Smell the funny
The absurd can be sexy, subversive, lofty—according to how a great artiste intends it. It is a tricky form for a film-maker if he wants his film to reach out, and be consumed. In Aiyyaa, a carefully crafted amalgamation of Bollywood kitsch and absurd, over-the-top storytelling, writer-director Sachin Kundalkar almost achieves a fine balance, a dramatic perfection, careful never to alienate his viewers. But for the loose and meandering lead-up to the climax in the last half-hour—the film should have been at least 20 minutes shorter to leave the viewer on a powerful note—Aiyyaa has a strident imagination at work. It is a raucous and immensely enjoyable piece of film-making.
Aiyyaa is an extension of one of Kundalkar’s short films, Gandha. Derivative of Pedro Almadovar’s films in its absurdity and woman-centrism, at its core is a woman’s journey for love and meaning. Kundalkar’s world consists of the Deshpande family. A father who smokes four cigarettes at the same time using an antiquated gadget, a son whose only love is street dogs, a blustering, grand old lady on a wheelchair, with dark goggles and gold teeth, a daughter, Meenaxi (Rani Mukerji) who, in her dream world, impersonates Sridevi, Madhuri and Juhi—more real to her than her state of wakefulness, when she loves a man using only her olfactory nerves. This is unlike any Deshpande family of Pune you will meet.
The parents are searching for a groom for Meenaxi. To present herself in front of prospective suitors is an unavoidable rigmarole for Meenaxi. At the arts and crafts department of a local college where she works, she befriends a colleague, Maina (Anita Date), an outrageously dressed, nonsensical bully who sympathizes with her love for Suriya (Prithviraj), a painter and art student in the college with a notorious reputation. Everyone considers him a drunkard and a druggie, and he never speaks to anyone. Meenaxi is fascinated. Despite her desperate attempts to reach out, he is insolent and indifferent. She follows his smell, which, she is convinced, is the smell of “drugs”. Back at home, Meenaxi finally has a suitor, Madhav (Subodh Bhave), a simple man with old-fashioned, safe tastes. Meenaxi is in a dilemma, and is in the throes of a life-altering decision.
Meenaxi is a robust character—a woman trapped by petty familial conditions, angry and yet not overtly rebellious, sexual and colourful in her fantasy. Kundalkar makes both her worlds engaging. The middle-class Indian woman, without much education, but with forbidden dreams. She is known to follow the enigmatic man to his home through unfamiliar routes and sob her heart out, waiting for him. She is not afraid to love herself and love a man. She belittles anyone who can’t appreciate the gaudy and fake world of 1980s Bollywood, which she loves.
Kundalkar’s visual vocabulary, realized in incandescent detail by cinematographer Amalendu Chaudhary, is a function largely of colour and smell. Paintbrushes soiled by thick coats of electric blue enamel, colour merging into water shot from under the water, heaps of overflowing wet garbage, a haze-inducing fragrance which Meenaxi follows, dizzy in love—these are Kundalkar’s refrains in the film. Sex also accentuates his narrative—in most instances, it is liberating and clandestine at the same time.
Mukerji masters the role. She pitches it with plenty of histrionics—almost no character in Aiyyaa has a “yes or no” or “do or die” approach to their bizarre situations. Meenaxi is high-pitched, a ball of nervous emotion and rage, and Mukerji has dived right into her world. It never feels like she has caught the wrong note; she makes Meenaxi not only believable, but extremely likeable. Prithviraj has an ornamental role, the woman’s object of love. The supporting cast is made up of seasoned actors and they stay true to Kundalkar’s over-the-top idiom.
Aiyyaa is triumphant because its originality matches the director’s assured film-making. Kundalkar is a director with a confident, uninhibited stamp.