27 February 2013

Post Facto - Emma, Aisha and the sting in the tale: What Austen says about us

This fortnight's Sunday Guardian column:

The last month has been one of remembering Pride and Prejudice, whose 200th anniversary it was on January 28th this year. Jane Austen's celebrated novel about the Bennett family was her second published work, after Sense and Sensibility (1811). Both were successes, Pride selling well enough for a second impression the same year. Given the small readership of literary novels in England then, Pride's first impression of 750 was large. By 1815, when Austen published Emma (Mansfield Park having come out in the interim), her print run had risen to 2000, and she had switched publishers: from Thomas Egerton to the reputed John Murray.

Emma marked another change, too — one less about the external circumstances of the book than the circumstances of its heroine. Unlike the young women in all her previous books — Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park — the eponymous heroine of Austen's fourth novel had no financial troubles. Emma Woodhouse, 21 when the novel begins, is the younger daughter of the well-off Mr. Woodhouse. Her older sister Isabella is well-settled, with several small children. But unlike all Austen's previous heroines, for whom marriage is the only route to financial stability, and for whom the finding of a suitable husband is therefore the unspoken object of much of their social interaction, Emma is in the happy position of having (as she puts it to her ever-admiring companion Harriet Smith) no inducement to marry. If the novel's principal preoccupation remains courtship and marriage, it is the outcome not of Emma's interest in her own union, but in bringing about those of others.

To me, though, what makes Emma a fascinating heroine is not her unusually privileged status—she is, in Austen's words, "handsome, clever and rich"—but the fact that she is depicted also as spoilt, stubborn, meddlesome and rather too smug about her own position and abilities. Before writing Emma, Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like". But even Austen's 'liking' of Emma does not translate into a flattering picture. Far from glossing over her heroine's foibles, Austen draws our attention to Emma's superficiality and lack of hard work, her preoccupation with good looks and "elegance", her deep class snobbery and the misguided sense of superiority that leads her to match-make for the easily influenced Harriet.

In 2010, a filmmaker called Rajshree Ojha released a Hindi adaptation of Emma, called Aisha. Set in contemporary Delhi high society and starring Sonam Kapur as the Emma-inspired heroine, Aisha was greeted by many Indian critics—and by most of my friends and facebook acquaintances—with unmitigated disdain. Aisha's world of high-end shopping, clubbing, parties and river-rafting trips, punctuated by do-gooding attempts at finding a suitable boy for the Bahadurgarh-arriviste Shefali, was described frequently as "shallow'. The heroine was dismissed as being a slave to fashion (Sonam Kapur's reputation as a real-life fashion diva went against her) and the film as an orgy of brands.

I recently saw Aisha again, and it struck me with great force that whatever the film was, it was not shallow.  It captures a super-rich South Delhi milieu — the polo matches, the Gymkhana Club, the posh yoga instructor — with an astute specificity different from the unexplained luxuriousness of most Hindi film worlds. Most Bollywood films are full of expensive, fashionable clothes; it is only in Aisha that their existence is not glossed over: we're told what the credit card bill was. Aisha's succession of pet projects: painting, wedding planning, animal rights—are shown up for the half-baked efforts they are within the film itself, by a scathing hero. This is a film that is able, while being in this world, to not necessarily be of it. Ojha is playing a marvelous double-edged trick (perhaps both on her producers and her audience). Sure, this luxe bubble bath of a movie might seem the perfect way to soak in the life of the rich. But if you're paying attention, it really isn't that comfortable at all.

If Emma's portrait of Highbury society lays bare its ridiculousness — equal parts hypochondria, gossip, boredom and obsession with rank — Aisha's depiction of Delhi high society is equally stinging. It captures with comic brilliance the paranoid bubble the upper class Delhi male would like his women to inhabit—from "Stay in the car, it's dangerous" and "I'll drop you, it's Delhi" to handing out pepper spray and being shocked that a woman might ask directions "from strangers". It takes a childish, petulant girl for a heroine and then mercilessly mocks her sense of entitlement, using every weapon at hand, from the class-laden appellation 'Aisha Baby' to a superb visual analogy with a real bawling baby. When Aisha condemns one nice boy as "so middle class" and scorns another for running a mithai business, it couldn't be clearer what the film wants us to think of her. This is a film in which even the heroine's father isn't blind to her advantages as a paisewali. Like Emma, Aisha is far from being in thrall to the world it recreates. Perhaps it is we who are.

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