Monday, July 20, 2015

Aisa Yeh Jahan - The conundrum of being earnest

Ever so often, a film comes along that you really, really want to like for all the things it does right... or all the right things it sets out to do. Aisa Yeh Jahan, the first Hindi venture by writer-director Biswajeet Bora is easily one of those.

The film addresses some important issues that don't often find voice in mainstream Hindi cinema very often, and wraps it in a heartwarming story with children at its gooey center. And it serves it all with a generous dose of some stirring Euphoria music. All that, with solid performances by grown-ups Palash Sen, Ira Dubey and Yashpal Sharma, and of course the kids - Kymsleen Kholie in an astounding debut as 12-year-old Pakhi and Prisha Dabbas as four-year-old Kuhi - these are reasons enough to stop reading this bloody review and go watch the film before the weekend is out. Oh, and the whole carbon-neutral thing. Fact of the matter is, small, well-meaning films like this one rarely survive the weekend, carbon neutral or not.

Aisa Yeh Jahan tells the story of a nuclear Assamese family in Mumbai - middle aged couple Ananya (Ira) and Rajib Saikia (Palash) with a four-year-old daughter Kuhi (Prisha) and her pre-teen nanny Pakhi (Kymsleen), brought in all the way from their native village in Assam.

Ananya is ambitious beyond her means and forever struggling to leave behind her humble roots and blend in with the cosmopolitan crowd of the city. Her aspirations are understandable  - wanting to quit a thankless job right after she figures out a way to own that elusive 3BHK in Goregaon East (yes, they're that middle class). And the lengths she would go to achieve her ends make for some easy laughs at first, before driving you to worry for the husband and child caught in her schemes. Rajib in contrast is better educated and well-adjusted in this milieu, but couldn't care less about city life, his heart set firmly in his little village. He gets a perfect in the film's first, imminently hummable song Sautela Sheher.

This juxtaposition of an old-world order against the brisk day-to-day reality of the big city is a running theme in the movie. Caught between the two is little Kuhi, at times sharing her father's and Pakhi's fondness for nature, and at times getting caught up in the trappings of city wealth - at one point, an iPad takes over her attention from a humble plant she had just begun to cherish. A part of the first half is spent in the idyllic old village in Assam, and the camera keeps reminding you of the contrasts. Tiny apartment vs large estate. Dirty stream vs serene river. Dancing amid concrete buildings vs dancing in the fields. Drinking in a pub vs drinking under the stars.

A mango sapling named Pom, improbably growing out of an old dustbin in the city apartment's balcony comes to symbolize that constant push-and-pull between opposites.

At the beginning I mentioned the film does a lot of right things. The environmental message is only one of those. It also addresses the theme of alienation faced by North Eastern Indians in their own country quite deftly (except for one  in-your-face outburst) by making it a story about North Eastern people - I don't remember the last time we had Assamese protagonists. That may of course have something to do with Bora himself being from Assam. At the screening* I attended, Palash mentioned that Rajib is an outright stand-in for Bora himself. The story also goes beyond the issue of casual racism directed at Pakhi to delve into her own longing for home, something anybody with provincial roots and living in a big city can relate to. Yet, the message here isn't to demonize the city either, rather to embrace it as a new home and strive to make it a better place.

All of these things drip of earnestness. As is often the case, the earnestness does not entirely translate into great filmmaking craft. The film juggles with many threads, that somehow don't come together very convincingly towards the end. The whole subplot about Kuhi becoming a child model feels very forced, and rather hypocritical when you consider that the artiste playing Kuhi might have gone through the same grind to land this role. I'm also not very comfortable with Pakhi's arc - we are let on her back story, how she lost her father and Rajib's parents shipped her off to work for their son in Mumbai. Why her new guardians, even the good-hearted Rajib, choose to keep her uneducated and servile, is never addressed. That they come to her defense when a drunk friend makes some insensitive remark, and refer to her as 'beta' or a member of the family doesn't make me feel better. Rather, this highlights the deep-seated status quo concerning the treatment of domestic help in India. There is also a disturbing suggestion early on that this girl is given to expect an occasional beating at the hands of her employers. Whether all this is done to draw attention to a serious issue, or if the director does not see the problem, remains unclear.

As good of a performance the adults turn in, and as much of a delight Ira Dubey is for every second she gets on screen, I wish the grown ups had receded a little more into the background to hand over the show to the kids. While Kymsleen leaves nothing to be desired in her portrayal of Pakhi, Kuhi who undergoes the most conflicting arc remains something of a cypher. Her shifting loyalties between nature and glamour are never quite explained from her viewpoint.

And that was one viewpoint I would have really loved to explore in this story.

* The film got its first-ever screening, a low-key premiere of sorts, at Lost The Plot, a very endearing rooftop bar-cum-cinema in Aundh, Pune. The director, producer, and some of the cast members appeared to interact with the welcoming crowd, and we enjoyed the film over rounds of drinks and good food, with a nice view of hills in the backdrop. LTP is the brainchild of one Nikita Naiknavare, and the team has been doing some commendable work in bringing the film club experience to a bar near you. If you are in Pune, do pop in for an evening, even if you don't drink. Here's to more such venues in cities that have the right kind of audience looking for the right kind of bar.

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