Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fathers, sons, flight and flightiness: thoughts on Udaan

“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.

28 comments:

  1. Read about Udaan in Mint sometime back. Absolutely have to watch it -- it's been actually shot in Jamshedpur, where I grew up. Reading the Mint story and your piece, I got a feeling the director's portrayed Jamshedpur as some sort of hyper-industrialised ugly little town, which couldn't be further from the truth, but I have to see it for myself to find out if that impression's correct.

    Incidentally, there IS a lot of pressure on kids growing up in Jamshedpur to excel in conventional ways -- the IIT/ medical route -- but there are a few famous creative types from there as well (and I don't mean myself ;)), among them Imtiaz Ali and R Madhavan, Jamshedpur boys both.

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  2. I got a feeling the director's portrayed Jamshedpur as some sort of hyper-industrialised ugly little town

    Shrabonti: not really - we get to see lots of nice green lawns as well as a bit of nightlife when Rohan and friends sneak out for booze. But of course, since Rohan's perspective on the town is coloured by the constricted world his dad wants him to live in, the hyper-industrialisation is a big part of it.

    On another note, you would have made a fine chemical engineer!

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  3. Jai, I think it was a fabulous movie (gladly devoid of Aamir Khan style of simplistic resolutions) but I still think that the father's character became a bit of a caricature. It is still not very clear why he never faced his son even once in 8 years (even though he may have gone to his school).

    There is a suggestion of crushed ambitions but such a man would never have had a proper family life; imagine what his wife would have endured - maybe even having to call him "Sir". While I am glad that the director did not take pains to actually resolve the issue, the father's character seems to be cinematic atleast inexplicably enigmatic.

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  4. There is a suggestion of crushed ambitions but such a man would never have had a proper family life

    E Pradeep: but that is the case, no? He hasn't ever had a proper family life. He seems to move between periods of semi-domesticity when he's a child-beater (and possibly a wife-beater as well), and an almost hermetic existence in the in-between periods.

    I agree though that it sometimes felt like he wasn't so much a developed character in his own right as a bouncing board for Rohan's development. (Again, not to the extent that it hinders the film.)

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  5. Jai,

    Haven't seen the film yet but loved your review.
    Reminds me a bit of that wonderful scene from Dead Poet's Society where Keating makes the boys walk about aimlessly in the schoolyard -how, at first, they walk in a haphazard fashion, only to gradually fall into rhythm and match strides & he warns them against the dangerously seductive qualty of conformity, of not even taking the time to explore ones dreams before finding your place in the world, etc.

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  6. the dangerously seductive quality of conformity, of not even taking the time to explore ones dreams before finding your place in the world

    drift wood: yes, that's very well put, and very appropriate to this film. Too often in discussions of movies like Udaan the emphasis is on achieving your dreams (as if that's always entirely in the individual's hands anyway) rather than simply following them and seeing where they take you.

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  7. I liked the movie too, though there were many times in the second half when I felt really impatient and wished the editing had been a bit more crisp. I thought Rohan's initial capitulation was too sudden - at least later there was the kid brother as hostage, but the first night, when he rebelled briefly, he seemed to give in too quickly after that. Also thought there were bits when the father was made to seem less cardboardy - when he asks Rohan about whether he had sex, or gave him a cigarette - a human side - as also when they show the immense pressures he faces as a businessman whose probably struggling to stay afloat during a recession. And yes, the picnic bit where there was that brief spark was well done, so brief that I wondered if I had imagined it. I wondered how come the kindly chachoo didn't visit Rohan, or tell him of the marriage but I suppose the point is that he was as dominated by Bhairav. As an aside, didn't you think the grandfather's watch looked a bit too flat and modern? I always thought them antiques were more chunky. And interesting that you saw Rajat as an Imran Khan lookalike - I thought he was a dead ringer for a young Danny Denzongpa.

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  8. After reading this review, will be definitely watching Udaan :)

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  9. The only false step I felt was Rohan taking his brother along with him. It seems a somewhat fanciful assumpion that he could support a small kid on his own. Otherwise, the film is so assuredly made that I was almost dissapointed to read the Motwane's next is likely to be a romantic comedy.

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  10. A fan apart: but surely he can make a romantic comedy with equal assurance? Or do you just not like the genre?

    About Rohan taking his brother along - I thought of it as a satisfying ending more in terms of the character's personal development than in terms of its practicality.

    I thought he was a dead ringer for a young Danny Denzongpa.

    Radhika: now that you mention it, yes - though from a different angle.

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  11. Re taking brother - I agree with you Jai - it would have been an act of selfishness if he had gone off without his brother - knowing how BS treats the tyke. I was also nervous there would some mitigating backstory on how come the father turned out so - when the Chachoo whispers into Rohan's ears, I had this sinking feeling that he was being told some dukhbhari kahani which would make him all simpatico to BS - but luckily it didn't turn out like that. I also liked the mystery re the second wife - what exactly happened to her.

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  12. Nice post.
    Though it is hard to disagree with most of what you've said, I often wonder if we make too much of the "empathising with the kid" aspect while discussing child upbringing.

    I'm reminded of James Dean in Nick Ray's Rebel without a Cause. A teen who has all the freedom in the world brought up by seemingly kind, liberal minded parents. Yet, that doesn't stop him from wallowing in self pity and whiling away his time purposelessly.

    In sharp contrast, we've the case of John Stuart Mill, the 19th cen. philosopher, who had an extremely regimented upbringing with his father making him read Greek at the age of three. Mill responded to the treatment and went on to become a precocious intellectual of sorts even in his early teens.

    Now, most educationists today might be horrified at the elder Mill's mode of upbringing. Yet, it worked in Mill's case.

    I believe that too much is made of nurture in the nature vs. nurture debate. There is no ideal way to bring up a kid. A liberal upbringing may sound fine. But it may also result in several Jim Starks. Similarly, not everyone who tries to emulate Mill Sr will be rewarded with a John Stuart Mill.

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  13. I was almost dissapointed to read the Motwane's next is likely to be a romantic comedy.
    Haha. Its both strange and interesting how the genre of romcom has fared over the ages. I think Bollywood is still doing a bit better than Hollywood, where big stars and directors still participate in it and its very much into the mainstream.
    In Hollywood, from charismatic super stars like Cary Grant the genre is reduced to Matthew McConaugheys and Kate Hudsons and more often than not, are categorized as chick flicks.

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  14. An interesting article
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/03/movies/03scot.html

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  15. I believe that too much is made of nurture in the nature vs. nurture debate.

    shrikanth: you've read Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate? Do get hold of it if you haven't.

    Rahul: yes, the decline of the rom-com in Hollywood is sad - could be that the genre was best suited to a sexually conservative (or reticent) age. But there has been the occasional well-scripted, well-performed romantic comedy in recent years too.

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  16. Jai: Haven't read it, but remember reading its reviews. It appears Pinker is quite unequivocal when it comes to siding with Nature.
    By the way, I was about to get started on one of Stephen Gould's books. Gould apparently had a very different take on these matters compared to Pinker or Dawkins.

    Rahul: Back in the 30s, rom-com's were primarily comedies and not romances. Modern rom-com's are the other way round. Pauline Kael summed it up perfectly -

    For some strange reason we don't go to charming, light movies anymore. People expect a movie to be heavy and turgid, like "American Beauty." We've become a heavy-handed society

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  17. Absolutely loved this movie, and also your piece on it.

    This is one of the rare films in which the accent doesn't come across as caricature. The detailing makes it more authentic: the seniors at college, the father and the uncle, and the little kid who goes to school in Jamshedpur, all have traces of accent in different degrees.

    The Roy brothers are good actors, I wish they got more roles of this kind to flex their acting chops.

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  18. "But surely he can make a romantic comedy with equal assurance? Or do you just not like the genre?"

    Am being a bit cynical, but romcoms (especially those made here) tend to ed up walking the straight and narrow. Have no doubt that Motwane will be assured, just hope the material he's working with is as good as Udaan.

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  19. Jai, which recent movies do you have in mind?

    Rahul: Back in the 30s, rom-com's were primarily comedies and not romances. Modern rom-com's are the other way round.
    Shrikanth, agreed. I wonder whether this is due to the declining standard of writing. Comedies are probably more difficult to write than any other genre.
    For some strange reason we don't go to charming, light movies anymore.
    Perhaps, that space was co-opted by TV?

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  20. Rahul: must clarify that by "recent" I mean anything made from 1950 onwards! But even if we're talking really, really recent (1980s on) I've liked a few films that more or less fit the genre. Sleepless in Seattle, Last Chance Harvey, Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally, As Good as it Gets, a few others.

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  21. If you leave lightness out of the equation, there have been some excellent rom-coms that have played with the boundaries of the genre. Before Sunsrise/Sunset, Chasing Amy, Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind, Punch-drunk love...

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  22. A fan apart: I don't really know what you mean by "leaving lightness out of the equation" (or why one would want to do such a thing at all). Among the films you mention, I love Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but if we have to classify them at all I'd classify them as romances rather than as romantic comedies. I admire a few things about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (while seeing it as a fairly obvious example of what Farber called white-elephant art), but again I'm not sure it's a rom-com. Haven't seen the other two yet.

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  23. I don't know if it is exactly classifiable as a rom-com - but I so enjoyed "Stranger than fiction" - it was funny, intelligent, moving and yes, very romantic too.

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  24. Great movie.

    Didn't you think it seemed like an older version of "400 Blows"? From the throwing out of school to the freeze frame ending...

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  25. Your ending paragraph sealed the deal for me - I simply have to watch this movie now! Very beautiful.

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  26. Watched this on TV a few weeks back after hearing a lot of good things about it. I agree with some of the commentators here (which I think Jai also acknowledges though less equivocally) that the Ronit Roy character becomes too much of a caricature in the second half of the movie, & it suffers for it. Jai, your point about the 3 stages of the Arjun-Rohan-Bhairav continuum is very astute.

    Also, two other shout outs - for the storytelling scene in the hospital & for depicting Jamshedpur (I did my MBA there & have very fond memories of the place).

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  27. Watched the movie a week and found your review highly apt. For me personally the defining point was when he outruns his father, having realised his dreams and the will to follow them,with watever it takes. Before that he was merely tring to win the race, only his father had gotten good at.

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