15 September 2014

Things I Found Out About Fanny

Yesterday's column for Mumbai Mirror (also Pune, Ahmedabad, Bangalore Mirror):

If we are going to make films in Indian English, we need to recognise that it has dialects. But then, slipping accents aren't the only disappointing thing about the movie Finding Fanny.

I was as excited about Finding Fanny as everyone else. “Everyone”, that is, who belongs to that minuscule class of people in this country who can be described as English-speaking, and would like Bollywood to occasionally acknowledge that 1) they exist and 2) that actually it is, too. I was particularly excited because Homi Adajania had already shown, back in 2006, that he could make fully Indian characters speak fully in English, and make it funny, too.

Admittedly, he still felt the need to set his narratives in communities that everyone concedes as English-speaking. In Being Cyrus, that narrowly circumscribed milieu was Parsi Panchgani (with detours into Parsi Bombay), and now, in Finding Fanny, it is Catholic Goa. Sure, many more non-posh Parsis and Goan Catholics are comfortable with English than your regular middle-class North Indian family, and so it doesn't ring false when family squabbles or lovers' tiffs among them take place in English. Certainly no more false than the absurdly translated-sounding conversations that Bollywood produces so often now, with Hindi words greater than three syllables sticking in the gullets of characters (and actors) who would in real life be speaking largely in English.

But really, watch Finding Fanny and tell me that you didn't feel it had travelled too far over to the other side, just exchanging a forced Hindi for a forced English. Everyone speaks English all the time, transforming what I'm sure is a vibrantly polyglot Goan world into a monolingual one. On the possibly five occasions where a phrase of Konkani is spoken, English subtitles appear. Of Hindi there is not a word. Not even a cussword. Worst of all, though the actors strive diligently for a not-too-correct informal delivery, they don't sound Goan. Barring Pankaj Kapur, they all sound like themselves: big city Bombay/Bangalore people, most with North Indian inflections to their English, trying to sound small-town Goan, and failing.

If we are going to make films in Indian English, we need to recognize that it has dialects. Everyone who is reading this article knows this. The way English is spoken in Goa is different from how it's spoken in Delhi, or Nagpur, or Kottayam. And I'm not even going into how its inflected by class and community and generational influences – how the Irani cafe owner speaks English is different from how the Chinese beauty parlour lady does; the retired Bengali Anglophile has an accent and vocabulary rather distinct from his granddaughter in Bombay.

The slipping accents aren't the only disappointing thing about Finding Fanny. The quirkiness Adajania put to such stellar use in the darkly funny and genuinely surprising Being Cyrus seems to have been regurgitated in a kind of baby-food version. Secrets here aren't held up for the great reveal, they're confided to trustworthy friends. So when sweet old Pocolim postman Ferdie (Naseer) realizes he's been single for forty-six years because a letter in which he proposed to the love of his life never actually reached her, he tells Angie (Deepika). Angie, being the angelic daughter Ferdie never had, decides to do a good deed by arranging a road trip to find Ferdie's long-lost love, Stefanie Fernandes, alias Fanny. The widowed Angie's own long-lost childhood flame Savio (Arjun Kapoor) is designated driver, and along for the ride, for different reasons, are Angie's busybody mother-in-law Rosalina (Dimple Kapadia) and Don Pedro (Pankaj Kapur), a supposedly 'world-famous' artist who's set his painterly sights on Rosalina's posterior.

Sadly, these characters spend the film drifting in search of Stefanie Fernandes -- and of a plot. And their oddball eccentricities, while making us giggle occasionally, never make us cry or want to scream. Only Kapur's Don Pedro, deliverer of grandiose compliments with a crazed gleam in his eye, provides a glimpse of true cruelty. And elicits a moment of pure devastation from Dimple's Rosalina. But the power of that scene is not allowed to stay with us: it is as if Adajania wants us to forget it as soon as it happens, literally get in the car and move on. The wicked pleasures of Being Cyrus are gone, lusty intrigue replaced by an almost soppy quest for love.

In 2012, when Adajania directed Cocktail, a loose-limbed, good-looking love triangle based on a script by Imtiaz Ali, many critics said he'd sold out to Bollywood. I'll save my defence of Cocktail for another piece, but whatever you thought of its politics, for Homi Adajania that film was a risk. As he said around that time, making a full-on romantic Hindi film, complete with songs and heavy-duty conversations, was a challenge – and he acquitted himself admirably, managing to leaven the film's emotional heft with a cocky humour that was all his own.

Finding Fanny, on the other hand, feels like he's lost his bite – or worse, thinks it's too risky to have truly dysfunctional characters, so they're all reduced to sweet old biddies or fresh-faced hopefuls. With a picture-perfect Goa that feels frozen in time, its vague air of melancholy wrapped in an uplifting soundtrack that is in Punjabi-Hindi for obvious reasons, I think it's this film that's the sell-out. And it might just be working. As the two Punjabi ladies said to each other as they walked out ahead of me, “Very cute film, hai na?”.

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