“Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani”… Wake Up Kabir

Posted on June 1, 2013


In naming his protagonist Kabir, Ayan Mukerji, the director of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, has missed an opportunity. The character played by Ranbir Kapoor should really have been named Sid, like the protagonist who was exhorted to wake up in Mukerji’s earlier film. Kabir is more mature than Sid – older, and surer of what he wants from life (at least, initially) – but he is equally in need of life lessons. For example, however much you hurry, you’re always going to miss something, so you may as well just enjoy this moment. Or, if something feels uncomfortable, give it some time – things will be okay. Mukerji, who is just 29, knows Sid and Kabir well, and walking out of the film, I felt that Mukerji and his leading man could keep teaming up every few years to update us on this character’s latest travails – the way Truffaut did with Antoine Doinel, but with a wardrobe budget roughly equivalent to the GDP of France. I, for one, would be very interested.

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This may make it seem like I loved Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, while my experience of it was similar to what I felt with Wake Up Sid – plenty of beautifully thought-out moments, lots to like, but it should have been so much more. Mukerji has this tendency to pick up heavy subjects and treat them lightly, which can be frustrating at times. The life-altering transformations in his films happen so easily, as if through the aid of a genie that popped out of a Coke bottle. And the eye-blinding beauty all around – this film glows as if it just came out of a ten-hour massage at an Aspen spa – can make you think that there’s nothing at stake, that this is just a set of rich people making mountains of molehills. But I suppose this quality is what makes his films so popular with the young crowd, who may balk at Imtiaz Ali’s more unflinching approach to matters of the heart. Perhaps the way to look at Mukerji’s films is with relief that there’s some meat in them, rather than complain that this meat is somewhat undercooked. At least it’s not overdone.

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani is a story about love that’s narrated as a story about friendships. In a different era, a big movie like this, with its big stars, would focus solely on the romance: how the young couple met, how the initial misunderstandings turned into love, how the obstacles to their union (religion, or parents, or ego) cropped up, how they overcame everything and walked off into the sunset. But today, it’s possible to make a love story that doesn’t feel like a love story for the most part. At some point, Naina (Deepika Padukone) falls for Sid – sorry, Kabir. But when she realises it’s not going to work out, she moves on and he moves on and when they meet later, it’s as friends, as if nothing really happened. There’s none of that oh-my-God-he’s-here melodrama. In those older films, we were left with the feeling that love was everything, but these new films tell us that love is just one of the many things that make up life, along with friends and a career.

Naina’s career is important to her. We know she’s the studious type because, like her namesake in Kal Ho Naa Ho, she wears glasses. (Similarly, we know Kabir is busy because he has a beard, and we know he’s a nomad at heart because he totes around a copy of a Kerouac paperback. This isn’t a film that’s scared of shorthand.) And yet, she’s embarrassed when her mother (Dolly Ahluwalia, who’s terrific in her two scenes) announces to Aditi (Kalki Koechlin) – in a chance meeting at a supermarket, after some business with (this-is-a-Karan Johar-production alert) a chubby kid – that she’s studying to be a doctor. This is just one of the many true notes that Mukerji strikes. Naina knows what she wants to be, but she wishes, at times, that she could be like Aditi, an underachieving arts student who’s going to Manali on a trekking expedition with friends. (That’s another thing about these new films: Indian is in. Instead of Eurail we have the great Indian railway.)  Naina wishes she could take a break like that.

And then, on an impulse, she does. She joins Aditi, who’s with Kabir and Avi (Aditya Roy Kapur; someone should cast him as Farhan Akhtar’s younger brother) – and her transformation is detailed without fuss. At first, she feels out of place with this boisterous bunch. (She’s never been anywhere all by herself.) But soon, when they’re forced to flee a bunch of hooligans looking for a fight, she joins the others in outwitting them and when it’s all over, she smiles quietly. Mukerji doesn’t manufacture an epiphany out of this moment, the way Nikhil Advani did in Kal Ho Naa Ho, when the grumpy-faced Naina laughed and the screen split up into many little squares, each bearing an image of Naina laughing. This Naina is just happy to have proved a point, and we’ve already seen that she had it in her, when she supplied the words to Jumma chumma de de that the others had forgotten. But unlike them, she doesn’t sing in an off-key voice – she just speaks the words. In this scene and in a later moment where Naina says she’s not a natural joiner, that she needs to be asked, Mukerji captures, without overdoing it, the recessive nature of introverts.

Kabir is equally interesting. On the surface, he’s an extrovert, but he’s inward-turned in his own way – he comes first always. (As Aditi observes, at some point, “sirf khud se pyaar karta hai,” that he only loves himself.) You’d think, for instance, that Kabir, with his bonded-since-birth level of camaraderie with Avi and Aditi, would instantly share with them the news that he’s obtained admission to study abroad. But he waits. And when they find out, it’s one of the films finest scenes, with everyone standing around silently, awkwardly, suddenly aware that their friendship doesn’t go as far as they thought it did, that Kabir has a life of his own, plans of his own. And this lays the foundation for Avi’s subsequent anger at Kabir. Unlike the undying bonds in older films, these friendships change over time. In Manali, Kabir unthinkingly leaps to Avi’s defense in a brawl, but later, as life happens, they simply lose touch.

Even with his father (Farooq Sheikh), Kabir doesn’t open up fully. There’s clearly love between them, but there’s also some prickliness (though far less than what we saw in Wake Up Sid). Kabir is off doing his own thing, and his father complains, good-naturedly, that if he didn’t stay up till Kabir got home, he’d never see him. They’re also very different people, and the father just tries to be there for Kabir, buying him, among other things, a backpack for the trek. (This backpack assumes a poignant dimension in the later scenes.) It’s only with Naina that Kabir is himself, able to share his innermost feelings, that he wants to travel to every corner of the world. But the album he has, with each page marked with a to-visit destination feels false – Kabir just doesn’t come across as an album kind of guy. And the walls of his room, covered with the names of destinations like Cappadocia and St. Petersburg feel more fake – it’s not a young man’s room so much as a fussy art director’s notion of a young man’s room.

The bigness of the production is frequently at odds with the smallness, the delicacy of these emotions. It’s easy to overlook the nits in the giddy early portions that play like one of those Shammi Kapoor-in-a-hill-station romps – like the fact that Naina’s wardrobe for a trek across snow-capped hills consists largely of miniskirts. (How else would Padukone get to show off those incredible legs?) Pritam’s soundtrack is excellent, and the songs and the choreography – the sheer energy in them – makes you want to break into a jig in the aisles. But a couple of the numbers (Badtameez dil and Dilli wali girlfriend) towards the end of the film, as the story begins to get really serious, feel out of place. The smaller songs, with lovely lyrics, work much better. This is where, I think, Mukerji loses his way. He’s very good at deepening the lighter moments with unexpected shades, but when he tries to lighten up the heavy-duty parts of the story, it begins to feel like he doesn’t want to finish what he started, or go where he really wants to go.

Hence, after Naina’s introversion is addressed, after Kabir’s solipsism is brought up, after Avi’s disappointment is registered, these characters have little to do but turn pawns of a convenient screenplay and wait for the end. The plot point about Avi suddenly turning into a drunk and a gambler is especially dreadful. Worse, it involves a pillow fight. How can something so bogus exist alongside the scene where Kabir and Naina discuss the merits of being in India versus being a nomad, and he comes to the conclusion that she’s not right, just different? This is such a simple truth, when the whole exchange could have degenerated into the kind of jingoism found in a Manoj Kumar movie – and as with Wake Up Sid, these moments are what we hold on to when the going gets rough. The moment where we learn why Kabir never made it to his father’s funeral. The moment where Aditi reveals that the man she’s marrying is really the right man for her. The moment where Kabir’s stepmother (Tanvi Azmi) discloses that his father admired him because he knew “apni marzi se jeene ki keemat kya hoti hai.” Going off and doing your own thing is fine, but there may be a point where you don’t find yourself smiling as much as your friends who set their sights lower and settled for more familiar comforts.

The audience in the theatre I saw the film in didn’t seem to share any of these misgivings. It’s been a while since I was assaulted by such screams around me – it was as if we were watching an event with Frank Sinatra and the Beatles and Shah Rukh Khan and Rajinikanth. I couldn’t hear anything in the scene where Ranbir Kapoor is introduced, and I kept wondering how Madhuri Dixit entered the picture. Maybe Hindi filmmakers should start doing what Tamil and Telugu filmmakers do with big stars – stage a slo-mo entry for the hero that lasts as long as it takes for the screaming and the whistling to subside. If there’s one thing that will stay with me about Kapoor’s performance, it’s the way he revels in a young woman’s swinging hips… toingtoingtoing… That, and the fact that he almost makes you buy the rather hasty ending, where he has about ten minutes to change his mind about everything his character has been about in the past two-and-a-half hours. Maybe having Deepika Padukone on the other side makes it easier?

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi