[Minor spoiler alert, though why bother?]
Naseeruddin Shah’s directorial debut Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota (What If...?) is advertised as a film about “people with distinct hopes and motives whom fate has randomly selected to play their assigned roles in one of the most terrible events of recent times”. The main poster shows the large cast standing together, the Manhattan skyline with the twin towers in the backdrop. At the start of the film, a voiceover tells us that the current date is August 31, 2001, and a dateline to that effect stays on screen for at least five seconds. This is immediately followed by talk about a US visa and about sundry characters who are leaving for America. A little later, a girl excitedly holds up a US tourism poster with the World Trade Centre on it. In an unrelated context a man, extolling the virtues of modest dwellings, says “Skyscrapers don’t even make good ruins.” Halfway through the film, there is a pre-figuring shot of a plane flying high above a very tall building.
So what do you think the terrible event being referred to might be?
Ya, well try telling that to some of the people in the audience at the Cinefan screening on Wednesday. Considering the abundance of visual and verbal clues, it’s remarkable that quite a few people at the screening seemed unprepared for where this film was heading until the final 15-20 minutes, when a calendar showing September 10 is flipped over to the next date and you feel paroxysms running through sections of the crowd.
Overheard, this conversation between two lads, more than three-fourths of the way through the film:
(Onscreen, someone mentions that it’s 47 rupees to the dollar)
Lad 1: Hey, isn’t the exchange rate 44 or 45 rupees?
Lad 2 (offhandedly, not really paying attention to what he’s saying): Ya, but this film is set in 2001, right?
Lad 1: 2001? How do you know?
Lad 2: It said so in the beginning. August 2001 or something like that.
(Onscreen, there are shots of airports, planes moving about. Visas, boarding passes, tall buildings.)
Lad 1 (experiencing epiphany attack) Arre, kahin yeh 9/11 ke baare mein toh nahin!
Lad 2: F#$!ing hell man, you’re right!
Yun Hota toh Kya Hota tells four unrelated but converging stories: a newly married couple (Konkana Sensharma and Jimmy Shergill) must briefly be separated because the guy is working abroad; a small-time organiser of foreign shows (Paresh Rawal) takes money from young girls to get them to the US; a brilliant but poor student secures admission to a foreign university with the help of a rich friend; and a crooked stockbroker (Irrfan) is falsely implicated in a murder. For most of its duration this is a smartly made film, especially for a debutant director. Shah juggles the narratives with aplomb, most of the characters are well-delineated, always a difficult achievement in a film like this (though the mad family Konkana’s character marries into could have come out of a David Lynch movie), and the script is good on the whole.
Unfortunately, the impact is diluted by an ending that’s much too explicit and expository. (“See, that’s the window the plane will fly through,” a cynical friend whispered to me when a character finds himself alone in a room on the 95th floor of the WTC late in the film. I laughed the idea off, but this is exactly what happened. And let’s hope the US government doesn’t see this film, they’ll interpret certain scenes to mean that the terrorists did what they did just because they were being annoyed by Indian co-passengers: “Hello. I from India. And yourself?” There, I’ve revealed too much.)
One understands what Shah is trying to do here: this is a statement on the quirks of destiny using the minutiae of various lives that will be impacted by a terrible real-life incident we already know about. The concept certainly is interesting; it would doubtless be possible to make hundreds of films about people whose hopes and dreams were altered or destroyed by 9/11. But there’s also an element of tastelessness in taking a real-life tragedy of this scale and then stylising it the way this film does in its final scenes. There are at least a couple of moments late in Yun Hota toh Kya Hota when the film, having made all its points, could simply have ended with grace and subtlety. Fade to black. Instead it feels compelled to go all the way, to show us everything, and this was always going to be a disastrous decision; you’d need the subtlety of a United 93 to pull it off. The final title card, “Dedicated to all those who died on that terrible day”, reads almost like an apology.