Tag Archives: Tabu

Whatabout The Men In These Movies?

Jawaani Jaaneman is a 2020 release on Amazon Prime about a father who doesn’t want anything to do with his newly discovered offspring.

It stars Saif Ali Khan who plays ‘Jazz,’ or Jasvinder Singh, a muscled, tattooed, Sikh immigrant in the UK. At 40, this committed bachelor inhabits a universe which is the equivalent of a permanent adolescence – a haze of nightclubs and one-night stands. He’s also a broker about to embark on an important deal, selling his building to a developer who planning an ultra-modern commercial complex.

Khan plays a convincing Jazz – a middle-aged, macho Jat, who believes he’s a ‘Babe-Magnet Casanova’ (though it’s mystifying that he grew up in England but retained a “Paaji” accent!) Jazz loves his shallow life of no commitments or responsibilities. He lives for his evenings at the night club, bumping and grinding like the 20-year olds around him, guzzling shots, and tossing one-liners like ‘oye phuljariyaan, Happy Diwali’ to a crowd of British women in a London hair salon.

His vapid life turns inside out one day when he invites a young woman, Tia (Alaya Furniturewala) home. She tells Jazz that he has a  ‘33.33 percent chance of being her father.’  Jazz recalls a 20 year-old tryst with a girlfriend Ananya (Tabu), and like whiplash, the middle-aged playboy in him reacts with a vigorous denial, “Nahin ho sakta—main batting hamesha guard kay saath karta hoon!”

Saif Ali Khan, Alaya Furniturewala & Tabu

Jazz takes a DNA test to prove his innocence, but the results take him straight from nightclub schmoozer to dad of a 21-year-old. Tia declares that she’s dreamt about meeting her dad since she was 15 – and then drops a bigger bombshell  – she’s pregnant with her boyfriend’s child and wants to stay with her newly minted Papa to have the baby.

Jawaani Jaaneman (directed by Nitin Kakkar) drips with cliches and transparent plot devices, but Saif and Alaya (the daughter of Pooja Bedi and the granddaughter of Kabir Bedi) have an onscreen chemistry that’s very engaging. This movie is a lighthearted, air-headed concoction you save for a rainy-day and a bucket of popcorn.

The flip side to the frivolous Jawaani Jaaneman is the intense Serious Men – another male-centric movie dealing with masculine identity.

In an era where the debate on social justice is increasing in public discourse, a movie like Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men brings an interesting, satirical take to the equation between those who lack opportunity and the people born into the kind of privilege that assures their place in our social hierarchy.

Serious men are men like Arvind Acharya (Nasser), who runs an agency like The National Institute for Scientific Research (NISR), and lobbies for government funding of obscure scientific projects – in this instance, hunting for alien microbes in space.  Acharya is a seriously privileged man from the right caste and educational background which has given him his social success and his obnoxious hubris. His privilege lets him manage awkward questions about the value of his eccentric research by talking about irrelevant metaphors that no one understands; he views their lack of comprehension as proof of his superior intellect.

In the film, Ayyan Manni (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Tamilian Dalit living in a Mumbai chawl works as a Personal Assistant to Arvind Acharya. By any measure, it’s a good, secure job for a Dalit but Ayyan has been bullied and humiliated all his life by his boss (calling Ayyan an idiot knucklehead with a primitive mind is all in a day’s work for Acharya).

However Ayyan is no meek pushover: He coins the half-mocking epithet ‘Serious Man’ for his boss. He’s also figured out that Acharya fobs off legitimate queries about his work by spouting incomprehensible, obscure concepts that no one understands. So, Ayyan bears his humiliation with a cringing smile, while plotting to make his son Adi (Aakshath Das) a ‘Serious Man’ like his abusive boss.

Nawazzuddin Siddiqui and Aakshath Das in Serious Men

Unlike other films on India’s complex caste issues, Serious Men uses an unfiltered lens on both sides – the aspirational Dalit and the arrogant upper caste boss have serious flaws. Films like Aarakshan and Samar showcased the righteous rage of oppressed Dalits, but Serious Men looks at caste through a wily, conniving human lens.

Ayyan believes the system is stacked against him, so he feels justified in gaming the system. He’s a born huckster, ambitious and canny, and able to talk his way out of any scrape. He coaches and presents his son as a precocious ‘genius in a dishonest endeavor to gain an educational and social advantage, with the misplaced conviction that he’s doing everything to secure his family’s future.

The soul of the movie is encapsulated in a scene before his son’s birth. Ayyan cons his way to a hotel poolside telling staff that he’s a hotel guest. His dream, he tells his pregnant wife Oja (Indira Tiwari), is for his soon-to-be-born son to afford to stay like a regular guest at a hotel like this.

You see,” says Ayyan, “our parents were 1G, slogging in the fields. I got an education but didn’t know how important that was to get ahead. So, I am 2G. Our son will be 4G. He will be able to lounge poolside like this and do nothing if he wants to. It takes four generations to be able to do nothing.”

The first half of the movie cleverly holds our attention. We wonder what will become of Adi as he is thrust into the limelight as a ‘geniusmascot for the local Dalits by manipulative politicians. Adi begins to feel the pressure of performing like a trained monkey in his new role and Ayyan, in a delightful parody of Acharya, coaches Adi to answer questions that fluster him by shouting, “I can’t deal with primitive minds like yours!”

The second half becomes predictable and the plot convoluted. Ayyan gets his revenge on the abusive Acharya but things don’t turn out as planned. The multiple storylines – Ayyan’s ambitions for his son, his obnoxious boss, and the politicians using his son as caste currency – merge in typical Bollywood style. Despite the melodrama, there is a stark frankness to the dialogue when it touches upon the generational impact of caste on an individual’s life. Serious Men has some terrific, thought-provoking discussions and scenes which highlight India’s caste-based hypocrisies, and great acting by Nawazzuddin Siddiqui and Aakshath Das.

Caste is like a baton handed down by ancestors in a lifelong relay race whose outcome has been fixed before birth, and Serious Men attempts to drive this point home. However, the movie ends without a sense of satisfying closure to the higher ideals it’s aspiring to.

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



A Charming Fantasy About The Good Old Days

There is something about the first few decades of India’s incarnation as an independent nation which holds a romantic fascination for our collective desi imagination.  One thinks of a world of black and white movies, of carved wooden swings creaking gracefully in colonial style verandahs, and of blue skies unadulterated by a haze of pollutants. Those early post-independence decades evoke memories of koyels singing after glorious monsoons, and images of young innocent girls in elegant embroidered saris with lips unblemished by lipstick, with long thick braids sporting dainty parandhas. Their colleges, if they were allowed higher education, were waiting rooms for their supreme goal of marriage.

A Suitable Boy is a charming ode to those Indian fantasies about the ‘good old days.’ Written by Andrew Davies and directed by Mira Nair, the six-part series, on Netflix later this year, is based on Vikram Seth’s 1993 book of the same name. It reproduces a suitably aesthetic, decorated version of that newly independent era in the 1950’s, when a young nation’s hope was alive and throbbing. However, being a Mira Nair production, it also takes a few sly swipes at the pretensions and the peculiarities of the times.

The series follows the intertwined fate of four upper crust Indian families– the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Khans and the Chatterjees. These are the Indian elite, the IAS officers, the zamindars, the movers and shakers of Indian politics.

The story follows the enchanting ingenue Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), a 19-year old university student forced to choose a suitable husband from three potential suitors.

It starts of course, with a wedding! No Indian series, particularly one produced by the BBC, is considered authentically Indian these days without a Big Fat Indian Wedding popping up somewhere.

The bride is Kavita (Rasika Dugal), Lata’s older sister, who is being married off to the staid, bespectacled professor son of Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor), the Revenue Minister of Brahmpur, a fictional city near Lucknow.

I don’t see any big thrills on the wedding night, do you?” quips Meenakshi (Shahana Goswami) Lata’s sister-in-law, and we know we are in a Mira Nair film, with tart asides and irreverent moments that liven the humdrum, bourgeois setting.

Gentle satire is Nair’s forte – Lata’s older brother Arun (Vivek Gomber) waves a hand at the wedding assembly and declares in a snobbish British accent, “Look around you! A sea of brown,” upon which his younger brother Varun (Vivaan Shah), retorts, “Just like us!”

Lata’s mother Rupa (Mahira Kakkar) is dead set on finding a suitable boy for Lata, before her daughter turns 21 – the median age for spinsterhood according to Rupa.

You have to marry a boy I choose for you, just like I chose for your sister,” she harangues Lata.

Lata on the other hand, is one step ahead of mum and bolder than her era permits. She falls in love with Kabir (Danesh Razvi), who thrills her but wrecks her peace of mind, and who turns out to be Muslim – strong indications of a ‘big romance’.

While Lata wrestles with social taboos, Rupa suggests another sensible option – Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), a footwear businessman who represents the rising class of aspirational Indians building on opportunities in their newly minted country.  And since good (or bad) news comes in threes, Meenakshi presents her brother Amit (Mikhail Sen), as another option.

There is no better way to aim a wide-angle lens at a culture’s norms and idiosyncrasies than the process of getting a daughter married.  Lata has to choose between running away with Kabir, her forbidden Muslim boyfriend, or marrying Amit (an affected, narcissistic, English poet, who embodies the Anglophilic legacy of the Raj), or settling for her mother’s  favorite – the ambitious, pragmatic, paan-chewing entrepreneur Haresh Khanna, whom Arun contemptuously calls ‘that shoemaker.’

Weaving in and out of Lata’s story is a parallel thread involving the Revenue Minister’s black sheep son, Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khattar), who indulges in wayward behavior such as pushing  the Home Minister into a fountain under the pretext of playing Holi, and falling in obsessive love with local ghazal queen and courtesan, Saeeda Bai (Tabu). Mahesh Kapoor is just as bent on making a man out of this family embarrassment as Maan is on resisting respectability.

Added to the mix are the Khans, a landed Nawabi family of Brahmpur whose  friendship with the Kapoors predates the partition. This bond is further cemented by the one between Maan Kapoor and Firoz Ali Khan (Shubham Saraf), Khan’s son, a connection between the families that holds steady despite deep cracks appearing in religious harmony between Hindus and Muslims. The scenes of a Shiv temple being erected right next to a masjid give the viewer a chilling sensation of time collapsing, evoking memories of Babri Masjid–– it could be a communal riot scene from 2020.

The heart of the series, however, lies with the marital misadventures of Lata and the lovesick shenanigans of the Saeeda Bai-obsessed Maan Kapoor.  A Suitable Boy does not attempt social commentary or thoughtful insight into the consequences of Independence. All the poverty and drudgery of the 1950’s, the Zamindari Abolition Acts which tried to free oppressed peasantry, the  rise of the communist party and the sowing of the political seeds of communalism, are sketched in like incidental fillers to the main theme – a recreation of the 1950’s with vivid cinematography, great acting, and the romance of forbidden love and  difficult choices, leading to some critics calling it an orange-filtered version of India

A Suitable Boy was a first for a BBC production – a drama on colonial India with an entirely Indian cast, and the compelling performances of the cast hold the series aloft like the Tiranga, the tricolor national flag.

Ram Kapoor and Tabu give accomplished performances and newcomer Tanya Maniktala captivates and delights as Lata. (The story of how Tanya, a young, 22-year-old copywriter in Delhi landed the lead in Mira Nair’s production, is a fairy tale in itself.)

The series has received some flak from Indian reviewers for its mannered English accents and attempts to sound ‘browner.’  With the 21st century craving for authenticity in cinematic depictions, whether it’s accents or settings, the tradition of speaking beautifully enunciated English in an Indian setting for the pleasure of a Western ear occasionally jars, the way a missing button on a costume would. Mira Nair softens the blow with occasional snatches of Hindi and Urdu. In the final analysis, the accents don’t detract from the crafted charm of the story which is the kind of escape to a faraway place of beauty and intrigue that we all sorely need in these challenging times.

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