Smells like Progress: Aiyyaa

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What happens when a Bollywood film gives the female lead all the privileges and powers that male leads get and she does things that very few women on screen ever get to do, including making herself and others laugh while still being taken seriously? Aiyyaa (2012), a nearly perfect and probably revolutionary romantic comedy.  It is clever, thoughtful, funny, and entertaining, making points that other films rarely bother with.

Meenakshi (Rani Mukerji) is a Bollywood-obsessed young woman who lives at home and works at a university art department, where she encounters  the scent (really!) of Suriya (Prithviraj Sukumaran), an intense-looking but silent painter. Meenakshi’s and Suriya’s families come from different regions of India, and in the absence of many spoken words between them, Meenakshi constructs elaborate and exoticizing fantasies about him and the attraction she feels.

Meanwhile, her parents present a parade of much less interesting potential husbands. Even when she realizes one of them is perfectly pleasant and their families support the match, she can’t quite commit. Her fantasy life is egged on by her even more eccentric colleague Maina (Anita Date) and paralleled by her brother’s (Amey Wagh) mission to open a home for stray dogs.

By simply flipping the gender of the POV of the story and setting it in an unreal, saturated world, writer-director Sachin Kundulkar transports us into a funhouse mirror: everything we expect to see in a popular Hindi film rom-com is still there, but it looks completely different. It’s a bizarro world created by the utter simplicity that a woman is making all the decisions: choosing a job, rejecting marriage proposals, supporting her brother’s unpopular but heart-felt choices, and pursuing her romantic interest. Not only is this a relatively mainstream Hindi film that is told from a woman’s point of view (expanded from Kundulkar’s 2009 Marathi-language short film Gandha) , it is centered in her desires—and not just the romantic and sexual ones, either, though they are the easiest to discern visually. Family obstacles, a love triangle, a helpful moppet, and an absurd comic relief are all present, but none of them act as they usually do.

Aiyyaa gives us not a heroine but a female hero who loves boldly, strikes out on her own, and includes images of herself into a giant collage of movie-star cut-outs that is the canvas of her dreams. Meenakshi lives for herself above anyone else; she wants to please and support other people but not at the expense of her own hopes and values.

Meenakshi’s dreams often take the shape of tropes from popular Indian cinema. Instead of being a traditional Bollywood dancing girl ogled by men and given no speaking lines, Meenakshi shakes her moneymakers for her own pleasure and her own imagined gaze. Usually film characters just slide into song sequences without remark; here, as Meenakshi watches a South Indian film on tv, a song opens with her staring excitedly at the tv as she sees Suriya and herself (wearing the female character’s outfit) on it. Not only do we know this is meta commentary, the lead character knows it too. Her world is so movie-flavored that she sees herself in films not only in her head but actually supplanting existing films in the locations where the rest of us see them. Although she loves to project her life large-scale, she’s not completely driven by escapism. In the first scene of the film, she’s reenacting songs and scenes from older Bollywood but the tracks she lipsyncs to skip and fade out, her on-location sequences are ruined by an oncoming garbage truck, and she yells for a dozen different film heroes but not one of them arrives.

This is a story of a woman who realizes it is a very sadly unique thing for a man to ask her her opinions or interests—and then realizes that those questions do not merit her choosing  this man for a life partner. This is a story of a woman breathing, finding the open spaces she has identified as critical to her self-defined existence.

In a world where images and visual spectacle are exalted, it is air and scent that motivate Meenakshi, and when she breathes in, she discovers the love of her life.

Female desire and female control are pushed to their logical, if ridiculous, extremes, as seen in Maina’s obsession with a chiseled Bollywood actor and sudden pouncing on an unsuspecting romantic target. This is exactly what odious side-plot comedy uncles have been doing for decades, and yet it totally works for her, giving her the happy ending she clearly knows she deserves. But for all the space and freedom that this film gives to women, it gives the same to men, who here are allowed to be quiet, contemplative, reactive, and of an unconventional profession yet still absolutely worthy of love. Nobody is macho, even the tall, dark, and handsome Suriya.

In addition to the color-coded visuals and hyper-imaginative characters and techniques that evoke the unreal urban landscape of  Amelie, the other beloved world that comes to my mind repeatedly in Aiyyaa is Pride and Prejudice.  There is constant gentle societal pressure of marriage, embodied by a loose-cannon mother who is left mostly unchecked by a quieter father; the essential central character is a single woman who does not take kindly to attempts to restrain her values; and the imposing but taciturn hero seems to take little notice of her but secretly begins appreciating and being drawn to her spirit.

Since smell-o-vision doesn’t exist yet, the creative team of this film relies on sound and image to nudge it towards a fairy-tale world where amazing things, like a woman pursuing a man before he has sanctioned her interest with his own, can happen among glorious clouds of incense and messy heaps of garbage.

Among other tropes Aiyyaa merrily flips over as it skips along include parents knowing best, brothers protecting sisters, racist beauty standards, cultural differences being assumed unattractive, and wealth or “stable” careers like engineering and business as necessary for approval or adulthood. It does something slightly different with “stalking=love,” letting the object of the attention choose when to get involved and thus retain some power. The male lead is mysterious throughout most of the film not because he is negligible or because the writers are too lazy to create a personality for him but because the story is actually about—and probably “by” and “for” to boot—Meenakshi. Imagine!

Aiyyaa (with subtitles) is currently streaming on Netflix and is available to rent on Youtube. Gandha (also with subtitles) is available on Youtube for free.

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Beth Watkins has nearly perfected Smell-O-Vision. The benefits far outweigh the risks!

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2 Comments

  1. I ADORE this movie for all the reasons you’ve pointed out. It’s the female gaze for an entire movie!! And after watching many Southern Regional films, I also like the way they gently poke a little fun at those style of song sequences. Prithviraj is usually so dignified and even staid in his Malayalam films, so it’s such a hoot to see him whooping it up as the beefcake in these songs, and really letting his hair down.

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