Sunday, January 9, 2011

Going Home Bollywood Style

Hello, my blog, did you miss me? I am embarrassed to admit that with all the commotion over the holidays complete with a last minute trip across the Atlantic, I didn't get a chance to miss you. Now that I'm home though (as opposed to "back home"), I realize what an integral part of my life you have become. So a big hug to you!

Going back home always puts me in a contemplative mood, not because of the changes there (which are always many), but because of all the dead time I have on my hands: about 20 hours in total just in flights, and a whole lot of jet lag boredom. So when I'm not filling up this time with Kunal Khemu's movies watched one after the other, I sit and think... How is this Bollywood related, one may ask. Well, it sort of is because... well, because everything about me relates to Bollywood one way or another.

For example, the last couple of times I went home, I found myself having what I call "the Swades feeling": a bit of helplessness, a bit of nostalgia, a bit of impatience, a bit of frustration, but also in the end a strange peace coming from the comfort of old places that used to be mine.

This time around I found myself less nostalgic and more excited to discover every single new thing. So I guess this time I got "the Delhi 6 feeling": always exploring, always intrigued, always enchanted by some little detail that the locals are not even aware of. Still wanting to belong, but at the same time detached enough to be able to see the big picture without that indigenous fear of the future getting in the way.

Who knows, maybe next time I'll get "the Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana feeling": like a hyper kid in the candy store.

Come to think of it, it's amazing how few NRI films actually get all these feelings right. I guess Indian films are usually more preoccupied with the greatness of India and the India-pushing agenda to stop and think about what an NRI, or any immigrant returning home for that matter, would really experience. Most of the times you get little moments here and there, but then the story evolves either towards integrating the character back into the Indian society, or towards showing the great values that clearly the Western world has spoiled in the character, which inevitably leads to more drama, and sadly less authenticity.

But one film that got the whole thing right in my humble opinion, is the over the top and royally plot-holed Aaja Nachle. Successful American choreographer comes back to India with her daughter to pay her respects to her first dance teacher and life mentor. She arrives after his death, but has to fulfill his legacy in keeping the dance school and theatre alive.

How she does that is irrelevant for this discussion (though definitely worth watching, if only for the sumptuous dances), but over the course of the events we witness Diya's struggle with what are now foreign concepts to her: bureaucracy, people's acceptance and resentment, lost friendships.

One excellent scene that always resonates with me is when she goes to meet her childhood friend, and finds a completely different person in her stead. Isn't it ironic how we are always so cognisant of the changes we have gone through over the years and of the new person we have become, but with the same sincerity we expect the people we left behind to have stayed exactly the same as our memory has assembled them? Never fails to take me by surprise. The teenagers you used to hang out with are now grown men, the places you used to hang out in are gone, the party animals are now all about enjoying their quiet evening at home, and so on...

Still thinking about Aaja Nachle, maybe this film flopped precisely because the heroine was unconventional enough to not be reintegrated in the Indian society by the end of it. Maybe the Indian audiences are not interested in seeing an NRI who is genuinely happier on the other side of the world. Maybe they didn't take kindly to the returning Indian who brings her Western values and expectations home and succeeds in implementing some of them without being sucked into the "greatest country in the world" mentality. Maybe a heroine who doesn't give up her jeans and cropped tops in favour of a traditional salwar kameez, who doesn't fall head over heels for the charming Indian MP (though seriously, how does she not??), and who doesn't crumble emotionally in front of potential failure so that she can be rescued, maybe such a heroine is still too far ahead of her time for the Indian audiences. I always wondered why Aaja Nachle flopped, and it just came to me that this might be it. And maybe that's precisely why I loved it and list it as one of my favourite films despite its many shortcomings.

Wow... I didn't know I was going to talk at such length about Aaja Nachle when I started writing this, but it's probably good that I did, as this is one of those movies that I love too much to ever review properly.

And because I started with me, let's also end with me: Bollywood or no Bollywood there's no denying that going back home always teaches me something. About myself... about the others... about change... about differences... about harmony. I just have to be ready to learn. Hopefully I always will be.


dustdevil liz said...

Fantastic post. I'd never really thought about the connective theme in Swades, Delhi 6 and Aaja Nachle before. I wonder if Madhuri's personal NRI perspective may have informed the script and given it depth.

Also, this made me look up the screenwriter of Aaja Nachle, Jaideep Sahni, and he also wrote
Company, Bunty Aur Babli, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Chak De, and Rocket Singh, so I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for his work in the future.

Nicki said...

I missss you!!!! I like how you related your life with the film :D Great post...aahhh....inspiration for another post from me :D welcome back!

Mette said...

It's an interesting point of view... I've never thought about the feeling (real) NRIs must have, when they return to India. Thank you!

Funnily, I really like Swades, Delhi-6 AND Aaja Nachle - great films!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back and thanks for blogging again!

I'm afraid I have to disagree on why Aaja Nachle failed. IMO it failed because its central conflict has no resonance with Indian audiences. Saving a theater and prevent an industrial complex from taking its place will not strike people who are craving "development" in all its forms as even a desirable goal, much less a noble one. To me that was the weakest part of the plot, not any speculative "independence" of the lead character. I felt at the time that that being the central conflict showed a very "American" type of thinking on the part of the scriptwriter (who, indeed is from the U.S., if I haven't confused him with someone else). Besides, as far as showing an NRI character who is happier abroad, showing that her American husband divorced her is about the oldest cliche and stereotype in India about the reliability of westerners as marriage partners.

Dolce and Namak said...

@ Liz: you know I wondered about that was well, and I also wondered just how much of Madhuri's NRI status influenced the failure of Aaja Nachle. I always wonder if this film would have done better with... say... Aish in the main role... (not that I would have liked it better, because I definitely would not have :))

As far as the writer is concerned, I guess that's a mixed bag for me: really liked some of those films and really didn't like others (ok, don't kill me but I did not like BaB at all... :-/). Still interesting to watch out for what he comes up with next.

@ Nicki: I missed you toooo!!! :D What can I do, I have a pretty sensitive radar for films with immigrants, for obvious reasons, so I always have something to say on the topic based on my own experience. :)
And yes, it's about time you were back on a roll with your posts. Keep it up!

@ Limette: Glad you enjoyed it! Obviously I took some liberties with the topic, since I'm a non Indian immigrant, but I would imagine some things are common for everyone in the situation. Hope to see you around again. Especially with such great taste in films :D

@ Anonymous: That's definitely a good angle to look at it from! I can see how progress would appear more desirable than art to the average Indian, a very valid point there. That reminds me of another film on a similar topic, though not as well done that also fell flat on its face: Shikhar. So I think you're on to somtehing there.
I would only argue that films with issues of even less importance have succeeded just fine... If we think of the success of Endhiran - another technology/progress versus heart/humanity topic - if people cared more about technology and progress, Endhiran in all its preachiness would have flopped miserably. As far as I can tell the theme of the movie hardly ever seems to single-handedly influence the outcome. But who knows... why movies flop is always a fun but fruitless guessing game. :)
Regarding Dia's divorce and the stereotype there, I still found her to be perfectly content and happy with her life as it was, so if they were trying to make her look bad that way, it definitely didn't work. :D On the contrary, she ends up being even more worthy of respect, but granted, this is also a Westerner's perspective. ;)

Bollywood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dolce and Namak said...

Hello hello and Happy new year to you too! :)

Funny you should mention What's Your Rashee because I pondered for a long time if I should include it or not in this post since I too found it to be a well built image of the "NRI going back" type of setting. I only decided against it because it's been so long since I've seen it and I didn't remember it in as much detail as I would have needed. :P

You're right of course also about the outcome influencing the audience's perception of the set-up: Delhi-6 I think is the perfect example of a wonderful set-up, some very realistic characters and situations, with a not as wonderful handling towards the end. The lack of subtlety towards the end really brought down the value of the film for me.

Swades is even more puzzling because it's such a well done film, but then that happens to a lot of my favourite movies: they hardly ever do well at the box office. :(

It's nice to know your opinion as someone who can actually relate to these films in their entirety (versus my more general assessment of immigrants returning home).

Hope to see more of you this year (and I don't necessarily mean on my turf ;))!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back-I agree with Nicki, relating movies with your life and travels makes an interesting read.

Can't wait for the rest of your posts throughout the year. Happy 2011.

Dolce and Namak said...

Why thank you! :D It's nice to be missed! And I promise not to slack off too often in the new year! :)

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