Tag Archives: Netflix

Film poster for Netflix Series 'Ray'

Ray? Not Really!

Another anthology after Ajeeb Dastaans from the Netflix stable is Ray – a supposed tribute to Satyajit Ray on his birth centenary. The offering, four of Satyajit Ray’s short stories, interpreted by three directors, is a mixed bag – one is superlative, one passes muster, and it’s a tie between the last two about which one strays farther from the writer’s intent — both are wince-worthy adaptations.

While most of us are familiar with Ray, it was filmmaker Akira Kurosawa who said it best: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon. I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it (Pather Panchali).”

A few things which make one return repeatedly to his stories are his deft touch, his innate humanity, wonder, and the unique taste each story leaves you with. The least one expects from cinematic adaptations of his stories is to stay faithful to that aesthetic. ‘Ray’ attempts to translate four of his beloved stories on screen and except for ‘Hungama…’ all fall woefully short of this expectation. 

Most of Ray’s heroes are loners with some quirk and mostly belonged to the middle-class, the typical Bengali bhadralok, grounded in the milieu of 60s-80s Bengal. Sayantan Mukherjee, whose brainchild the anthology is,  contemporizes the hero in three out of the four anthologies and they seem to veer too far from Ray’s protagonists. 

Abhishek Chaubey’s ‘Hangama Hai Kyon Barpa’ based on Barin Bhowmick er Bairam (Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment) is the only one where the hero is out of Ray’s stories. The director has enough faith in his art to stick as closely as possible to the original story and he has a superb set of actors to translate his vision on the screen. We come across the ghazal singer Musafir Ali (Bajpayee) a debonair ladies’-man and the stolid wrestler Aslam Baig (Rao) in an almost forgotten splendor of a train’s first-class coach. Just being ‘inside’ a luxuriously appointed coach, complete with a liveried attendant is like a breath of fresh air to our lockdown weary souls. 

Ali has the uncomfortable feeling that he has met his co-passenger in the past, but is initially unable to place him. But when he does, all he can do is to pray that the other does not do so. The sense of mystery is sustained till the twist at the end which is different from the original but makes for an organic, more satisfying finale to a great story well-retold. Bajapyee and Rao bring alive the laidback genteel flavors from the bygone era. Cinematically, the seamless segue of the past and present via the magic-realism like the washroom mirror or the coach transforming into Ali’s audience is something Ray, the finicky director, would have applauded. Another point in its favor is the colloquial (saying ‘Agre’ instead of ‘Agra’) lingo, complete with the lyricism of the Lucknowi tehzeeb (culture, sophistication) is in stark contrast to the expletive-laden language of the other three stories and this general, unfortunate trend on OTT these days.

Ray’s Bahuroopi

The first and the second stories of the anthology, ‘Forget-Me-Not’ based on Bipin Chowdhary’s Smritibhrom (Bipin Chowdhary’s Memory Loss) and ‘Bahurupiya’ based on Bahuroopi, both directed by Mukherji, may have passed muster for slick direction had they not proclaimed themselves to be interpretations of Ray’s stories.

In ‘Forget-Me-Not’ Fazal as Ipsit Nair is the typical brash, over-achieving CEO, nick-named ‘human computer’ for his eidetic memory till he runs across this girl at a bar, who seems surprised that he cannot remember their tryst in Khajurao. From the anxiety of losing his most prized possession, his memory, a downward spiral brings the proud CEO to his knees.  How and why his mammoth pride is struck the blow is what keeps the viewer hooked but the loopholes loom up after the film ends. As far as the performances go, Fazal nails the brash and the bemused, and Prasad does complete justice to her wide-eyed Maggie. However, the villainy of the protagonist is more Black Mirror than Ray.

 The same is true for ‘Bahurupia’, which makes it everything that Ray’s story is emphatically not.  What the maker has done is to take the kernel of the idea, shorn it of its aesthetic created another Joker. ‘Bahurupia’ is also about pride, about Indrashish (Menon), who for all his general nincompoop-ness, excels in the art of disguise. Soon this hobby turns into obsession and he uses it to get back at everyone who crosses him. An encounter with talents beyond human pitches the story into macabre. Menon slips into this role with ease and brings to life the twisted character of Indrashish.

The weakest and perhaps the most tedious is Bala’s ‘Spotlight’, the story by the same title. It is marred further by the lackluster Kapoor and mostly behind a veil, Didi (Madan), who had delivered stellar performances in Bala’s earlier venture ‘Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota’. Here, Kapoor is hampered by his single expression character, and Madan is made to hide her vibrancy under the veil for the larger part of the film. A delightful Sanyal, stands out in his role as the star’s manager.

The story deviates completely from the original story, and is unable to stand on its feet despite the fantastic premise of devious women-empowerment; despite the possibilities of a scintillating story of a star scrabbling to hang on to his stardom; despite the deliciousness of the battle-of-wits between the wildly successful religious leader ‘didi’ and the fading star. The plot fizzles into cheap gimmickry of props imitating Game-of-Thrones and weird supposed-to-be-funny scenes of supernatural power. Like the hero’s oft-referred ‘one look’ acting, the story remains steadfastly mired in one repetitive groove. 

Once again, it seems, the written word has won – the films are not a patch on the stories. The exception that proves the rule is ‘Hungama…’. The rest would appear more blasphemies than odes. The unnecessary sleaze and smut that the director resorts to indicates that he does not have faith in the strength of the writing or his own talent. Go ahead with these ambitious extensions but why piggyback on Ray’s name?

Sincere advice, watch Doordarshan’s ‘Satyajit Ray Presents’ by his son Sandip Ray instead.


Madhumita Gupta is a freelance writer based in India. A dreamer by nature, a teacher by default, and crazy about all things books, movies, dogs, oceans, mountains, and flowers.


 

Never Have I Ever Season 2 Poster

Never Have I Ever’s Second Season Had a Few Redeeming Moments

The controversial Netflix series Never Have I Ever, produced by comedian and actress Mindy Kaling, released Season 2 on July 15, 2020. The series is based on a high-school-aged Indian American girl named Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and addresses the experience of an Indian teen living in America. Season 1 brought an uproar of reviews and opinions, good and bad. To me, however, season 1 was nothing short of a disappointment. Finally, someone with an identity like Kaling had been given a platform to create a show which would dispel the hurtful stereotypes of the Indian-American experience. Instead, Kaling approved a Season 1 which further played into those harmful tropes. Despite my outrage at this wasted platform, I decided to give Season 2 a chance hoping that the negative reviews from Season 1 would help the creators rethink their plotline. While Kaling continued to propel some awfully stereotypical ideas, Season 2 brought to light a lot more progressive lessons and experiences. 

The positives: 

The introduction of Aneesa Qureshi 

Megan Suri as Aneesa in 'Never Have I Ever' episode still.
Megan Suri as Aneesa in ‘Never Have I Ever’ episode still.

Season 2 brings the arrival of a new South Indian to Sherman Oaks. Aneesa (Megan Suri) is Muslim and transfers from a snobby private school following the diagnosis of her eating disorder. Not only does the recognition of eating disorders dispel the traditional Desi ignorance of body dysmorphia and mental health, but Aneesa’s parents deal with her trauma in healthy ways – a way in which Indian parents aren’t traditionally portrayed. She mentions her intense rehab program and ongoing support from, both, professionals and her parents. In fact, when Devi accidentally shares Aneesa’s disorder with the school, Aneesa’s mom insists on moving her to a new school once again. It makes me hopeful to see immigrant parents, that too, South Asian parents, finally being portrayed as progressive and aware of the importance of mental health and wellness. As someone from a family where mental health is prioritized and checked in on often, I am thankful to Kaling for including this storyline to show others that not all South Asian parents are ignorant and the same. 

Though Aneesa is Muslim, it is nice to see that she feels empowered to have a boyfriend. Though she feels like she cannot tell her parents, her religion is not a constant conversation topic when she is dating Ben. Sure, if Mindy wanted to be even more progressive, Aneesa could have told her parents about her boyfriend, but maybe that’s pushing it! However, my point is that Ben doesn’t once make a negative comment or have a doubtful thought about Aneesa’s religion. Some may see this lack of recognition as a bad thing, however, I like that Aneesa’s whole storyline isn’t about her being a Muslim woman. She wears modest clothing and talks about eating Halal, but she still gets to act like a teenage girl who sneaks out and has sleepovers. 

Lastly, Aneesa is introduced as the second Desi in Devi’s year, but as the “cool” one in comparison to Devi. In the beginning, I was wary of this competition because even women producers tend to pit the lead female characters against each other, but as the show progressed, the audience sees Devi warming up to Aneesa, and at the end even being friends. I appreciated that Aneesa was portrayed as trendy and relevant because one of my biggest issues with Devi’s character was the way she was seen as the typical nerdy, uncool South Asian. While I could have done without the typical “two confident women fighting over a mediocre boy” drama, I appreciated that they were able to maturely work through their differences. I could have used some more “women supporting women” scenes at the beginning.

Nalini Vishwakumar’s romantic progression

Nalini's kiss with her romantic love interest in 'Never Have I Ever'
Nalini’s kiss with her romantic love interest in ‘Never Have I Ever’.

Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Devi lost their husband and father, respectively, right before Season 1. In Season 1, Nalini was strongly against Devi dating, even slapping and lecturing her about it in the stereotypical Indian parent way. It was another stigma I worried the show would play into. In Season 2, however, Chris Jackson was introduced. Dr. Jackson was Nalini’s upstairs neighbor at her dermatology clinic. As two dermatologists in the same building, Dr. Jackson and Dr. Vishwakumar had a dramatic competition over things as trivial as parking spots. Somehow, though, their shared loss of partners, as well as constant bickering, made them fall in love. While Nalini ultimately ends the relationship for Devi’s sake, it was so refreshing to see Kaling give this uptight, stereotypical Indian mother a relationship of her own. I particularly enjoyed that Chris Jackson is a Black man, erasing the idea that Indian immigrants like Nalini are racist. Nalini’s feelings were shown in such a raw way — they even showed Chris and Nalini kiss! Nalini’s character initially felt like a slight to all Indian mothers for being so overprotective and antiquated in their beliefs, so this addition to the storyline was much appreciated. 

A progressive mother & mother-in-law! 

Narmila (Nalini's mother-in-law) played by Ranjita Chakravarty in 'Never Have I Ever'.
Narmila (Nalini’s mother-in-law) played by Ranjita Chakravarty in ‘Never Have I Ever’.

Season 2 also introduced Devi’s two grandmothers. When Nalini goes to India to make arrangements for a move which never happens, we are introduced to Mohan (Nailini’s deceased husband) and Nalini’s mothers. Nalini’s mother has less airtime but is portrayed as an independent woman. While I didn’t agree with some of her rude comments to Nalini and her poking fun at feminism, her personality dispels certain stereotypes of Indian mothering. Nalini asks her mom to come along to help her make arrangements for the move and her mother denies her, saying that she has a party to attend. It is a quick interaction, but often Indian mothers, especially when they become grandmothers, are expected to drop everything to help their children. Instead, Nalini’s mother leaves Nalini, telling her maid to cook something as she leaves for a social event. It may seem like a negative interaction to some, however, I was ready to overlook the grandmother’s rudeness as she broke a stereotype with only a few words. 

Devi’s paternal grandmother, Narmila (Ranjita Chakravarty), has a larger role as she moves to LA to live with Nalini and Devi. Often, Indian mother-in-laws are seen to have bad relationships with their daughter-in-laws, but Mohan’s mother is nothing but kind to Nalini. This sentiment struck me when Patti (what Devi calls her) yelled at Devi for speaking to Nalini terribly. The comment Devi made was about how Nalini was moving on too fast from Mohan. Patti could have easily taken Devi’s side since Nalini was moving on from her own son, but she stood by her late son’s wife. Additionally, Patti never gave Devi any of the typical Indian grandmother talks. Not once do I remember Patti telling Devi she couldn’t date Paxton because he wasn’t Indian or that she should start looking for a nice Indian boy soon. Actually, Patti often commented on Paxton’s looks and probably wanted him for herself! I appreciated Patti’s role — she added humor and was the second grandmother to dispel a stigma. 

Kamala’s Professional Reckoning

Kamala working at a lab in ‘Never Have I Ever’.

In Season 2, Devi’s cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), gets a job at a lab where she makes an important discovery leading to publication in a renowned journal. Her peers — the white men at the lab — don’t take her seriously, leaving her out of their activities and out of the paper. Prashant (Rushi Kota), Kamala’s boyfriend, helps her through it. Prashant’s support was a great way to show how men should act.

Kamala is highly intelligent and not once does Prashant feel intimidated by her. In fact, he is vital in helping Kamala realize her value. Ultimately, after Devi gives her the courage to, Kamala stands up to her boss and gets what she wants. I appreciated this storyline on Kamala because it not only diverted from Season 1’s dragged-out story on Kamala’s relationship, but it showcased the struggles of women of color who are trying to make it in the professional world. While Kalama’s solution of sneaking onto her boss’s computer was simply theatrical, her speech at the end about equal treatment as well as her own realization of self-worth was unexpected and inspirational. Kamala’s job struggles were helpful in two ways: One, they eliminated the idea that South Asian men should be and are intimidated by their highly functioning. Two, that all women of color should be aware of their self-worth and advocate for equality.

The negatives:  

The Kamala & Prashant saga continues 

While I appreciated the decrease in the Prashant and Kamala romantic scenes, the ending of the season repeated a mistake of Season 1. Prashant’s parents come to visit, seemingly, because Prashant is going to propose to Kamala. The pressure of Kamala having to decide if she wants to marry Prashant in front of his parents is unfair. Furthermore, Kamala is clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but no one sees that, causing her to panic and hide at Devi’s winter dance for the night. I was shocked that Nalini, who knows Kamala well and is quite progressive, couldn’t tell that Kamala wasn’t all in with the idea of Prashant proposing. It seemed as though everyone was so excited for the proposal that they forgot that Kamala’s feelings mattered too. It’s a typical portrayal of Indian culture where a woman is pressured by her ignorant family, both directly and indirectly, into marrying a man they have picked for her. I just thought that Kaling would at least allow Kamala to stand up for herself after her growth this season.

Side note, let’s get rid of Kamala’s FAKE Indian accent!

Nalini’s continued disapproval of her daughter’s romantic endeavors 

I appreciate Nalini’s way of dealing with Devi’s various bad decisions. However, what I don’t get is why Devi’s mother is STILL being portrayed as the typical South Asian parent who won’t let Devi and Paxton study in a room with the door closed. I get it, ok. I get that many parents, no matter their race, have different feelings about dating, especially when it comes to their high-school-aged children. But why does Kaling have to go along with the stereotype that Nalini doesn’t want her daughter to have a boyfriend because it means she won’t get into Princeton. The constant lecturing about boys and kicking doors open to platonic studying is overdone and one-dimensional; if Kaling wants to comment on anti-dating, make it more than just about academics.  

Devi is still that nerdy, unathletic Indian kid

Aneesa’s appearance was pivotal in showing that not all South Asian kids are boring and nerdy, but Aneesa’s presence doesn’t mean that Devi still has to be shown as the typical Indian kid. I understand that different characters have different personalities and that Aneesa and Devi are meant to contrast each other. Some of Devi’s scenes are so dramatic that they are there to almost intentionally play into the stereotype. She is seen at the 24-hour relay, not being able to run a mile without a cramp and getting made fun of for it. She is seen being called an “academic beast” and being called on by the counselor to tutor a C-grade average student. The list goes on. Sure, Devi can be unathletic and intelligent, but Kaling has played into the dramatics of TV so much that she has forgotten that the goal of the show and Devi’s character is actually to uplift Indian-Americans. It always feels as though Devi’s actions are negative, and isn’t the main character supposed to inspire?

In conclusion, there is much to work on both with this show when it comes to the way Indian-Americans are perceived and portrayed — even by other Indian-Americans! But, growth is happening and that’s refreshing to see. Never Have I Ever has the potential to be a symbol of pride for the Indian American community. 


Ayanna Gandhi is a rising senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds. 


 

A Desi Teen Finds Her Mojo in Skater Girl

The most recent movie about Indian villagers playing an unlikely sport because a Western benefactor taught it to them was Million Dollar Arm, about a baseball team being recruited from poor and talented Indian youth. Skater Girl is the feminist version of this trope—an underprivileged teen girl from a backward village discovers an unusual sport, and her life is transformed by the miracle of this exposure.  Her western guides are compassionate saviors, and western audiences can watch the poverty in the movie with an unblemished conscience.

Skater Girl caught my attention because skateboarding was such an original and unlikely activity to be adopted in an Indian village. It’s still considered the ultimate American thrill ride, masquerading as a sport.  When the movie began I assumed that the British-Indian character called Jessica, (played by Amy Maghera) is the savior-heroine who will discover a prodigy in an Indian backwater and, through the generous beneficence of her patronage, the poor little Indian girl’s life will be transformed.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the girl in question wasn’t presented as a prodigy at all, but as a girl terrified of falling off the skateboard.  And her white friend is less of a savior than a helpful friend who is battling her own identity crisis.

Prerna, (played by newcomer Rachel Saaanchita Gupta) is a teenager in a backward Rajasthani village with a tailor-made oppressively patriarchal family. Her father is an impoverished peanut farmer who refuses to let his wife work to supplement the family income, so Prerna is pulled out of school to help with the selling of peanuts.

Prerna yearns to be in class with her peers but is restricted by her father and, on the few occasions, she does attend, by her lack of basics, like a uniform and textbooks. Enter Jessica,  a British-Indian woman of mixed parentage, who comes to Prerna’s village looking for some sort of catharsis through a connection to her deceased father’s birthplace.

While wandering around the village, she encounters Prerna and her little, lovable imp of a brother Ankush (Shafin Patel), who drags around an improvised, homemade go-cart that resembles a skateboard except that he sits on it. The children are taken with Jessica who comes up with the idea of teaching them how to skate. Soon she has an entire village of children trailing her on makeshift boards and she eventually spends her own money to equip them with the real thing.

There is the inevitable culture clash between stuffy village elders and this band of nascent young skaters overrunning the village and crashing into shops and homes and people. When ‘No Skating Allowed’ signs are put up by the local bureaucrats, Jessica devises an ambitious scheme – enlisting the help of her skater friends in India to build a skate park for the village children.

The film takes the siblings on a route that is as predictably planned as a skate park’s manufactured ramps, right up to its conveniently orchestrated ending. Of course, Prerna’s oppressive father is against the skating adventure and the plot revolves around all the chips stacked against her because she’s a girl. The movie crams in a lot of social issues––when an upper caste boy in her school gets friendly with Prerna, we get a dose of the caste hierarchies that still exist in Indian villages.

However, the main point it makes–– of a psychological barrier suddenly crumbling in a young girl’s mind and opening a whole new and exciting dimension of reality for her is what gives the film some originality.

Prerna doesn’t become a champion skater—she learns to become the champion of her own life and desires. Skating becomes a metaphor for freedom.

After overcoming her initial fear of falling and embarrassing herself, she begins to feel uninhibited by any roadblocks in her way, including oppressive customs.

Rachel Gupta who plays Prerna infuses the role with incredible charm as she zips along the narrow village lanes with the most endearing grin of delight ever seen in a movie. We see her become more emboldened, and more able to stand up to her father’s sexism.

Skater Girl is surprisingly engaging: there are many winsome and nuanced touches in the movie which offset some of its predictability. In one scene, Jessica asks Prerna what she wants to be when she grows up. She’s baffled by the question because she’s never imagined a future for herself separate from what her parents have planned. In another realistic touch, one of the immediate questions Prerna has for Jessica after she discovers her age (30), is why she isn’t married. In her world, being unwed at 30 is unthinkable, perhaps the sign of a serious, invisible disability?

Another poignant moment is when Prerna’s mother, who secretly sympathizes with her daughter’s skateboarding adventures despite her husband’s fury, asks her daughter, “What do you feel when you are on the board? Why is it so special?”

Prerna replies, “I feel as if it is mine, something I can do all by myself where there are no rules and no one to control me. I feel like I’m gliding in the sky.” In those simple words, one can glimpse lifetimes of repressed womanhood, particularly in small Indian villages.

The movie rides on the backs of excellent performances by Rachel Gupta and Shafin Patel and by the originality and energy of the visuals— raucous village kids skating down narrow dusty lanes, crashing into tiny tea shops and crusty, shouting elders. Gupta and Patel are lovable and inhabit their roles so completely that one is hooked to watching even though, after the first half-hour, there are as many clichés littering the scenes as there are skateboards. The sheer enthusiasm the band of local children recruited as actors brings to the movie is infectious.

Manjari Makijany, who directed the movie and co-authored the script with her sister Vinati Makijany, had a skating park built in the village in Rajasthan where the movie was filmed, and it remains as a gift to the children of the village. However, I feel I want to know more about whether any lives were genuinely changed by the arrival of the film crew, the filming, and their whole novel skateboarding-as-a-metaphor-for-freedom concept in this backwater, tucked away in Rajasthan. I would suggest Ms. Makijany do a follow-up documentary so that we know that the park didn’t just become another misplaced monument dedicated to dog poop and stray cows.


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.


 

Sardar Kaur Is the Irascible Dadi That I Might Be

I saw the title Sardar Ka Grandson pop up on Netflix. I kept on scrolling, assuming that this may be a Punjabi movie with a macho flair. Perhaps it was a remake or sequel of Son of Sardaar (a 2012 movie directed by Ashwni Dhir). After an arduous workday, I was not keen to watch Ajay Devgn and Sanjay Dutt engage in dishoom dishoom or explosions in sugarcane fields.

I was surprised when my daughter recommended it to me. She said: You would like this movie, it’s a story about a dadi and her not-so-savvy grandson.

Sardar, a masculine name for princes, noblemen, chiefs, leaders, and turbaned North Indian men of Sikh faith, but I had forgotten Sikhs have a tradition of transporting masculine names like Jaspreet, Harpreet, Kamaljit to feminine by just adding a suffix kaur, a synonym for miss in English or kumari in Hindi.

I fixed myself a large katori of kheer and sat down to watch this dramedy c0-written and directed by Kaashvie Nair and co-written by Anuja Chauhan.

I became a grandma ten years back, and ever since that day, I have come into my mettle. I have realized that I was born to gain notoriety in this role.  My temperament is amiable but I confess that I am a tad bit stubborn (God help those who get on my wrong side). It’s but natural that I have admired irascible grandmas on and off-screen.

My most favorite is the crusty dowager of Downton Abbey played by Countess Violet Crawley (the one and only dame Maggie Smith). Her candid aphorisms, withering looks, and haute couture sweep me off my feet: A woman of my age can face reality better than most men.”

The other hilarious character is Sophia Petrillo played perfectly to the last cheeky wisecrack by Estelle Getty. She is the scrawny, unglamorous, and yet most unforgettable of the Golden Girls TV series. Sophia Petrillo’s dry sense of humor reminds me of my great grandmother and raconteur Madame Hukam Devi Mehra, aka Maaji, whose tales of wit were famous in the orchards along the banks of the mighty river Ravi.

But I am certain that the credit of my headstrong gene goes to my paternal grandmother, Madame Krishna Kumari Kapur of Lahore, British India. She was willful and quite “the talk of the town” with her beguiling pink rose and pearlish complexion. Her Lahori friends grew accustomed to her and often turned a blind eye to her shenanigans!

Now our own Neena Gupta as Sardar Kaur has added her name to the legion of unforgettable grandmas of the silver screen.

Neena Gupta is one of the most versatile actors. When I saw that she was the dadi,  Sardar Kaur, I could not wipe the grin off my face.

My heartbeat quickened to learn that the movie was filmed in the two historic border towns, Amritsar and Lahore, straddling the line of partition drawn arbitrarily by Sir Cyril Radcliffe. My ancestors migrated from Lahore to Amritsar and settled in Shimla after the partition. They had similar double-story row homes with Persian-style balconies, ideal for observing street processions and engage in chit-chats, gossip sessions, or full-blown street fights with their neighbors. My grandparents talked with great nostalgia about the homes and hearths they left behind in Lahore. My dad always wanted to go to Lahore but he never did. He used to recite a poem with so much love in his voice. 

Daal dus khan shehar Lahore ander

Kinne boohey tay kinnian barian nein

Naley das khaan aothon dian ittaan

Kinnian tuttian tay kinnian saarian nein…

(There is no place as beautiful as Lahore,

 with millions of doors and millions of windows, 

sweet wells for water and beautiful maidens…)

The high spirits portrayed by Sardar Kaur are very characteristic of the hardy women of Punjab. My daughter said that she rewound the final scene when Sardar Kaur enters the home of her dreams. She flows like water into the reverberating memories of her youthful days with her beloved husband. She relives her youth by touching the rose-painted window panes. There is laughter and tears. It’s authentic. It gives her closure. It’s a true homecoming!  

I suggest that you watch the movie. The movie has a smattering of Hindi, Punjabi, and English dialogue written by Amitosh Nagpal. Neena Gupta on and off the frames carries the movie “gently gently” with the swig of Lahori whiskey and in her hand-knit pink mittens like a true sardarni! Her faithful black rottweiler guard dog would definitely agree! The music score has a catchy folksy feel. I enjoyed the lyrics and beat of “Mein Teri Ho Gayi” and “Bandeya“!


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.


 

Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi Film Poster

Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi: A Movie That Highlights Victim Mentality In the Indian Diaspora

Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi (2019), a Hindi-language family drama, was released on Netflix in April 2021. Written and Directed by Seema Pahwa, Produced by Manish Mundra of Jio Studios and Drishyam Film, the film features an ensemble cast of several talented actors including Naseeruddin Shah and Supriya Pathak.

In short, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi embodies the quixotic extended family melodrama. 

The family members of Ramprasad are all alive and kicking but they all have their own ax to grind. His unexpected death forces them to come face to face with the age-old hurt they have been nursing against everyone else. The narrative is presented as a theatrical performance by the director, Pahwa, and is well edited.

Opening scene: Ramprasad dies while giving an informal piano lesson to a neighbor’s kid. His wife calls her kids to inform them of his demise.

Scene Two: Four brothers, their three wives, two daughters, and their husbands, Mamaji and Mamiji,  Tauji, buaji, assorted kids, and neighbors descend on the home. In less than a few minutes, their grief is vaporized by their selfishness. They are not evil, just wonderfully flawed like so many of us who think that someone else is responsible for our failures. 

Following scenes: There is a struggle for control between elder members of the family, namely mamaji, tauji and buaji about after-death religious rituals (reminded me of a similar movie following a death: Pagglait). They haggle over the cost of firewood after they successfully cremate their father. Tears are brushed away and they are back to their normal routine, requesting jaggery sweetened tea and complain about the bland food. Then they blame their parents for all their misfortunes. Finally, they all depart and take with them their own agendas, giving interesting glimpses of their true selves. They all weep when they leave but not for their departed father or their widowed mother.

Song: I loved the song Ek Adhoora Kaama lighthearted moment that plunges the brothers into their childhood, giving us beautiful insight into Ramprasad’s musicality as a father.

Humor: There are a few chatpate “nok-jhok” between the old buaji and tauji, reminding us that childhood rivalry continues to the grave. 

Climax: Ramprasad has a loan of 10 lakhs, which has to be repaid. They all have been borrowing money from him but still, it comes as a surprise to them and they blame each other with a vengeance.

Solution: Instead of shouldering any responsibility, they come with the solution of selling the shop or house without care for the financial security of their mother. “Kya karogi Amma akeli itne bade ghar mein?”  No one wants to think about the mother’s welfare. They all keep talking in circles:  “Kya karen amma ka?”  

Best performance: Vikrant Massey, Konkona Sen Sharma, Parambrata Chatterjee, Vinay Pathak, Manoj Pahwa, and Vineet Kumar have acted very naturally. There are certainly so many characters in our households who are masters of that trait that it may be easy to draw from personal experiences. We have all witnessed a comical Eeyore-persona older brother, a cry-baby middle child, an opportunistic mamaji, a self-righteous sister, an instigating sister-in-law, and an amoral nephew. Veteran actors Naseeruddin Shah (father) and Supriya Pathaak (mother) emote so effortlessly through their expressions without long-winded dialogues. They have a common ally, Ramprasad’s diary.

Subplot: There is marital disharmony between the youngest brother Nishant and his wife Seema. The family interferes with this even though they don’t fully comprehend the problem but jibes and subtle taunts continue uninvited.

Solution the family proposes: Do they complete Ramprasad’s tehrvi at the allotted time on the first of January or do they shorten it to ten days or select a mutually convenient time for the thirteenth-day ritual to bid their father’s soul adieu? For that, and to find out what solution the mother comes up with, I recommend you watch Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi. 

Last scene: A voiceover by Naseeruddin Shah’s soul dressed in a pure white kurta, pajama, and shawl delivers the important message. It’s not an obvious one, ie. that we must respect our parents and love our siblings. Rather, it is a more musical one and the piano lesson.  The first scene sets the stage.


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.


 

Pagglait Approaches the Insular Hindu Family With Humor and Heart

Pagglait is a Hindi dramedy film that released this past March on Netflix. The narrative follows the emotional reaction and circumstance of a young widow, Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra), after the death of her husband. The film is set in a small town near Delhi and chronicles the aftermath of the death of a breadwinner in a middle-class joint family.

This film, written and directed by Umesh Bist, is a winner! The producers Shobha Kapoor, Ekta Kapoor, Guneet Monga under the banners Balaji Motion Pictures and Sikhya Entertainment deserve praise.

The film plunges us into the middle of a drama. Astik has passed away. Sandhya is alone in her room, amidst a house full of grieving relatives, sifting through “routine” condolence posts on social media about her dead husband, Astik. Sandhya is very natural in her confusion and state of shock.

When asked, “If she wants some tea?” She says she would prefer a cola

Ghanashyam, a relative, suggests she has PTSD and Sandhya’s mother tries to ward off evil spirits by burning chilies. Sandhya’s attitude leaves the others puzzled but the viewer gains more insight into Sandhya’s character after her friend Nazia (Shruti Sharma) arrives. This vegetarian “chips” craving, Muslim school friend helps Sandhya process her grief. Sandhya admits that she is not feeling sad and sneaks away with Nazia for spicy street food while Astik’s brother is performing rituals for Astik on the river bank.

Ashutosh Rana looks sufficiently tired and hapless as a grieving father of a young son. Raghubir Yadav as the interfering orthodox uncle who orchestrates the funeral arrangements and thirteen-day right of passage of the deceased soul is natural. Another easy feather in Sheeba Chaddha’s professional cap as a traditional middle-aged mother who has no time to grieve. She just carries on cooking bland food for visiting relatives, massaging her mother-in-law’s ankles, giving her enema, offering support to her husband, and seeking guidance from her “guru”.

Sandhya admits that in the few months of marriage like any other arranged married couple, she was not very close to her husband. The loss of her pet cat affected her more than her husband. It takes time to develop feelings for someone…

The other family members are distressed but I think they are more concerned about the repercussions of the loss in their lives rather than genuine grief for the departed soul. Meanwhile, Sandhya discovers a photograph of Astik’s crush in his book. Sandhya is angry at her dead husband and is curious about Aakanksha, played flawlessly by the lovely and well-groomed, Sayani Gupta.  Aakanksha, who worked with Astik, came to offer her condolences with others from Astik’s office. Sandhya confides in Aakanksha and tries to gain more information about Astik from Aakanksha. She meets her a few times and tries to dress, act, and live vicariously through Aakanksha. Sandhya finds it hard to believe that Aakanksha and Astik were not involved after marriage and broods over it. 

The plot presents a twist when the family finds out who is the sole beneficiary of Astik’s life insurance. Questions arise. Will Sandhya remain in the joint family home or return to her parents’ home? Will she accept another proposal of an arranged loveless marriage? She has been craving soda and “gol gappas”, is she expecting? Can she find a job with her Master’s in English literature?

There are so many questions for Sandhya who is caught unawares at a crossroad.

But if you look closely, this ludicrous state is not Sandhya’s alone! This is the state of so many female denizens of a repressive society in which all decisions are made for them. From birth. Whether they have a right to be born to upbringing, education, toys, books, clothes, career choice, marriage, emotional and financial stability. Their ability to choose food, love, happiness is nullified by others. All decisions are made for them.

I highly recommend this film to everyone who supports gender equality. To quote the beautiful Sanya Malhotra, “Pagglait is a person who listens to their heart!”

A round of applause to Bist for hitting a home run with his flashlight on an insular Hindu family, the predictable characters with their hypocrisy (coming late to the funeral and drinking while making others abstain), warmth (treating the old dadi with respect and cuddling up in her comforter), jibes (at the in-laws), stress (of one bathroom), prolonged rituals (despite poor financials), every attempt to draw a line between a high caste Hindu and a Muslim, and the rather odd raunchy doorbell!

Death opens doors for self-realization in unexpected places.


Monita Soni, MD has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.


 

Letters to the Editor: 3/11/2021

Dear India Currents,

I read the piece written by Dr. Soni of her critique on Netflix’s new video series on over the top Indian weddings “The Big Day“. I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on it. I found the series entertaining, interesting, and funny. Each couple had a unique love story and their weddings were customized for that and to reflect their own individual styles and tastes. Since these couples came from very wealthy families and backgrounds, they could afford such grand extravagant weddings and the planning team to do it.

What bothered me was that The Big Day showed Indian couples that came from families is not even the 1% in India or the Indian American community but the less than 1%! These were people in extremely wealthy and elite circles.  How many of us Indian Americans, even those who are in the upper-middle and upper class of doctors, engineers, CEOs of companies, can afford weddings on such a grand scale?

Let us take Nikhita and Mukund. Nikhita said in the trailer “I wanna make this wedding everything I ever dreamed of.”  Well, considering that she and her husband were around 24-25 at the time of their nuptials, can someone that young pay for a wedding that cost upwards of tens of millions of dollars? Her father Subrah Iyer is a Silicon Valley tech CEO worth several hundred million dollars ($750 million).  Of course, the majority of parents want to pay for their kid’s weddings but how many Indian American kids have parents who can afford to pay for a weeklong over-the-top wedding in India in the tens upon tens of millions of dollars? The Iyers are in less than 1%, and Nikhita and Mukund’s wedding story is a very far removed reality!

Again, these couples and their families are extremely wealthy and have every right to have these types of weddings. It is just that this is not the reality for most of us. I wish the wedding series was called ‘The Big Day for Indians in the 1%’.

Warm Regards,

Laavanya Pasupuleti


If you would like your opinion or perspective expressed at India Currents, do not hesitate to contact editor@indiacurrents.com with a submission or note. 

Drishyam 2: George Kutty and Family Are Back

(Featured Image: Actor, Mohanlal with Director, Jeethu Joseph)

George Kutty with his wife Rani and their two daughters, Anju and Anumol, bring in a new saga of fortitude as the sequel of the critically acclaimed Malayalam film, Drishyam started streaming worldwide on Amazon Prime Video from February 19th. 

Remade in other south Indian languages as well in Hindi, Sinhalese, and Chinese, Drishyam was a game-changer not only for Director, Jeethu Joseph, but for the entire cast led by Mohanlal and Meena and supported by Ansiba Hassan, Esther Anil, Asha Sharath, Kalabhavan Shajohn, and Siddique. Jeethu Joseph had no inkling while scripting Drishyam – the first part – that it would lead him to a sequel. Post Drishyam’s release and with people discussing and creating their stories for a sequel, the production house asked him to consider its sequel in 2015. Although Drishyam was a closed plot, Joseph decided to explore it.  

“It took me four years to write Drishyam 2,” Joseph tells me over phone from Kerala. 

Drishyam 2 trailer hints at a police investigation probing again into the case of the missing Varun. The question in our minds is – How will George Kutty protect his family again?

“My challenge lay in the characterization and to ensure a continuity of the story. I met Lal ettan (elder brother) with my final draft. He wanted some clarifications. We ironed out few issues. The idea was to write a good story and to make good cinema. We were not thinking of its business prospects.”

Drishyam 2 examines how life has changed for George Kutty and his family over the past ten years. How did the trauma of Drishyam affect them? How does society view them? 

Drishyam 2 was shot last year during Covid times with social restrictions in place. New characters have been introduced in the sequel. The multi-faceted actor-director Murali Gopi is playing a police officer.

Is it ok for George Kutty to continue lying to protect his family?

Joseph tells me, “We can talk about that after the release of Drishyam 2.”

Meet George Kutty’s Daughters

Actress, Ansiba Hassan

Ansiba Hassan: “I am excited since I have not been in cinema for the last four years. Drishyam 2 is a comeback for me. In the first part, Esther (who played Anumol) had a significant role and the story was pivoted around Anju. Seven years have elapsed since then. Today, Anju is in college. She is a mature young woman but she is torn by guilt for having committed a crime. She always dreads being caught and is battling depression. She avoids people and prefers to be with her family at home. Much as she wishes to laugh and enjoy life, the ghosts of the past restrain her from living in the present. She is unable to laugh to her heart’s content and is very sad. My challenge lay in bringing to the fore Anju’s remorse while appearing happy on the outside.” 

Actress, Esther Anil

Esther Anil: “Getting back to the sets was a good feeling after being indoors during the lockdown. It gave us hope in the industry. Anumol in Drishyam 2 is studying in class 12. And, this teenager is often in an argument with her mother. In part one, Anumol had much significance but not so in the sequel. Drishyam 2 is about the family and their bonding. Anju was affected by a situation in Drishyam and the family is living with past trauma. My role cannot be compared with that of Ansiba chechi (elder sister). I have as much space as in part one. In the sequel, the emotional connection of the family has been retained well.” 


Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India with over twenty years of reporting experience. Besides contributing to leading Indian and international publications including Gulf News (UAE), South China Morning Post, and Another Gaze (UK), she is a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Check out her blog – http://romancing-cinema.blogspot.com/ 

Does the Great Indian Kitchen Lead to the Great Indian Marriage?

While I ran about in the sprawling open courtyard of my mother’s house in a somewhat sleepy little village in rural North Bengal, I remember my granny sitting on a low stool cooking in the dimly-lit kitchen. It was already dusk and a few hours later, a tasty dinner was served. My parents had gone down to spend a few days during the Durga Puja holidays. 

After my mother’s family moved to Kolkata, I often used to visit my maternal uncle’s place. Here, the kitchen was big and bright, but granny still continued to cook. Her specialty was a chicken dish which no one ever in my family has been able to replicate. Maybe it was the spices she used or her loving and caring hands that were behind the deliciousness. 

Granny is now no more. She passed away a few years ago, but I still remember her chicken curry. Today, after watching The Great Indian Kitchen, a Malayalam movie earning rave reviews from critics, I realize how I never knew my real granny: what was she like, her likes, dislikes, desires, and aspirations. Maybe none of these things ever mattered to anyone in the family.

And this is what makes the ‘great Indian marriage’ such a fearsome thing to enter into, especially in an arranged marriage set up, where women are mostly expected to cook and clean and act submissive. Exceptions are always there. In my family, I have seen my father making tea, cooking rice, and even doing household work. An aunt of mine who lives in Delhi was horrified when she learned that I had praised her husband’s culinary skills in front of my other relatives. It was a most shameful thing for her and she reproached me for making the hush, hush fact “public”. 

I can understand her consternation, the great dilemma she felt because women are expected to cook for their families. Little do they realize that in doing so, they become fettered and chained forever. 

A scene from the Great Indian Kitchen.

I am no great cook, but I can make basic meals for myself and during the lockdown prepared a few dishes, among them egg biryani twice. My friend Neeraj, who is a great cook himself, keeps on sending me recipes and colorful snaps from his kitchen from time to time. He once taught me to cook the perfect rice over the phone. 

Cooking is art no doubt, but as the movie shows it can become a tedious routine. The movie’s female protagonist, Nimisha Sajayan who plays the docile wife and later leaves her husband to follow her dreams, is expected to cook rice on the firewood, besides making a variety of tasty dishes and serving food to the men. In almost all the scenes featuring her, she is shown cutting, chopping, and dicing vegetables, besides making hurried meals, attending to the faulty kitchen sink in need of urgent repair, cleaning up the kitchen, dusting, and washing her hands frequently.

I entered into a brief marriage only to regret it to this day. My in-laws expected me to shift to a small town where they lived, take up a part-time job or better still become a housewife and cook for the family whereas I wanted to pursue my dreams. So, I packed my bags and came to Delhi when I was offered a transfer. 

Cooking is not an issue. I prepare food for myself every day and quite enjoy doing it. But slaving away in the kitchen is quite another matter. In the movie, the men are shown relaxing, doing yoga, and reading newspapers whereas the women are portrayed tirelessly working in the kitchen. The most evocative scene in the film is the one where the women eat food at the table made dirty by the men with spilled over and chewed food. When the wife confronts her husband about it later at a restaurant over his bad table manners at home, he gets angry.

For most women, cooking and doing housework is a routine and they are not supposed to complain. It is for us to decide whether to follow our dreams or please the men. If you want the first, just let it go like I did eight years ago, or else give up on your desires and aspirations. 

My next-door neighbor back in Kolkata could not fry papad properly and they always used to get burnt. She was always the subject of criticism in the neighborhood, but nobody praised her ever for being an excellent teacher, her love for Bengali literature, and intelligent conversations. 

Women in our kitchens have become such a regular fixture that we never pause and question their narrowed existence. All my childhood memories are centered around the great Indian kitchen: my granny on her low stool, my father’s mother stirring the milk tea, my aunt chopping vegetables, my mother making sweet delicacies in winter, the neighborhood aunty (she was called Ronny’s mom after her son’s name as if her identity never mattered) making parathas so that we children could enjoy it on Sundays.

Welcome to the great Indian kitchen. If you don’t like it, you are free to leave like Nimisha’s character or me. After so many years, a remark by my erstwhile husband came back to me. He had remarked once, “You never served me tea (in Bengali of course).” But you see I was born to rule and not to serve. I served him coffee, of course, but he conveniently forgot all about it. But what I remember is that he never made either tea or coffee for me and that’s what made all the difference.


Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.

Indian Couples Plan Their Own Big Fat Indian Wedding

Indians all over the globe are binge-watching the new Netflix series, The Big Day. The series focuses on big fat Indian weddings in exotic locales and I could not get enough! The Valentine‘s day launch was on point to woo the romantic notions of thousands of couples who put their own wedding plans on hold because of the pandemic.

Traditionally, marriage entailed matching horoscopes, a pinch of haldi, kumkum, chandan, coconut, dates, seven steps in front of the fire, a mangal sutra, and good luck. Over time and much thanks to Bollywood, weddings are a $50 billion industry in India. Indians love big weddings. Even some Americans desire to be married in the Indian way because Indian weddings are colorful, extravagant, and over the top.

When I was getting married, weddings used to be a family affair and the festivities revolved around setting a budget. The bride’s trousseau (sarees, jewelry, home goods) was collected from the day she was born. Once the wedding date was set, the house buzzed with decisions about the invitation card, venue, light display, music, marching band, caterers, and gifts for the groom and his family. No wedding planner was hired. Friends and relatives chipped in to prepare for the wedding. The bride and groom were not involved in deciding anything once they said yes. Everything was decided for them. They spent their days floating on clouds and fantasizing about their lives together.

I got married in the Pink City of Jaipur. Rajasthan’s havelis and mahals added to the charm. Colorful attires, music, and delicious cuisine set the mood. I wore a red and gold tissue saree I bought from Kala Niketan. I did my own makeup. My mother’s Navaratana necklace adorned my neck for good luck. My dad blew his budget because the groom’s family invited about three hundred people last minute. But he dealt with it, without flinching an eye. 

The Big Day, produced by Conde Nast India, is about avant-garde millennial Indian couples and displays the megabucks put into the Indian wedding industry. This gives us an escape out of our surreal, locked-down Zoom reality and into an extravagant social engagement. Six lavish, pre-COVID Indian weddings in exotic locales, with “breaking barriers” bridal looks, decor, food, and flamboyance!

One of the couples from the Netflix show, The Big Day.

The weddings are different because, in a rather unconventional twist, the millennial couples are in charge. They seem to have choreographed the entire ceremony to meet their style and personal flair. The couples tell us their back story. Their meet-cute, their courtship, their choice in engagement rings, their proposals, their challenges, their families’ reaction, and most importantly, the wedding preparation.

Some broke tradition by snubbing certain subversive traditions which seem to denigrate women like kanya dan and mangal sutra. Others embraced tradition by effortlessly accepting to live with extended families. There was a lot of emphasis on cross-cultural unions including a poignant gay marriage.

Some dialogues and vignettes pull at heartstrings: The Hindu priest who married two men dressed in lungis to recreate a Chennai custom said: “Hinduism is a way of life”. That sentiment brought so much solace to the newlyweds that they danced together.

I was floored with the destination of a Kishangarh fort and loved the incorporation of Sarson (Mustard) flowers and sprigs of Bajra. The use of floating sanganer block printed fabrics was a very creative idea. Everything was locally sourced and repurposed. The couples planned their wedding with such a great eye for detail, working tirelessly with vendors and creatives. The Baby boomer parents were there to offer support, happily or grudgingly, as they watched them choreograph their own wedding. 

I hope these newlyweds live happily ever after. I am hooked and will definitely watch the next episodes! My only question is – did the savvy millennials foot the bill of The Big Day?! 


Monita Soni, MD has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

Sahib’s in Love With The Maid in ‘Sir’

It’s an old Bollywood plot – rich village landlord’s son falls for poor village girl who is clearly out of his social class and caste, and they battle the world for their love. SIR, the 2018 movie directed by Rohena Gera, is an adventurous attempt to spin this familiar trope into an urban 21st century setting.

What if the rich boy was a bachelor in a slick Mumbai flat and the poor girl was actually the maid who housekeeps for him? Can there be an actual romance that bridges the cultural chasm between them?

Until a few years ago, Bollywood kept ‘the help’ at arm’s length, using only the ridiculously cliched loyal- onto- death type of character, who alternated between providing comic relief or fading into the background.

Recently, however, the stream of innovative filmmaking pouring out of Netflix and other platforms has begun to take an interest in depicting the social dynamics between domestic help and their employers, with a realism most city folk can relate to.

SIR is unique in that it’s about the genuine feelings that develop between a master, Ashwin (played by Vivek Gomber), and his maid, Ratna (played by Tillotama Shome). It’s well done and quite absorbing, despite a hiccup or two. The suspense of wondering how far Ashwin and Ratna would go to challenge social norms hooks the viewer almost as much as great performances by the two leads and the supporting cast. After all, most urbanites can identify with the presence of ‘the help’ in the background of their lives – maids, drivers, cooks, guards etc., are ubiquitous in Indian urban settings, especially elite ones; we’ve all heard the jokes about the lady of the house who doesn’t care a whit where her husband goes, but is devastated when her cook returns to his village.

Tillotamma Shome as the maid Ratna

In many ways, SIR represents the new, economically and technologically expanding India, where there is an increasing awareness of class boundaries, even while there is a softening of them.

In 2021, even the poorest vendor on the street has a cell phone. A girl like Ratna, with little English and no money, but with a handy iPhone, can leave her village for Mumbai, where she repeats what her new friend (Geetanjali Kulkarni) tells her, This is Mumbai! You can be whoever you want to be!”

SIR begins with the ‘master’ Ashwin, returning home, furious and dejected, from his canceled wedding. We find out later that his fiancée cheated on him, and everything exploded just before the nuptials. Ratna is hovering around, servile and handy with glasses of nimboo paani.

We see him sinking into a quasi-depression, alone in his chic Mumbai flat, while his mama comes around to console him, and drops subtle hints to get him to forgive his fiancée’s infidelity. More than anything else, I was impressed with this progressive take on a woman’s cheating on her prospective spouse by the mother-in-law to be, no less.

Tillotamma Shome in SIR

Rohena Gera does a good job of weaving Ratna’s story into the mix – she’s a young widow who has been allowed to work in the city on the condition that she send 4000.00 rupees each month to her in-laws. Ratna is portrayed with an excess of dignity and virtue, and a fierce desire to forge her own economic independence.

Ashwin’s character is somewhat awkward – a privileged, goody two-shoes nice guy, the kind girls cheat on. And since he’s spending most of his time brooding at home, he begins to appreciate Ratna’s glasses of nimboo paani, home-cooked meals and, eventually, home-spun advice to soothe his aching soul.  

Gera handles the trajectory of emotional intimacy developing between Ashwin and Ratna with sensitivity and attention to detail. A series of realistic scenes depicts their tension-filled undercurrents, keeping the viewer hooked for an inevitable confession of love. Several small vignettes, like brushstrokes of  authenticity, depict Ratna’s life at the bottom of the social ladder and Ashwin’s at the top – Ratna counting her slim roll of money in her tiny room to pay for a tailoring class; Ashwin at a chic Mumbai bar with a friend who points him to “the girl across .. totally checking you out”;   Ratna’s foray into a designer boutique where a guard promptly ushers her out, a stark reminder that class boundaries still exist.

Yes, SIR is watchable, right up to its final surprising twist. The script, direction and acting can almost  make the viewer believe this relationship could happen easily. Can two people from such different universes – a barely literate maid, and an upper middle-class professional, the product of elite private schools, share a genuine, respectful love?

We almost believe the relationship until their first physical interaction – the first misstep which snaps the viewer out of this well-crafted romantic haze. In a ‘sex scene’ that happens too fast Ashwin fumbles, while Ratna’s physical response seems too sophisticated. An urbane Mumbaite making it with his maid in the real world is a hard sell. If Ashwin was less westernized or depicted as less entrenched in Mumbai’s party scene, disbelief could have been suspended more easily.

That being said, for a movie like SIR to have been made at all and receive good reviews (it won the Critics Week award at Cannes), is an indication of the cultural tremors that are transforming Indian social hierarchies. Definitely three stars!


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Smile, Please!

Yesterday was the second time in my life I cried at the movies (the first was when I watched On Golden Pond at the Chanakya Cinema in Delhi, at the age of 22). Despite some obvious flaws, ‘Smile, Please’ had the honor of squeezing the saline out of my eyes, which are usually unfazed by Bollywood’s tear-jerking tricks and sentimental shenanigans.

Smile Please tackles the heavy, hard subject of dementia (in this case, the rare early onset kind); however, like any Bollywood movie worth its salt, it multitasks heavily on the emotional front. We get a variety of engaging sub-plots stirred into the mix including family dynamics, the tradeoff between a career and family for ambitious Indian women, and the evolving relationship between divorced parents as they share parenting.

To director Vikram Phadnis credit, these themes add to the rich background tapestry of the movie, without overshadowing the overarching theme of dementia in a young woman.

Dementia could easily be crowned the Queen of The Most Horrible Diseases that Afflict Mankind. It robs individuals of their memories, and of everything that makes them human and connects them to other human beings. Apart from memories, basic learned associations, personality traits and the core of what makes up an individual’s identity, slowly dissolves into the merciless acid of this disease, which leaves a functioning shell of a person who may not even remember their own name.

Smile Please is a spin off from the accomplished 2014 movie, Still Alice, where Juliane Moore stars as a 50-year-old linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s (a form of dementia). Still Alice depicts the sudden devastation in Alice’s life as the person she has been is stripped away, and the movie gives a sensitive portrayal of how the disease sucks her entire family into its black hole.

In Smile Please we see a woman at the height of her career. Nandini Joshi (played by Mukta Barve), is shown conducting a high fashion photo shoot in the opening scene. She’s the divorced mom of a 13-year-old girl, Nupur (Vedashree Mahajan) and lives with her elderly father in an affluent, old world, Bombay neighborhood.

Her daughter (whose custody was surprisingly awarded to Nandini’s ex-husband) hates Nandini, but comes to visit her grandfather. This backstory could have been a movie in itself; however, we, the viewers, come late to the relationship between Nandini and her ex-husband. What we see is an enlightened, 21st century dynamic between the couple, a mature and accommodative affection, where Nandini’s ex-husband (Prasad Oak) tries to persuade Nupur to give her mother a chance. Those layers of civility will be lifted later in the movie to reveal darker corners in their marriage.

We begin to get clues that all is not well with Nandini right from the start – she forgets small things and misses appointments and then, one day, forgets what she’s saying during an official presentation. This scene was a complete knock-off from Still Alice; in the Juliane Moore version, Alice forgets the next word when she is teaching a linguistics class. I felt the director could have shown more originality here.

When her tests are done by a doctor who is Nandini’s old college friend, results show that she’s well into the first stage of dementia. We see the family struggling to cope with this new reality as Nandini goes through some typical stages of shock, denial and gradual acceptance.

Here, the movie diverges from Still Alice, but does so in typical Bollywood fashion. Enter, the family’s guardian angel in the form of a young man, Viraj (Lalit Prabhakar), who is a house guest. He fills in the empathy holes the family has left and ends up being everyone’s selfless savior. Remember, Kal Ho Na Ho, and Shahrukh Khan’s guardian angel?  Bollywood scriptwriters seem to find the sexy- heroic stranger- rescuing- the- hapless- family trope quite irresistible.

Lalit Prabhakar and Mukta Bharve in Smile Please

Viraj’s magical appearance seems contrived at first, but director Vikram Phadnis skillfully weaves the newcomer into the narrative, in a series of authentic scenes. He also brings out the compassion and the helpless agony of the family without making the film sit too heavily on the audience. The team of actors he picked are quite accomplished, and do a superb job of conveying the subtle horror and helplessness of the disease.

And, though the tears did flow, my rational brain felt mildly disappointed at the fact that the movie doesn’t get intimately into the changes in Nandini’s emotions, and her fear of the future, as she grapples with the disease. She seems curiously passive to her fate throughout, while there is more emphasis on the savior-hero and on family dynamics.  We also don’t see the desperation of extremes in this movie, except for a scene where Nandini comes to a party for her daughter’s birthday in a bathrobe. In contrast, Still Alice had a powerful scene where the character plans her own suicide because she wants to die with dignity, on her own terms, not as a babbling, uncomprehending husk who is a burden to her family.

This is a movie which should be seen on a quiet evening with a glass of wine, when you are in a mood for the cathartic, melancholy sadness it will evoke. It brings out our very human mortality, as well as our stoic resilience in the face of heartless destiny, and deserves 3 stars.


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents