Sachin Kandulkar's Aiyyaa
is the kind of film that really challenges me as a writer for an international film site. I feel the need to balance my feelings about certain films with a certain amount of consideration for who my audience is. When I look at the metrics for ScreenAnarchy, it becomes apparent very quickly that the Indian readership is normally very small, except after I post reviews and news. Most of the people who read the site on a regular basis aren't familiar with the ins and outs and cultural specificities of Indian cinema. So, when a film comes along with a story and character that so pointedly appropriates Indian cinema culture in the name of making its intended audience laugh, I have a hard time reviewing it for an audience that will, in all likelihood, respond to the funniest gags with blank stares.
Right from the opening credits Aiyyaa
assumes that the audience is familiar with Bollywood hits of the '80s and '90s. In a very strangely edited mish-mash of classic tunes from blockbuster films star Rani Mukherjee as Meenakshi Deshpande dances through her dreams as her favorite film heroines. If you are familiar with the work of Juhi Chawla and Sridevi, you'll almost definitely get a kick out of this, if not, you might be better off skipping the whole thing. The film liberally references the last fifty or so years of Hindi, and occasionally south Indian, cinema. Sure, some of the gags involved are mildly amusing to the uninitiated, but to really get why it's so funny, you need a deeper understanding of the actors and actresses being referenced.
Rani Mukherjee plays a woman on the brink spinsterhood, presumably in her late '20s, who is hoping to be swept off her feet, but instead her family offers her up in a matrimonial ad in an attempt to marry her off. Meenakshi Deshpande is a modern gal in a traditional world, her dreams of eloping with a man she loves are all that keep her sane as she fumbles her way through set-up after set-up, hoping to discourage would-be suitors from buying the cow. When she falls in lust with a mysterious dark-skinned art student named Surya (Malayalam film star, Prithviraj), her world turns upside-down and she spends all of her energy stalking him in an absurdly cute way. She attempts to learn Tamil so she can tell him how handsome he looks, she cons her way into his house so she can surreptitiously chat up his mother, but most of all, she follows her nose. Surya has a certain scent about him that drives Meenakshi wild, and she follows it everywhere.
One thing that Aiyyaa
does incredibly well is to depict what I imagine it's like for women lusting over a man who seems just out of reach. This isn't the same deadly sin we see Se7en's John Doe punishing, it is more emotionally enrapturing. Meenakshi obsesses over Surya's every move like a fourteen year old girl might, she wears his old discarded t-shirts, she looks up his information in the art school's database, she wants to learn his likes and dislikes, she wants to know everything about him. That's not to say that her thoughts are entirely pure, the film's best song is a fantasy number in which Meenakshi and Surya perform a pretty raunchy number in a tribute to '80s style Tamil masala films. There's plenty of bumping and grinding in Meenakshi's fantasy, but she keeps it all on the inside, just waiting for her chance to pounce. I suppose it's possible that my idea about this is all wrong, after all I do have a Y chromosome, but it was a kind of lust and carnal obsession that you don't often see in films, and it felt real.
In spite of my earlier admonishment about the jokes being too specific to travel much outside of the Indian diaspora, I think that the film really finds its feet about thirty minutes in, There are still scattered references that will cause confusion, but the overarching story is relatively uncomplicated. The problem is that even if you're entertained by the film, without the background to properly appreciate the little touches, you'll miss a lot of the film's humor, and that is sad, because it is really funny and cute. Unfortunately for wider audiences, there's really no way to watch this film without those references. Even if someone wanted to edit it down for art house release, the characters and their personalities would change drastically without those points of departure.
A lot of the humor in Aiyyaa
is very broad, and that seems to be both an attempt to lampoon the very films with which Meenakshi is obsessed, and an easy way to get a few cheap laughs in. Typically I'd be perturbed by the silly comedy tracks, but in this case they work just fine. Again, so much of the comedy is extremely culturally specific that if you were to watch the film sitting next to a viewer who was well versed in popular Hindi cinema, they may end up laughing their heads off while you wonder what the hell was so funny, and I don't know about you, but I don't not being in on the joke.
The main problem with the film is that it's just too damned long. No straight romantic comedy needs to be two and a half hours long. As Hindi cinema begins to cater more and more toward international audiences and younger audiences, they've started to get the hint that not every film needs to be three hours long. Recent films bucking the trend have included Akshay Kumar's Rowdy Rathore
, which clocked in at a lean two hours and ten minutes, and his commercial flop, Joker
, was practically a TV commercial at only an hour and forty minutes. With Aiyyaa
, the extra screen time does little to enhance the plot or engage the viewer. There's got to be at least forty minutes of flab they could've cut from this film, and the more it drags along, the less impact it has.
I really enjoyed Aiyyaa
, but newer viewers will end up seriously lost if they try to get every gag. This is not one for the casual viewer.