Readers Write In #108: Pretty Woman and the uglier (?) side of life

Posted on October 29, 2019

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(by Madan Mohan)

One of the (few remaining) benefits of watching movies on a television channel rather than on a streaming app is that, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know which one you’ll get. Well, mostly you do. Just reruns of the same old movies in their catalog. And on a holiday morning, Pretty Woman was playing. Maybe because I have only watched it once back in the day, I decided to hang on rather than switch channels. My father, initially protesting he had seen it hundreds of times, eventually hung his office laptop out to dry and settled down to watch too. What was it about the film that made it a compelling watch in spite of its (on the surface) staid, rom-com credentials?

As I watched on and on, it became clear to me (to both of us, in fact) that it wasn’t merely because Richard Gere so looked the part of a somewhat jaded but handsome, middle aged, likable Gordon Gekko on the mend or because a then twenty three year old Julia Roberts exuded a freshness that would understandably dissipate in later roles like My Best Friend’s Wedding. These things helped for sure.

But what also helped and what indeed lent weight to an otherwise typical premise was that the character of Vivian (that Roberts essayed) wasn’t merely a charming girl-next-door trope that Hollywood so loved to concoct over and over in the 90s and even the noughties. No, instead, she was an outcast. She was a prostitute who made no bones about the fact that the ways of the aristocratic elite were entirely alien to her. The movie also does not fail to play up the fact that her liveliness and vitality stand out in comparison to Edward Lewis’ beautifully predictable and dull world. It is in fact this quality that draws him to her and makes his associates either curious about her or downright envious.

Lurking only slightly beneath this impression of vitality, though, is an undercurrent of the pathos and despair that comes with making barely making enough to get by. This aspect is brought out through her conversations with her companion Kits as also through her defiance and demand for self-respect when Lewis’ business partner calls her a hooker and asks her to name her price.

Time and time again, characters like Vivian have transformed entertaining movies into memorable ones. An extreme example would be Scorcese’s Taxi Driver but Pretty Woman is a great example of how one can in fact accommodate such a character even within a very mainstream and very light movie and make it work. These are the proverbial forgotten people. Whom we in the college-educated, knowledge worker middle class do not interact with day in day out except when we need their services. The people who clean the streets, who iron clothes, who drive crowded state transport buses through clogged roads, who sell cigarettes or tobacco at the little shop by the intersection. These are the people whom we seem to assume have mundane jobs but their lives are far from mundane. If only somebody would tell us what their lives are like. When we encounter them even in otherwise mediocre movies (Flash Dance, for example), they seem to set the box office on fire.

Increasingly and unfortunately, cinema too has forgotten about these forgotten people. In an inexplicable contradiction, the emergence of a strong political correctness prerogative demanding, say, that people should not be shamed for being fat has coincided with a preference for movie characters that look attractive and, more importantly, lead attractive lives. This is why the character of Ally (played by Lady Gaga) in A Star Is Born stood out so strongly as a waitress who also performed at drag bars to nurture her dream, just as Vivian did in the midst of wealthy but bland aristocracy. She was real in a way that offered us an unfamiliar slice of reality, one that we only observe but do not have to live, at least not anymore.

We may not be honest enough to admit it but our comfortable lives afford us the luxury of treating our dreams as akin to Google’s Moonshot projects, putting them on the backburner when circumstances do not make it easy to pursue them. For the people cast aside by society, these dreams supply the fuel that keeps their engine going in the face of a daily struggle for survival.

Perhaps, on similar lines, cinema too must, once in a while, dare to dream and, to quote Aerosmith, dream until these dreams come through rather than treating them as moonshots. In doing so, filmmakers may find millions out there who willingly identify with the character’s dreams and possibly even live out their own through the movies.

(Madan Mohan is a recreational tennis hack by morning, chartered accountant by day and wannabe writer by night)