- I watched two Hindi films in theatres in May. Both featured main characters called Bunny. The other one was better.
- Is Bollywood still in the middle of its meta-, pay-tribute-to-other-bollywood phase? I’m not complaining, because I find all the self-referentiality charming, but still. So naturally, in a movie that talks about the superiority of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge over Phantom of the Opera (an entirely reasonable point of view) we have the sheltered, bookish heroine going off on holiday with the irresponsible young man, and then falling in love with him. Complete with visual references to certain iconic train scenes (sadly no mustard fields).
- Another of the movie’s charmingly retro features is the idea that Deepika Padukone with glasses on is somehow bookish and unnoticeable. Fair enough, Bollywood- (or Hollywood-) pretty isn’t the same as regular person pretty. But one of the many excellent things that has happened since the eighties is that we have fashionable glasses, and entire subsets of the population who think people are more attractive with glasses than without. Even the movie is unable to commit more than half-heartedly to the idea that Padukone’s character is magically prettier after she takes her glasses off. Which she does, from the end of the first half. Presumably in the eight years between the first and second halves of the movie she gets contact lenses.
- What with this, Gippi (which I haven’t seen yet) and Student of the Year, that’s three movies Karan Johar has been involved in that have featured a major character who is lonely and unpopular at school as a plot point.
- This is interesting, I think, because one of the things the first half of the movie does well is Padukone’s character Naina. Naina is all bottled up and awkward, has very little idea how to connect with these new people yet feels terrible about being left out. This almost makes her feel like a real person– until a few days in the mountains with new people turn her into a new person. Suddenly she is no longer wearing glasses, initiating songs, and apparently forgetting that she’s religious. We will never see this awkward, likeable person again.
- Everyone in this movie is a child. Grown men keep getting into fights until the women around them force them to say sorry to one another (at one point Ranbir Kapoor’s character Bunny accepts an apology but refuses to offer one in return, whereupon Aditya Roy Kapur’s character (Avi) whines at Kalki Koechlin’s character until she makes him). Padukone’s character throws a hissy fit because Evelyn Sharma’s dance at a wedding is good and she wanted hers to be the best (remember when this woman was all awkward and shy about being around people?). (This situation leads to this song, and how anyone permitted Kapoor to wear those shoes is beyond my understanding) Men order other men away from the women they are attracted to, because we’re all toddlers here and not afraid to show it.
- And yet. Occasionally the film takes the trope and undoes it. Bunny sees Aditi (Koechlin) and her husband arguing and assumes that Taran is jealous of his wife’s close friendships with other men. No, it turns out, he’s telling her not to be so hard on a (close, male) friend with a gambling problem. Aditi was in love with Avi in school; but this isn’t Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and normal people don’t stay hung up on their school crushes for decades after. And so she’s stopped, and they’re best friends, and it’s fine. At one point I almost wondered if these characters were going to be mature enough to admit that their goals and worldviews were incompatible and part (or have lots of sex then break up) regretfully, but sensibly.
- LOL no. Because this may not be Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (though the movie begins, like I think all films from this stable do, with some of the KKHH music) but it’s still a tribute to DDLJ and all its genre. Aditi may not spend her life pining after the guy she had a crush on years ago, but Naina, being the heroine, must get the guy, even if it’s years after and she could do better.
- Before the interval, the movie switches between Naina and Bunny’s perspectives, though it mostly stays on Naina’s. At the end of the first half this changes–so we know that Bunny goes to college, becomes a photographer, eats exciting food in French restaurants, dates attractive women. We presume that Naina becomes a doctor, but we know nothing about her life in this eight year interval. There’s nothing to suggest that she’s done anything at all -had career highs and lows, men, women, heartbreak- other than keep herself unmarried and unattached enough that Bunny can come and claim her without too much difficulty.
- And I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that the film sees her character arc as having ended in the first half itself. Naina’s “problem” is that she’s not bright and friendly and outgoing, her trip with her newfound friends fixes that, problem solved. Bunny doesn’t really have problems in the first half, so the movie kills his dad (poor Farooq Sheikh!) because Daddy Issues are the most reliable problem there is. Bunny’s problems are solved by his coming home, realising that he’s willing to give up his big, see-everything dream if it means he can have the woman he wants, and resolving his guilt over his father’s death.
- And I find myself uncomfortable with both of these arcs. The first, because it suggests that awkward, bespectacled Naina is broken and outgoing, wanting to be the centre of attention at weddings Naina is fixed. I’m an awkward bespectacled person who is bad at connecting with people, and it frequently sucks, and I’m sure the world would be much easier if I were none of those things (if I danced at weddings, or indeed at all). And I can’t demand that Naina (were she a real person, which she’s not) not want to be the sort of person for whom the world (and particularly the world of Bollywood) is easier; yet I don’t like the implication that there’s something wrong with those of us who don’t fit that particular pattern.
- As for Bunny’s arc. There’s a moment towards the end of the film where Bunny finally goes home and speaks to his stepmother, she assuages his guilt and tells him that his father was always proud of him for uncompromisingly following his dream–even if it was a dream that meant being constantly uprooted. Of course, Bunny’s dreams as they stand are incompatible with the happy heterosexual couple ending that the movie needs, so they must “change”. The movie ends with the happy couple having just gotten together so we don’t see the years ahead of them; the toll Naina’s constant extrovert face (or the horror of calling her lover “Bunny” in the throes of passion) might take upon her, or Bunny’s thwarted need to be moving. But it feels like a betrayal of both characters–and surely love shouldn’t be that.
This last few weeks I’ve been reading Karen Russell’s latest collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. One of the stories in this is “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979″, which features Nal, who is 14 and in love with Vanessa Grigalunas who is now dating his brother Samson whose ease with women is a constant source of wonderment to Nal. But it all ends happily; Nal, who (naturally) cares for Vanessa in much deeper ways than Samson can claim to, gets the girl.
I’m being more dismissive of Russell’s story than it deserves; Russell is a writer I love, and this is still a good story. Except that I find whenever I’m called upon to get into the heads of awkward, quiet children and teenagers in literature (and I do, and I love it) they seem to be teenaged boys.
So I’ve been thinking about Subashini‘s fantastic post on Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness and awkward women (I’ve had Kotsko’s book for a year now and have utterly failed to finish reading it, despite enjoying the sections I did read). That post is here – the comments are also very worth reading for links that expand that particular discussion. Of late, a friend and I have spent a lot of time discussing our need for a Gauche Girl Canon and what that would entail, and I’d love for this to become a wider conversation at some point (Suba?)
Not-entirely-relatedly, Deepa D recently posted a group review of Vacations From Hell, a collection of short stories by five young adult authors. I recommend it as a review because it is a hilarious takedown of the stories in question, but this bit (from the discussion of Cassandra Clare’s “The Mirror House” struck me:
I wouldn’t have thought any boy who looked like he did had interests outside maybe sports and girls, just like I never would have thought he’d have any time at all for a skinny, unpopular girl who wore unmatching socks and boys’ T-shirts because she didn’t know what she was supposed to be wearing anyway.
deepad: It’s always so convenient for the teenage girls to dismiss themselves as ‘skinny’ and supposedly unattractive, no? Heaven forbid fat teenagers get persuaded of their desirability through the power of golden shiny male teenage lust.
In teenage romance, in stories about protagonists learning that they are desirable, said protagonist will very rarely be fat; obviously her supposed ugliness must be the result of something that can be explained away so that she was conventionally attractive all along.
But (and I’m sure I’m conflating things that are completely unrelated here) even if it wasn’t a romance, even if it didn’t need to have a happy ending, how many books are there that allow us unattractive young women (because they’re not pretty, because they’re awkward, because they’re unpleasant) as their protagonists?
And so to this week’s Left of Cool column.
I have a fondness for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden that persists despite its unfortunate India-set opening scenes. The Secret Garden pleases me because its two heroes (we don’t count Dickon, who is more a nature god than an actual person) are so awful. Mary is spoilt and rude, and considered ugly by the sort of adults who apparently think that this is an acceptable thing to tell a child. Colin is angry and self-centred and unhappy. We’re never given the fiction that children in unhappy circumstances are going to be unbearably saintly (for that, see the same author’s A Little Princess). The corollary to this, unfortunately, is that when the circumstances change, so do the children. The magic of nature is such that it cures their various ailments and makes them happy (and one is happy for them, as far as one can be about fictional characters); but it also fixes them and makes them ‘normal’, ‘healthy-minded’ attractive children. Mary, it turns out, would have been as pretty as her beautiful mother all along if she’d only had the bracing English climate and a smile on her face.
So The Secret Garden is wonderful because it lets Mary be unattractive and disappointing because it can’t let her stay that way. But then there’s Noel Streatfeild’s The Painted Garden. Streatfeild is best known for her Ballet Shoes books (some of the characters make an appearance in this book), but I’m willing to argue that The Painted Garden is a far better work.
Jane is the middle child of three siblings. Her older sister is an exceptionally gifted ballerina, her younger brother an exceptionally gifted pianist, and both of them are unusually good looking. Jane doesn’t have a special talent. Jane is unattractive. Jane is over-honest, caustic, frequently mean or petty, and has no close friends other than her dog. One of the things that I like most about The Painted Garden is that it legitimises Jane’s feeling of ill-use; her mother really does seem fonder of (and more at-ease with) her older sister, and her mother’s companion is the sort of person who says things like “we can’t all be equally talented” while openly berating her because jealousy isn’t nice. On some levels this is openly a novel of wish-fulfillment; the world around Jane is exactly as unfair as she thinks it is, and we’re sucked into hoping, with her, that something will happen to show them all how special Jane is.
And something does happen. Jane is cast in a movie production of The Secret Garden, simply because her contrary ways and unattractive face make her look like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s heroine. But The Painted Garden doesn’t give us the Cinderella story—the overlooked sibling doesn’t become the centre of attention, loved by all. Acting is difficult and unglamorous, and Jane is no better at making friends in Hollywood than she was at home, simply because that is not the sort of person Jane is.
Her relationships with her co-stars in part parallel those in the book (David, who plays Dickon, has a similarly fascinating way with animals) but only to a point. It is part a re-enactment of the book and part not, part superficial and part not. Just as the painted garden on set is half-painted and half-made of real plants.
Streatfeild isn’t wholly unsympathetic to the rest of Jane’s family, and The Painted Garden accepts their flaws as willingly as it does Jane’s. But at the end of the book everyone is pretty much the same person they always were. And this is where the book is at its strongest, because it lets Jane be grumpy and unattractive (and perhaps a little happier now that she’s proved her point). Steatfeild doesn’t try to fix Jane, and in doing so she suggests that sometimes it’s okay for heroines of books to be less than ideal. In a literary tradition where grumpy, awkward, petty, ugly girls are somewhat thin on the ground, this is such a relief.