Review: we are Family / The Film Emotional Atyachar

Posted on September 4, 2010



An entirely needless remake supposedly targeted at women respects them the least. Plus, a modestly entertaining noir-thriller.

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SEP 5, 2010 – THE ONE LAUGH-OUT-LOUD MOMENT in we are Family – the eccentrically majusculed lettering is perhaps to emphasise the latter aspect of the title – arrives through the bespectacled Ankush (Nominath Ginsberg), the sole son of divorced parents Aman and Maya (Arjun Rampal, Kajol). The scene unfolds at the dinner table, with Ankush’s parents and sisters – the elder Aliya, the younger Anjali (Aanchal Munjal, Diya Sonecha) – and Aman’s girlfriend Shreya (Kareena Kapoor). Females outnumber males two to one. The discussion gets going with little Anjali expressing an interest in her would-be-stepmother’s profession (fashion designing), while Aliya, very much daddy’s little girl rebelling against daddy’s new girlfriend, snaps that she’d rather be a writer-publisher, like her mother. And like a tempestuous heroine in one of her forthcoming books, she storms out, Shreya trailing in her wake, while Maya declares that dinner is over. After all this distaff drama, Ankush leans over to his father and mumbles that he wants to become a cosmonaut but no one asked him. I laughed because I felt his pain, but also because, unintentionally and with crystalline clarity, he underlines the film’s preoccupations. This is a movie about women, and for women. It has no time for men – on screen, or in the audience.

And yet, this remake of Stepmom is hardly a feminist manifesto, given how shabbily it reduces Shreya to a spineless martyr. When Maya is diagnosed with cancer and when Aman improbably says he’s moving back in with her, she extracts from Aman one of those only-in-the-movies promises, that he will not tell Shreya about her condition. Aman, therefore, dumps Shreya, the supposed love of his life, with utmost ignominy – and this, after she has made an effort to establish a relationship with his kids because she knows how important they are to him. Shreya looks on piteously as Aman walks away, and the camera rises to capture her in the centre of a desolate street, underlining her undeserved loneliness. But soon, Maya asks Shreya to move in with them, in order to ease the kids’ transition to this woman who might eventually take her place, and Shreya does just that. Like any self-respecting jilted lover, you expect she’ll unleash her wrath on Aman for not loving and respecting her enough to involve her in the decision to break up, but Shreya simply simpers that she’d have done the same thing had the daintily heeled shoe been on the other foot. She chucks her career and becomes a full-time nursemaid to the children of the man who treated her like garbage. The message is that there’s a mother inside every woman, and it’s every woman’s duty to ensure that pesky career issues don’t come in the way of her true purpose on earth.

Despite the underwhelming original, which dealt with mega-issues like death and divorce with stupefying shallowness, I had minor hopes for this remake, if only because the melodramatic subject is more suited to our style of storytelling. Watch Masoom and Man, Woman and Child – both sprung from Erich Segal’s tear-jerking novel – and you’ll see that the latter, with its WASPy cool, keeps you at an arm’s distance, while Shekhar Kapur whips up an emotional maelstrom and sucks you in. But we are Family is done in by its cast. If Stepmom retained a smidgen of believability, it was thanks to Ed Harris and Susan Sarandon, who looked like they’d graced this earth with a good number of their years, and the arrival of the coltish photographer played by Julia Roberts spiked their story with a frisson of fear – that decades of marital wholesomeness could come undone in the blink of an eye, and your children, already shuttling between homes and suffering for no fault of their own, could end up in the inexperienced hands of a stranger who might have been in high school when you exchanged your till-death-do-us-part vows. Here, between Arjun Rampal, Kajol and Kareena Kapoor, there isn’t a widening gut, a drooping breast, a balding crown, a worry-creased brow. Firm and shiny as waxed fruit, they appear to be advertising parenthood as a cure for aging: Have lots of babies, make those laugh lines vanish! They arouse not empathy but envy.

But that, in itself, isn’t entirely the problem – and this is not a plea for the consideration of Vinay Pathak, Seema Biswas and Neha Dhupia in the lead roles. Karan Johar (who produced this film, and who creditably took the legal route in procuring the remake rights) is nothing if not a throwback to Old Hollywood. Every corner of his frames is floodlit with barely a shadow in sight – all the better to showcase the painstaking décor, the careful costuming and, most of all, the enormously attractive stars. That’s how they did it in the MGM musicals; that’s how Siddharth P. Malhotra, the director, does it here. (The opening credits proudly proclaim: “Makeup for Kajol by Mickey Contractor.” And the finale is staged like the showstopper number from a musical, with Aman literally wheeling Maya into a spotlight.) The problem with we are Family is that it thinks throwing catastrophes at us at regular intervals, accompanied by a ridiculously syrupy score, is good drama. We’ve barely met the characters, and within the first ten minutes, a child is nearly run over by a speeding car. We don’t actually get to know these people, and consequently, we never come around to caring about them. We snort, instead, that a full-family rendition of Jailhouse Rock is all that’s needed to cement splintered relationships. You no longer need shrinks or divorce lawyers, apparently. You just need Elvis.

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LIKE MOST POSTMODERN NOIR THRILLERS, the puzzlingly titled The Film Emotional Atyachar is the bastard child of two twentieth-century aphorisms – Jean-Luc Godard’s puckish pronouncement that all films must have a beginning, a middle and an end (just not necessarily in that order), and John Lennon’s more sentimental observation that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. A fractured-timeline narrative and the power of destiny to thwart the best-laid plans – these constitute the narrative spine of Akshay Shere’s self-conscious tale of a bag of loot that passes through numerous ill-intentioned hands before winding up by the bedside of its rightful owner. Along the serpentine way, the storytelling stops to doff a hat to every single genre requirement – creatively gory violence (death by screwdriver), multiple-point-of-view narration, pop-culture nods (Tom and Jerry as an inspiration for murder), plenty of swearing, outrageously colourful characters with equally colourful introductions (“Bosco, a virgin Casanova”) and a cool disregard for formal narrative, which results in an engagingly trippy vibe.

Shere, to his credit, keeps his running time short (a mere hour-and-a-half) by dispensing entirely with character delineation. We learn that Joe (Vinay Pathak, who, along with Ranvir Shorey, headlines a game cast) is a mama’s boy, or that Vikram (Mohit Ahlawat) had a grandfather from Pakistan – but these splashes of colour don’t actually accrue into portraits of these people. And that’s how it should be – for despite the presence of “emotion” in the title, this is not the kind of film that invites identification. This is moviemaking as game-playing, where the director throws the audience the gauntlet and we breathlessly try to keep up. I admit I was a little lost at first, with the numerous storylines and the constant cross-cutting between them. (That, of course, fulfils another genre requirement, that the second time’s the charm. A repeat viewing might tell me, for instance, what those darned scorpions were about.) But once I settled into the film’s rhythms, and despite the frequent scrappiness, I must say I had fun. Just remember not to blink.

Star Ratings

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi