29 September 2014

Not Khubsoorat enough

My Mumbai Mirror column:

Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Khubsoorat was a delicious samosa of a film, crisp on the outside, but stuffed with wit and wisdom. Shashanka Ghosh's version gives us just the flaky samosa shell.

In what is now forever relegated to being the 'old' Khubsoorat (1980), Hrishikesh Mukherjee established a memorable milieu, and then used the time-honoured device of an outsider's arrival to shake it all up. The new Khubsoorat, directed by Shashanka Ghosh, uses the same device -- but it makes so many changes to characters and plot that it isn't clear why it needed to be cast as a remake at all. 

So I'm not comparing the two films to decide which is better. Suffice it to say that I think Mukherjee's Khubsoorat was indeed a beauty: a crisp samosa of a film, perfectly flaky on the outside, and yet stuffed with such wit and wisdom that a whole philosophy of life was conveyed, in a manner light as air. Ghosh's Khubsoorat isn't content with the ordinary world and everyday problems of the original film. He wants to make something grander, complete with regal paraphernalia and a truly tragic back story. But this new Disney fairytale version ends up giving us only the shell of the samosa: flaky without and largely empty within. 

What I find interesting is how the two films reflect the times to which they belong. In the 1980 film, the taur-tareeke of the Gupta khaandaan are established early on -- as is the khaandaan's everyday struggle to live up to them. Almost everyone is slightly late for breakfast, except the little granddaughter, who gets brownie points both for arriving before the appointed hour of 8.30am and instructing the adults not to speak 'chilla chilla ke'. All this cannot possibly be in aid of the adorable Ashok Kumar, whom we have already met, mowing his lawn in a dhoti-kurta and smiling at the sight of his blooming hyacinths. No, the person everyone's afraid of is the redoubtable Dina Pathak, whose disciplinary behaviour is extreme but somehow entirely believable. 

The 2014 version has a matriarch in charge, too -- played by Dina Pathak's real-life daughter Ratna Pathak Shah - but the family has been depleted to a nuclear-level son and daughter. And since a Baniya family (even well-off professionals like the Guptas), would be too ordinary, we now get the Rathores. And not just any Rathores, but erstwhile royals. But all this shaan-o-shaukat - sandstone palace, antique decor, and a massive staff - can only be maintained by recourse to business. So the Rajputs make their money buying up forts to make heritage hotels. I find it interesting that caste was never mentioned in the old film, but here it is both foregrounded (in the constant repetition of the Rathore name) and undercut by a real anxiety (an older royal invites our princeling hero Vikram to shooting practice with a jibe about whether all the business has made him a "poora baniya", incapable of such pursuits.) 

In the original film, the rebellion against Dina Pathak's "military discipline" was fostered by Manju (Rekha), unmarried younger sister of the Gupta family's recent bahu Anju. The elder sister's marriage happened without her even meeting her husband, and the film did not dwell on the matter except playfully. The romance between Manju and Inder (Rakesh Roshan, the Gupta brother who is appropriately next in line to be married) is not portrayed as rebelliousness, either. But then in that film, the romance isn't even central to the plot. What is important is the household and its ability to allow for the happiness of each member. 

There is no Anju in 2014, and our hero has no older siblings either. Our heroine Mili (Sonam) does not enter the Rathore home through personal ties, but professional ones. Like Rekha in the old film, she is undaunted, but her reasons are different. As a physiotherapist with a magic touch, Dr Mrinalini Chakravarty has earned fame by tending to the new rich and famous. To her who fixes the cricks in Dhoni's neck, it is implied, the raja of Sambhalgarh is no great shakes. 

But while our forthright 1980 heroine didn't have a career (in her milieu, there was no question of demanding one), she had a highly literate wit and an exceptional understanding of people. Instead of that wicked sense of fun, we now have a heroine whose primary way of making us laugh is to bump into things, fall clumsily into the hero's arms, get drunk with the domestic staff (interesting touch, this), get kidnapped and be rescued. Playing prize bimbette is apparently what's now called a "spontaneous personality". 

The cheerful informality of Rekha's bin-ma-ka household is replaced by Punjabiness as explanation for Sonam's. Dina Pathak's reason for being a martinet was that she knew her family's weaknesses -- her heart patient husband's unhealthy eating habits, her sons' weakness for cards -- and wanted to protect them from themselves. And she had some good rules, too, which seem scarcely imaginable in any contemporary film: such as 'whoever makes the mess must clean it up'. The Guptas have two full-time servants, but Ashok Kumar mows the lawn himself. 

Ratna Pathak's Rani-sa has no such believable interiority. Her absurd crustiness is justified by a tragedy so massive that we can never really trust it happened. And as soon as the tragedy is partly reversed, she changes entirely. The work that character and psychology did so subtly in Mukherjee's film is reduced, in Ghosh's version, to the power of circumstance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ends in caricature.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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