When we say “fairy tale” in the context of a certain kind of narrative, we usually refer to the deliberate unrealness, the escapist-wish-fulfilment-happiness of it all – but Vikas Bahl seems to take the term literally. His earlier film, the pleasant enough though over-praised Queen, was one. I wrote in my review that it is “a sun-dappled fairy tale, with a line of fairy godmothers cherishing and protecting [the protagonist]…” Now, we have Shaandaar, where the Brothers Grimm seem to have sat in on the screenwriting discussions. There’s a castle, a frog, a coach carrying a cute pumpkin of a girl, a Cupid-like boy with a bow and arrow. The story centres on an orphan (Alia, played by Alia Bhatt) who, in the tradition of fairytale heroines, is in constant communion with nature – she speaks to that frog, the insects on her sweaters keep springing to life. Alia has a stepmother, naturally, who, if not wicked, is utterly indifferent to her existence. But there is a wicked witch (Sushma Seth), who’s killed when her “curse” rebounds.
The last Hindi film to so explicitly evoke children’s literature was Sachin Kundalkar’s Aiyyaa – Rani Mukerji’s heroine was Alice, the film was her wonderland. Alia, on the other hand, is Sleeping Beauty – rather, given her insomnia, she’s an un-sleeping beauty. (There’s a magical scene in which a deep sleep falls over the entire kingdom, even the animals.) And of course, there’s a prince. Alia’s loving father (Pankaj Kapur, in a beautifully poised performance) tells her that one day she’ll find the prince of her dreams – or at least, a prince who will make her dream, a “sulaane wala rajkumar.” He arrives in the form of Jagjinder Joginder (Shahid Kapoor, cruising through a part that asks nothing of him). We expect him to charge in on his horse and whisk Alia away, but there’s a hitch. He cannot ride. He’s an un-prince.
Shaandaar also nods in the direction of Bollywood’s fairy tales, the cinema of Karan Johar. Because Alia cannot sleep, her father gives her sheets of paper with sketches for dreams – these are but the oneiric equivalent of the letters the dead mother wrote to her daughter in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. From Kabhi Khushi Kabie Gham, we have the overweight “ugly duckling” blossoming into a swan (not as literally, though; in that film, the boy transformed into… Hrithik Roshan) – and when a couple of ditzy girls see the castle for the first time, they squeal, “OMG! This is like K3G!” It’s a stretch, but you could also make a case that Alia’s father is in an unhappy marriage like the ones in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. And how can we miss the refreshingly casual gay character, who’s allowed to be both a limp-wristed figure of fun (holding a very phallic gun, no less) and someone whose sexuality does not come in the way of his family’s loving him. Indeed. Shouldn’t we be able to laugh at people we also love unconditionally?
But all these ideas, all these layers, don’t come together satisfactorily. The film is rhythmless and somewhat dull, and you keep wondering why it all sounds like so much fun and yet there’s so little to enjoy. Why doesn’t the Sanjay Kapoor character, who could be called The Man with the Golden Gun, make us laugh more? Why is the Mehendi With Karan segment – such a clever concept, in a wedding-themed movie –written so blandly? Why are scenes – one about a drug-induced hallucination, another where the leads cut loose to Eena Meena Deeka – allowed to go on like this, long past the point where they’ve made their point? And what is it with that scene where Alia sits down for breakfast and discovers lingerie on her plate? Don’t worry. This isn’t a spoiler. This was in the trailer, like all the other moments that make us sit up. If they handed out awards for how to kill the movie experience by giving away the highlights, Shaandaar would sweep them all, no contest.
And why isn’t there any romance? At least for this question, I think, there is an answer. The intent was probably to stick as closely as possible to an innocent fairytale template, without a whiff of sex – hence the scene where Alia and Jagjinder, when alone, opt to pillow-fight. But another reason is that Bahl keeps wanting to transcend the traditional registers of Hindi cinema. And this works sometimes – when Alia’s stepsister Esha (Sanah Kapoor, making a confident, charming debut) tells her father that Alia has always been his favourite, or when Alia is dismissed as an “anaath” by her grandmother. Normally, these scenes would be a cue for stung expressions and smudged mascara, but this matter-of-fact mode works too. After all, these aren’t fresh insights to these girls. These are things they’ve lived with all their lives, the tears long expended.
Alia Bhatt handles this scene wonderfully. There’s a brief flash of hurt, a wince, and then it passes. She seems to have no false notes in her repertoire, and she keeps coming up with the most unexpected reactions and line readings. Just look at how she handles the scene where she finds out who her father is and calls him “real papa.” Her only disadvantage may be that face, that babyface that makes you want to cover your eyes and yell “child porn” when you see her in a bikini. I wonder what kind of roles she’ll fit in after she’s too old for these roles – but that time, thankfully, is far away. You wish the film’s Alia had been as convincing. Shaandaar keeps giving its characters these bitty traits. Like insomnia. Like Jagjinder’s fear of the night. Like Alia’s Google-like memory for fun facts. But they’re just bits. They don’t add up to anything.
And at least some scenes needed to be less matter-of-fact. Bahl deserves credit for always trying to fight his way out of the box, but rendering emotional stretches in animation – for instance – simply says “I’m so cool,” without helping the movie. Alia’s father’s flashbacks would have worked much better as live action. There’s a difference between drama and melodrama. The latter is a pitch, but the former gives audiences something to invest in, someone to care about. That thing they say about the baby and the bathwater keeps coming to mind. Oddly, Bahl stages his scenes “naturally,” with pauses and silences, without cutifying exaggerations, but he goes all blingy in his songs. It’s like standing under a shower that can’t decide whether to go hot or cold.
And yet, and yet. You don’t want to write off Shaandaar. At least one of those songs is a beauty. It’s a battle-of-the-sexes qawwali (music by Amit Trivedi), and I was as gobsmacked to see it as I was when Agent Vinod brought back the mujra. Amitabh Bhattacharya’s rhymes are dizzyingly delightful – nakli noton ka ek bundle/senti wali mental; God/fraud; sandal/accidental; hirni chaal/ 2 BHK hall; demand/James Bond; falooda/behuda. At one point, the banter acquires a mean sheen, when Esha’s weight is mocked, but her father and Jagjinder swoop in from the sidelines and save her. It’s an important scene for a couple of reasons. One, here’s a stretch of plot that could have been done straight, with dialogue, but is instead done through song, the way we hardly see anymore. (Most songs, today, are just shiny distractions.) But more importantly, we see the dynamics in this family, how they stand up for each other. I can hear a faint feminist cry that Esha isn’t being allowed to retaliate by herself, that she needs these men, but note the glorious scene at the end where she walks away – all by herself – from a marriage that has doom written all over it. She slips out of her bridal finery – she strips down, actually, and proudly presents a sight we never ever see, the non-mocking image of a plus-size woman in body-hugging innerwear, fashioning her curves into a giant middle finger for those who cannot see beyond them. The cutest touch is that her “emancipation,” if you will, is all too human. “I’m not that fat,” she says defensively. Whether she is or isn’t is not the point, which is more about the little lies we tell ourselves to make us feel more… shaandaar.
- shaandaar = fa-a-abulous
- Queen = see here
- Aiyyaa = see here
- “sulaane wala rajkumar” = a prince who will put you to sleep (not that way, though)
- Kuch Kuch Hota Hai = see here
- Kabhi Khushi Kabie Gham = see here
- Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna = see here
- Eena Meena Deeka = see here
- anaath = orphan
- qawwali = see here; also here
- Agent Vinod = see here
- mujra= see here; also here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.