Aiyyaa – How can a movie be so sublime and so awful all at the same time

I love Rani Mukherji so Aiyyaa was on my watchlist, but it moved right up to the top after I saw this video:

I have only seen a few Prithviraj films, and my impression was of a very good serious actor in Ennu Ninte Moideen, Classmates and Mumbai Police or even Aurangzeb.  But I hadn’t seen him like this:

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Aga-Bai-Aiyyaa

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Holy moly.  (Is it getting hot in here?)

Aiyyaa means Oh, My!  Aiyyaa was a comeback film for Rani, but was Prithviraj’s Bollywood Debut.  (He made Aurangzeb around the same time.)  The film was produced by Anurag Kashyap and was directed by Sachin Kundalkar.

Rani is Menaskshi, a young woman who loves zany Bollywood films, the more over the top the better.  The songs in Aiyyaa are her fantasies.  She imagines herself at the beginning as Madhuri, Juhi and Sridevi.  Her parents want to arrange her marriage, but first she gets a job at the local art college.

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She is struck speechless by the appearance of art student Surya, and is entranced by his smell.  (The director Sachin Kundalkar, had done a previous Marathi film about the senses.)  She asks around to learn more about her crush Surya.  He always has red eyes so the rumor is that he’s on drugs or spends all his nights drinking.  He barely ever speaks to Rani, and is very mysterious and standoffish.  She finds him sleeping in doorways and hallways.  She knows he speaks Tamil to the chaiwallah boy, who she bribes to teach her to speak Tamil.  “How do I say I like dark skin people, not fair skin?”  The chaiwallah recommends she watch the Tamil Midnight Masala TV channel.

Rani dreams she’s in a Southern Masala film, and we get this insane number that made me just laugh in delight:

As Prithviraj said in an interview — it’s Bollywood’s crazy view of Southern films.  What I absolutely love about this song sequence is that I’ve never before seen Prithviraj so silly, and you can just see him going for it with gusto.

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He just has this crazy grin through the whole song.  They rhyme humping and thumping, and he bobs his head following her waist gyrations.  Prithviraj’s having his own fun spoofing regional song sequences.  Having seen several South Indian films, I felt like I was in on the joke.

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Rani’s eccentric family have placed a matrimonial ad and she grits her teeth through meetings with several suitors.  One very nice average guy she reluctantly agrees to see again.  He’s kind and sweet, but he just doesn’t float her boat like Surya – who seemingly doesn’t even know she exists.  While shopping for wedding saris, she has the lustful Aga Bai fantasy song from the top of the review.

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I wouldn’t have minded if Surya had just been a fantasy and she ended up with the nice average Maadhav (Subodh Bhave).  On the day of her engagement, she escapes the house and follows Surya.  Finally she discovers the source of his intoxicating scent, and they connect.  The romance is just so swoon worthy.  It’s sublime.

But unfortunately, Prithviraj, Subodh and Rani aren’t the only people in the film.  Rani’s family is at first amusingly eccentric.  In the first half, it’s not so bad, but her brother character especially in the second half just goes off into crazyland.  The very worst character is her co-worker Maina, who has big buck teeth and comes to work with vodka in a bear shaped water bottle.  She’s not only un-funny, she’s just blatantly offensive.  The writer-director was going for zany, and he veered too far on the wacky spectrum.  You know it’s bad when Johnny Lever would have brought subtlety to this film. If this film instead had had the comedic tone of something like Dum Laga Ke Haisha it would have been perfect.   It was just so uneven lurching between the extreme awful comedy and then the swooniness of the romance.

I loved the romance bits of this film so much I have rewatched it already, but I fast-forwarded through all the family scenes and the Maina bits.  Rani in her fantasies in Aiyyaa reminded me a bit of Amelie, that magical realism French film:

 

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So dear reader, I have trouble whole-heartedly recommending this film.  The film has a great message about cross-cultural romance and even with a male director is interested in the female gaze and point of view.  If you’re a big fan of Rani like I am, you’ll agree that she was fantastic as Meenakshi.  If you love Prithviraj as I am beginning to, you’ll love seeing him be almost Mr. Darcy like, and also having zany fun being a sex symbol.  If you can stand to watch not so great films for the transcendent good parts, just do yourself a favor and keep your finger on the fast-forward button.

Three stars out of five.  Aiyyaa is available on ErosNow, which is where I watched it.

 

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