More than a few good women

Posted on October 1, 2016


‘Dil Chahta Hai’ is the ultimate male-bonding movie, but today, the females seem more fascinating.

So Dil Chahta Hai turned 15 this year. It hasn’t aged all that well. That’s the thing about being such an embodiment of your era that mere English words cannot do justice to what you captured. You need something heftier, something more German. You need a word like Zeitgeist. If Farhan Akhtar’s first film were a perfume, you could spritz it and the air would smell like 2001, like urban India 10 years after liberalisation. Even if we weren’t like Akash (Aamir Khan), Sid (Akshaye Khanna) and Sameer (Saif Ali Khan), they made us feel they were cool people to aspire to be. I remember the oddest bits about the film, like how Akash has a salad for lunch. A salad. That sound you hear is Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan scratching their chest hair and snickering. But even they’d agree Yeh dosti had changed. It wasn’t about tootling around in a motorcycle anymore. It was a road trip to Goa in your Benz.

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And yet, today, these guys have receded in the rear-view mirror, and it’s the women I find interesting. Like Preity Zinta’s Shalini. When I first saw the film, I didn’t think much of her. I’m no fan of martyrs, and what else do you call someone who chooses to be with a chauvinist pig of a fiancé (he all but asks her to sit, heel, stay, down) simply because his parents raised her as their own? Today, I see her differently. Her parents died in a car accident. Had her fiancé’s parents not taken her in, she may have had a very different life. She may not have been in Sydney, having that salad lunch with Akash. It’s a life filled with first-class air tickets and opera. I’m not suggesting that she’s a gold-digger. No. I’m just saying champagne has a way of making you feel more grateful. It can make you light-headed enough to justify your fiancé: “But Rohit’s a good guy. He has a few flaws. Who doesn’t?”

And what about Pooja (Sonali Kulkarni)? She gets a scene that no other Hindi-film heroine has been in. Sameer summons up the guts to tell her he loves her. Tell isn’t quite the word for what he does. He struggles, he stammers, he begins his speech like a schoolboy before a teacher – she is seated, leg draped over leg, while he stands with his hands inside his pockets. He sits down. He drives circles around the topic. Then it spills out. He loves her. Her reaction makes me laugh. She raises her eyebrows. He says, “I agree we don’t know each other very well. But I understand the kind of love you are looking for. Trust me. I’m telling the truth.” She pauses. Then laughs out loud. It’s not the coy, tinkling laughter we usually hear from women on screen. It’s the girl equivalent of the guy-laughs that erupted from Akash and Sid when they discovered Sameer’s Goan blonde wasn’t after his heart but his money. Pooja is doing what the guy usually does, skirting an awkward subject by making a thigh-slapping joke out of it.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its stereotypes. We have The Piner (the girl who longs for Akash; the girl who has to be told love is like sand, the more you try to grip it the more it slips through the fingers). We have The Ball-buster (the controlling girl we first see Sameer with, who expects him to sit, heel, stay, down). And we have The Mother, an assortment of them actually, rich women who don’t do much more than be rich. But Sid’s mother (Suhasini Mulay) is different. She works. We don’t know what she does but she says things like “I’m leaving for the office.” It must be a hell of a job. She keeps a hell of a house. Asian Paints could film their next ad there, and they wouldn’t have to change a thing. She does the usual motherly things like ask Sid when he’s getting married, but she also does unusual motherly things. She glances at her watch when Sid delays her – we don’t hear it, but there’s that tch of impatience. There’s no mention of a husband. If Sid’s mother had been played by Nirupa Roy, her situation would have expressed itself with the inevitability of an equation. White sari = dead husband. But here we wonder. The fact that we wonder about a mother was something new in 2001. It still is.

Then there’s Tara (Dimple Kapadia). The film begins with Sid. He’s the one we see first, in the hospital. But Tara is the reason we see him there. She’s the one in the ambulance screeching through the night. But we don’t see her in the hospital. We see her, first, as she’s moving into her new home, on Sid’s street. She’s surrounded by heavy suitcases that aren’t really suitcases. They’re baggage. She comes with tons of it. Alcoholism. A divorce. A little girl she isn’t allowed to see anymore. My favourite scene of hers is the one where she psychoanalyses Sid through his paintings. That he’s closed off. That people don’t really know him – he doesn’t let them. It’s the moment he falls for her. It’s the moment we fall for her. Not because she’s beautiful or knows her art, but because she can see this sensitive boy’s soul. It’s the nakedest moment in Hindi cinema with clothes on.

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