When I was a teenager in Catholic school, somewhere in either Junior or Senior year, I remember sitting in Mass one day and hearing the priest tell the congregation during the homily (the discussion of that day’s gospel reading) that sensuality is bad, and I remember thinking “Really? But why?” His sermon didn’t answer my question, but I reasoned that it must be because Catholics are told not to put so much emphasis on the fleeting things in this life, because it’s really the next life that we need to worry about and work toward.
But to my thinking – willful child that I was – I couldn’t imagine how any Supreme Being would be so perverse as to be responsible for placing His people amid so much beauty and so many pleasurable things in His world, and then tell us “Nuh-uh, mustn’t touch!”
If that priest were to see Aiyyaa, I think his head would explode. Sachin Kundalkar’s treatment of the story of the attraction that Meenakshi (Rani Mukherjee) feels for Surya (Prithviraj) is awash in sensorial pleasure.
Meenakshi, a spirited, daydreaming Marathi girl, works in a library at the local fine arts school where Surya’s a rather surly artist and student, who is also Tamil. All it takes is one whiff of him, followed quickly by one glimpse of him, and Meenakshi’s lost. She half-heartedly protests her parents’ earnest attempts to find a groom for her, but for naught. She’s trussed up in a variety of lovely saris as all size and shape of potential grooms come to call with their families in tow.
One thing that stood out from that parade of men is what Mama’s boys they all were, and how not just the mothers, but also the sisters, would cluster around the latest contestant and fan him, feed him, and look adoringly at him. To that notion of elevating the male above the female, something which society certainly does, Kundalkar is clearly saying “Hah! Just watch….” (It’s not for nothing that later, Meenakshi will say to Madhav, the very considerate fiancé “Thank you for asking me what I like and what I want.”)
Like many of us good girls have done in the past, Meenakshi doesn’t so much directly disobey her parents’ wishes as work around them in pursuit of what she wants and desires, which is to know more about Surya. She is soon doing what is essentially stalking. She looks his details up online, interrogates his buddy (the young Tamil chaiwallah on campus), starts learning Tamil and watching Tamil movies (lucky girl), and even finagles a way into Surya’s home to meet his mother (during which she also grabs one of his paint-splattered t-shirts). Sure, on paper this sounds just so wrong, but between the director and Rani Mukherjee, it comes off as quite innocent and harmless.
In fact, one of the scenes I loved the most was of Meenakshi at home with that blue t-shirt, inhaling Surya’s scent before she goes to sleep, and then actually pulling it on over her own pajamas, and curling up in bed, enveloped in the closest thing she has to the object of her desire.
And on the subject of objectification – there’s plenty of it (of Prithviraj) and it’s about time that women got their due and had a Hindi movie show that yes, we do it too, and good for us!
While Rani looks staggeringly beautiful throughout the entire film (as she says to herself in the mirror in one scene, with filmy exaggeration “That face! Those eyes!”), the camera clearly loves Prithviraj. Actually, “love” is too mild a verb. The camera does to Prithvi what Mickey Rourke did to Kim Basinger in 9 ½ Weeks, before it got too dark, and the audience is fortunate enough to be along on that ride. (I did hear nervous giggles in the cinema Saturday night when there was a quick cut to Prithvi’s rather hirsute chest glimpsed through a shirt open several buttons down.)
First up in the exaltation of male beauty, it’s Dreamum Wakeupum, the pretend-Tamil-for-non-Tamil-speakers song which takes a cue from Silk Smitha’s days, and puts all that on its head. Here, Prithviraj has been waxed ’til not one hair on his torso was left standing. His upper body is framed in black, then blue, variations on an odd little garment some women wear called a shrug, except here, Prithvi’s has epaulets.
In another shot, he’s wearing not so much a conventional shrug as a length of turquoise blue fabric that has been rolled into a rope and lovingly coiled around his bronzed, glowing musculature.
Instead of only the girl thrusting and pouting as the guy lays his hands all around her, in this song, Rani also gets to softly slap and air kiss Prithvi’s bod, and so she should! It’s all joyful fun as the leading man, in blue aviator frames flashing toothy smiles while jumping up and down on an oversized four-poster bed, then waving playfully at Rani a few minutes later, is a stark contrast to the taciturn, brooding, red-eyed artist Meenakshi encounters at school. That’s why it’s a fantasy – you get to rewrite the parts of Real Life you wish were different.
If Dreamum Wakeupum is playfully sexy, then Aga Bai, the next fantasy song turns up the heat and intensity several notches. Here, Meenakshi is being dragged to buy clothes and jewelry for her upcoming engagement party, but her mind is on Surya, who this time appears to her shrugless.
In between what’s been shown of this song video online and on TV, those images are intercut with other shots the video doesn’t include, of Meenakshi imagining Surya throwing her down on the cushions amid all the saris she’s looking at with her parents, and passionately kissing her neck while they try to drape her in gold.
One split-second thing the director did here, that set this song apart from so many hundreds of others, is carry that shot a bit further ahead, and as Surya nuzzles one side of Meenakshi’s neck, rather than cutting away there, as every other director would do, Kundalkar stays for more, and has Prithvi remain, moving around her neck, kissing her even more passionately directly under her chin. If you blink, you’d miss it, but to me, it was emblematic of what he was doing with this film – not playing coy, and not running away just when things are getting good. It’s as if he’s saying “This is what a real woman’s desire really looks like” unlike all that fake finger-biting that went on in The Dirty Picture and in the live promos for the same, which I felt was completely done for the male gaze, and not at all an expression of genuine desire on the part of Vidya Balan’s character.
But ojo, Aga Bai is probably not a song you would want to watch with your grandparents in the room or kid siblings, because in between the shopping and belly dancing fantasies, one more fantasy is there – that of Surya as the petrol station attendant in overalls, filling up Meenakshi’s scooter, and it is the most overtly suggestive.
Hats off to Vaibhavi Merchant, who’s done some unusual, playful, choreography (including the incorporation of many Tamil filmy dance elements into Dreamum Wakeupum). Equally, Amit Trivedi has created some vibrant and unforgettable music I know I’ll still get a thrill from weeks, months, years from now.
It’s been interesting to take a look around online and see how many men have strongly disliked the film. Somewhere one guy commented words to the effect of “Go away, Rani Aunty, you cougar” which I think says a lot about what men are willing to accept, or not, when it comes to women – especially women age 30 and beyond – being portrayed as normal, sexual beings who do (sorry to tell you, boys) have “those” thoughts and feelings.
Aiyyaa, for all the talk about Meenakshi’s sense of smell, is also visually and tactilely rich. Rani has been filmed in such a light that she always looks glorious. And as her character stalks Surya, she grazes her hands over and sniffs the paint on his canvases, which, in prior shots, we’ve seen him mixing and touching those paints, and later we see him (filmed from underneath) plunging his paint-splotched hands into a basin, as the blue spreads out, comingling with the water. After having some back-and-forth on Twitter yesterday about the merits of seeing a film on the big screen in a cinema versus on an iPad or phone, for me, this is one movie that definitely has to be seen on a cinema screen to be appreciated.
With this as his Hindi debut, Prithviraj says very little until the second half of the film, with the first half mainly consisting of him looking good while brooding. When he finally does open his mouth to speak at length, it’s welcome.
The rest of the cast have less to do. Meenakshi’s family are an eccentric little group, with the mother being rather ebullient and shrill, and the father a well-meaning, hapless man who smokes a lot and tinkers with old, broken phones, the blind grandmother is a live wire who sports a gold grill that her lucky (?) granddaughter is set to inherit when Aai is no more, and then there is the brother, Nana, a dropout whose main calling is to care for stray dogs (bully for him, I say – the world needs more people like that, India included).
Rounding out the cast are Madhav (Subodh Bhave), who plays the milquetoast fiancé and Mynaa (Anita Date), a severely buck-toothed girl whose dress sense is a nod to Lady Gaga and who works next to Meenakshi at the library, when she’s not expounding on the virtues of John Abraham’s physique.
I don’t know why Mynaa was portrayed with such extreme dental issues, if not, perhaps to suggest that all women, even those not as blindingly beautiful as Rani, have a right to their feelings and to pursue what and whom they wish. The moment when Nana, trying to find his missing sister, appears at Mynaa’s John-Abraham-themed apartment with its blue glow, the words “Pedro Almodovar” flashed through my head.
While many viewers were discovering Prithviraj for the first time, for me, it was Subodh Bhave. He has an interesting face and based on his work in Aiyyaa, I’m curious now to see his earlier films.
On the subject of Prithviraj, he’s someone who has made varied film choices over the length of his decade-long career and I give him credit for jumping into this unique movie, which called on him to play it down (except for the fantasy songs). I think that’s harder than doing the yelling and overacting that a lot of mainstream roles call for. Some of his films I’ve liked the best have been those where he is low key yet intense (Anwar, Veetillekkulla Vazhi, Raavanan, Mozhi).
One segment that could have been lopped off altogether was a sidebar of Nana and Meenakshi stealing off in the middle of the night (in their pajamas?) to buy drugs, because someone erroneously planted the idea in Meenakshi’s head that Surya’s intoxicating smell and constant red eyes are the result of his much rumored drug consumption.
See it in a cinema and quick. This film seems to be ahead of its time and may not be allowed to gather momentum before it gets yanked, which would be a shame.
Sachin Kundalkar has stepped out beyond Hindi cinema’s comfort zone and done something quite different, while giving his audience a chance to revel in two hours plus of pleasure and visual beauty (it sure beats 15-minute fight scenes, if you ask me). Moreover, he’s created an on-screen world where a good Maharashtrian girl can learn the Tamil for “Please don’t close your top button” to say to the man she wants.
This is what sets Aiyyaa apart from The Dirty Picture. In the latter, we were told early on that Silk was boldly setting herself beyond the conventions of society and ended up paying a big price for that, as she was degraded and dragged towards blue movies, and ultimately a sad end.
In Aiyyaa, you get the message that there’s nothing shameful or dirty about what Meenakshi and Mynaa feel, and if there’s any price to pay, it would be the longing, and wondering, and dissatisfaction that you would live with if you didn’t follow your heart.