10 November 2014

Lust for life: Thoughts on The Shaukeens

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column: a new comedy unwittingly tells us more about the chained spirit than the freedoms of the flesh.

Growing up in this country, it is hard to escape the influence of certain ideas. A man's life (and the addressee of varnashrama dharma is clearly a man) is divided into stages, ashrama, and sex is only approved within the bounds of marriage. Grihastha must be followed by vanaprastha. The householder, when his hair begins to turn grey, should ideally withdraw from the world and its material comforts and pleasures, and retire to the forest. If he has a wife, she may accompany him, but their relationship must be celibate. 

Even as life expectancy has gone up hugely and many more people live many more healthy, active years after sixty, the vanaprastha ideal still has a great deal of traction, beneath the frenzied search for youthfulness. So older people in India must negotiate a minefield of conflicting expectations and desires. As a society, we seem unwilling to come to terms with the idea that older people might want to have a sex life -- or any life that goes beyond grandchildren, pilgrimages and diabetes medicines. Insofar as it addresses the awkward silence around the issue, The Shaukeens is a film with an important point to make. 

The problem, then, is not the what or the when of it. It's the how. Like Basu Chatterjee's 1982 Shaukeen, on which it is modelled, Abhishek Sharma's The Shaukeens centres on three sixty-something old men who decide that their sex-starved state must be remedied. Perfectly fun premise, which could make for a perfectly fun film. But rather than approaching women close to their own age, our tharki buddhas (The Shaukeens' own words) elect to prey on young women. Even worse, just the one young woman. 

Tigmanshu Dhulia's script convincingly transposes the Bombay building complex milieu of the 1982 film (itself an adaptation of short story writer Samaresh Basu's original Calcutta setting) to present-day Delhi. KD (Annu Kapoor) is a confirmed bachelor with a glad eye and a smooth tongue, Lali (Anupam Kher) is a shoe shop owner whose wife has sublimated her desires in religion, and Pinky (Piyush Mishra) a lonely widower who runs his family masala business with tight-fisted crabbiness. They try an escort service, but strangely, the escorts reject their custom. Having ogled at yoga instructors and harassed a young couple making out in a park, the three friends are nearly arrested for hitting on an unsuspecting passer-by. In desperation, they plan a trip to Mauritius, where an AIRbnb arrangement gets them sharing a house with "earth child" Ahana (poor Lisa Haydon, condemned to forever reprise her Indian-origin free spirit act from Queen). 

The differences from the 1982 film are telling. KD, Lali and Pinky might be old friends, but the contest over the girl has them each slyly trying to pull the wool over each other's eyes. Ashok Kumar, AK Hangal and Utpal Dutt, who turned in such fine performances in the old Shaukeen, had a rather different equation -- an open-faced camaraderie which kept their machinations somehow at the level of a game. Hangal's pipe-smoking Anglophile Inder Sain (who's named his travel agency Anderson) actually sits them down to discuss how since they've stumbled onto this one young woman, each of them might as well have a go. But the other two get thoughtfully out of the way each time. 

The other shift is in the characterisation of the young women. Rati Agnihotri's Anita - an 80s free-spirit stereotype, the Goan girl who's likely Christian, and a crooner to boot -- hung around the old men because it was a way to be in the same space as her boyfriend, played by a brooding, long-legged Mithun Chakraborty. Haydon's Ahana has no such excuse. What she has instead is an attack of Akshaykumaritis, convincing our three oldies that they can get in her pants if they only get her a meeting with Akshay. The superstar, playing himself with a sense of humour, takes digs at everything, from the 100 crore club to the hankering for a National Award, and is not unwatchable. But robbed of a flesh-and-blood lover, Ahana must subsist on a fantasy diet of fandom and facebook likes -- and comes off as insufferably ditsy. 

The old Shaukeen was admirably frank about the travails of ageing -- where the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak - but it also captured something profound about the reluctance to let go of life. The song that played whenever Ashok Kumar had a shaukeen moment said it most lucidly: "Jeevan se yeh ras ka bandhan, toda nahi jaye". More recently, Gulzar expressed that strange mixture of hesitation and moh in his unforgettable Dil toh bachcha hai ji: "Daant se reshmi dor katti nahi." 

The Shaukeens is much less eloquent. But what simmers just beneath the surface is that these men are victims, too, crippled by a masculine code not of their making. How good a man KD is, we're told, that he didn't let on about being in love with his friend's sister, even as she spent a lonely divorced life. We're meant to empathise with KD's wasted years, without condemning the absurdity of the honour codes that he lived by. And as for the sister, what of her? For women above a certain age, sex couldn't possibly be on their minds. Could it? As Rati Agnihotri played out her appointed part as Kher's weepy wife, I thought I spied an amused look in her eye. 

She was the Anita of old, after all. Shaukeen 3, anyone?

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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