lives of those around her under the guise of matchmaking.
This lack of maturity is underlined most pointedly in a late scene where Arjun (Abhay Deol) refers to her as “Aisha baby” – but even before, we are witness to alarmingly infantile behaviour. At a wedding, Aisha clicks mental snapshots of people, and she doodles on them in ways that reflect her perceptions of these people. (Her wealthy father, unsurprisingly, gets a Santa hat – this man, after all, has showered her with presents every day of her privileged life.) After a tiff with her BFF (played by Ira Dubey with a welcome dash of tartness), Aisha makes up while sitting in what appears to be a cross between a tree house and a dollhouse. (The shot begins with their dangling legs, and it’s impossible not to think that they’re just two little girls.) When Aisha runs into Aarti (the seriously sexy Lisa Haydon, who’s as woman as woman can be, in ways that Aisha can never be), she experiences instant dislike and she childishly misremembers the latter’s name.
Even the way Aisha sips from a spoon has a calculated daintiness, just this side of precious, and it ‘s only fitting that she reveals she’s in love by mumbling through a mouthful of gaajar halwa, as if alleviating the bitter onset of a grown-up emotion. Sonam gives herself completely to this child-woman – she’s perfect. So perfect, in fact, that in the latter portions, when Aisha grows up and becomes a real woman, the performance begins to falter. (A meant-to-be heartfelt speech on a stage is an embarrassing low point.) And as her sorta-conscience, Abhay Deol is equally semi-problematic – impeccable with the wry humour, but completely unconvincing when asked to glow with love. In my review of Dev.D, I thought, “Even his lethargy as an actor suits the part (though it will be interesting to see what he’s capable of once he finally lands a non-slacker character).” Well, here’s a non-slacker character and Deol still plays him like a slacker, too lethargic to whip up a smile even while tangoing with the aforementioned Aarti. (It’s as if his mind were on the next indie production he’s going to slip more naturally into.)
Thankfully, though, Arjun and Aisha are asked to fall in love only towards the end – Aisha, otherwise, is too busy engineering the romantic lives of others, under Arjun’s disapproving eye – and the rest of their relationship is nicely detailed with a minimum of fuss. Among the pleasures of Aisha are the laidback rhythms of Ojha’s staging, which opts for mood over momentum, a far cry from the aggressive emptiness of something like I Hate Luv Storys. (This pacing also recalls the unhurried rhythms of Austen’s setting.) For large stretches, almost nothing seems to be happening, and instead of persuasive plot, we are treated to atmospheric vignettes – a couple wordlessly sharing a post-coital cigarette, another couple’s easy banter after a sweaty jog, or the marvellously relaxed shots that make up the Shaam bhi koi song sequence. (Amit Trivedi contributes an appropriately relaxed background score, mercifully free of lightning and thunder. A point where a twosome begins an unlikely flirtation is underscored entirely by whistles and guitar picks.)
And then there’s the anthropological aspect. “Why are you always dressed like this? Designer suit, designer shoes…,” sneers Aisha, appraising the spiffy, Wharton-educated Arjun. She’s one to talk. This is the kind of film where the heroine’s eye makeup matches the colour of the tablecloths at the event she’s coordinated (lavender, in case you’re wondering). But the raft of upper-end brand-name-dropping – Dior, Dolce & Gabbana , L’Oréal – isn’t inappropriate. This insular, polo-playing set (including Cyrus Sahukar and Arunoday Singh) from Delhi is privileged beyond belief, and Anuradha Singh (née Patel, as Aisha’s aunt) can’t seem to be able to sit down for a cup of tea without draping herself in pearls. The first time we see the screen filled end to end with the battered faces of ordinary middle-class folk is when the scene shifts to Mumbai, and I wonder if that’s some kind of in-joke, a desi riff on Woody Allen’s NY versus LA. Whatever it is, the capital is clearly where the cash is.
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