“He’s my son,” Bhairav Singh tells his factory workers as he introduces 17-year-old Rohan to them, “but that’s only at home. Not here. If he makes a mistake, don’t go easy on him.” This is a remark laden with irony, for Rohan is much more likely to get a curt word of appreciation – or a half-smile – from his father at the workplace than at home. Calling their relationship awkward would be an understatement; in fact, they barely even knew each other until Rohan was sent home to Jamshedpur from his boarding school in Shimla. He wants to be a writer, but Bhairav – a grim-faced disciplinarian given to bouts of violent rage – wants him to study engineering and work in his steel factory. “Yeh udhne ke sapne bandh karo aur pair zameen par utaaro,” (“Keep your feet on the ground and stop dreaming of flying away”) he snaps.
Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan begins with another scene that connotes flight and escape in a slightly different context: four friends sneak out of their hostel late in the evening and visit a shady cinema hall to watch bikini babes in the edifyingly titled film “Kanti Shah ke Angoor”. In this early sequence, the camera treats the four boys as equals – if you don’t know anything about Udaan beforehand, you won’t identify any one of them as its protagonist. But by the time they are caught and expelled from school, Rohan is the clear focal point. From the reactions of his principal and his friends we can tell there’s something special about his situation, and soon enough we learn that he hasn’t seen his father in eight years. Once back home, he discovers he has a six-year-old half-brother named Arjun, intelligent and alert but clearly cowed down. Meanwhile, Bhairav’s idea of being a dad is to impersonally show Rohan the “sights” of Jamshedpur (mainly statues of the overachieving entrepreneurs of the Tata dynasty - inspirational figures from the only world Bhairav really knows) during a regimented daily jog, and to punch the dreams out of his head. "Mujhe aankh mat dikhao," he commands whenever Rohan looks at him with anything other than meek compliance.
“Small-town fathers are like that,” one of Rohan’s new friends says during a drinking session, “Family business – very good. Dream business – very bad.” No doubt this town, and countless others like it, are full of young men whose lives are being straitjacketed by their dads (who were similarly the victims of family expectations when they were young).
Udaan is a beautiful, economically made film full of brief but evocative shots such as the one where Rohan sits on a lawn, writing his poetry, while smoke billows out of factory chimneys in the distant background – a nice visualisation of the contrast between the life he wants to lead and the career that seems to be waiting for him. Most of the key sequences are tightly constructed, though I got a bit impatient with a couple of scenes in the second half that seemed self-consciously Cinema Verite (with extreme close-ups of characters talking in the pause-filled style that sometimes passes for “naturalism”). That’s a small quibble, though - it doesn’t weaken the film’s considerable emotional impact, which comes from the main characters being written and performed as multi-dimensional people.
From the first scene Rohan is established as a street-smart boy rather than as an innocent, naïve victim. He composes thoughtful poems and reads them with feeling, but he’s also good-humoured enough to tell a listening friend “Samajh nahin aaya, na?” with a gleam in his eye, and to leave it at that. He plays pranks, watches sleazy films, gets drunk and takes his father’s car out late at night. He’s even capable of hitting Bhairav back when things go too far. In portraying him, the film doesn’t trade in clichés about over-sensitive “writer types” who spend all their time moping around dreamily, and young Rajat Barmecha's performance in the role couldn't be any better (incidentally, with his full lips and smooth features, Barmecha looks like a dead ringer for the actor Imran Khan from certain angles).
Bhairav (played by Ronit Roy - an intriguing bit of casting because of the association with stern patriarchs in regressive TV soaps) is somewhat closer to being a caricature – the monstrous, overbearing parent – but we get the impression that as a businessman at least he’s a genuinely disciplined person who holds himself to the same (or higher) standards as he expects from others. And there are suggestions that still waters run deep. In one scene during a family picnic, when Rohan’s kindhearted uncle encourages him to recite a poem, there’s a flicker of a moment where Bhairav looks at his son as if he’s seeing him with new eyes – but then he puts his mask on again and the moment passes.
Watching that scene and others like it, I had a scary thought: it’s easy to see Arjun, Rohan and Bhairav as stages in the life of a single person. Wholly unlikable as Bhairav is in his current state, he was probably a cute, sensitive kid like Arjun once – and possibly a rebellious adolescent like Rohan, until he had it beaten out of him. At one point he tells Rohan that if he had ever back-answered his own dad, his bones would have been pounded along with the steel in the family factory. We are never told what dreams he may have had as a youngster (and I’m glad about that – a forced attempt to humanise Bhairav by giving us his back-story would have diluted the film’s focus), but there's little doubting that much of his personal frustration and bitterness comes from his own childhood experiences.
At one, obvious level Udaan is a "follow your heart" tale about a young boy refusing to tread the path his authoritarian father has mapped out for him. But at another, deeper level it’s about having the freedom to be young, exuberant and irresponsible – and after that having the freedom to find your own path towards responsibility and maturity, rather than slip into pre-determined roles that won’t allow you to be either a fulfilled youngster or a fulfilled adult. In this context, Rohan’s final decision is particularly significant. It shows that while he’s ready to udo, to “take flight”, he isn’t going to be flighty; he’s prepared for the responsibilities that come with living his own life. The film takes its time arriving at this ending, but when it does it’s a thematically apt and satisfying one.