It must be unusual for a movie to make the year's best lists of many thinking critics, and at the same time the year's worst lists of equally many others. Sachin Kundalkar's Aiyyaa was nothing if not divisive, a hot mess of a film to some, subtle and even revolutionary to others. Beth's thoughtful, substantial praise describes a movie of startlingly bold feminist sensibility, a nearly unprecedented story about a woman's desires and autonomy. With those ideas in mind, I expected to side with Beth and others who love Aiyyaa's fresh, female-oriented approach. That isn't what happened.
I am willing to give Aiyyaa the benefit of the doubt, and credit it with aiming for the subversive narrative that Beth perceives in it. For me, though, Aiyyaa falls far short of the mark. As a story of female autonomy, it is passable, but not astonishing. Worse than that, as a movie, it just isn't very well crafted. Weaknesses of script and incomprehensible choices in direction undermine its strengths and potential, yielding a movie-watching experience that is more puzzling than exciting. If Beth is right about Aiyyaa, I should be front and center in the choir to which it preaches - but it mostly leaves me cold.
Aiyyaa takes its first wrong turn in the formulation of the ambitions of its protagonist, Meenaxi (Rani Mukherjee). Meenaxi retreats into a fantasy world in which she dances out the famous routines of the likes of Sridevi and Madhuri. Unlike those stars, though, Meenaxi dances not for the male gaze, but for her own pleasure; in Meenaxi's "Kaate nahin katte," Mr India is not merely invisible - he is absent. This is remarkable, this discounting of the male gaze, and Aiyyaa deserves credit for taking its heroine this far. But her dream is still the superficial, stereotyped dream of being a film star, of looking beautiful and being entertaining. In that, Aiyyaa is not revolutionary - it's just lazy. Need a big, sweeping ambition for a character who feels hemmed in by her family and circumstances? Easy - she wants to be a film star!
The characterization does not improve when Meenaxi's desires snap into focus on Surya (Prithviraj), the art student who catches her eye. Rather, the script underscores Meenaxi's superficiality, sending her ambitions into overdrive over a hunky guy who smells nice. Other than this, all Meenaxi knows about Surya is that he speaks Tamil and treats her with something in between indifference and outright scorn. None of that matters - his pecs and his fragrance are enough to drive Meenaxi to teach herself Tamil, abuse her privileges at work to examine his records, stalk him to his home, and lie to create a pretext to talk to his mother.
All of this is the time-honored stuff of superficial filmi stalker-romance, albeit typically executed by a nominally charming hero in pursuit of some vapid heroine who has struck his fancy. The fundamental problem for Aiyyaa is that reversing these roles - making the man the objectified meat, and the woman the aggressor - does not make such superficial stories any more satisfying or romantic. As a viewer I don't particularly root for the pairing, because the script offers no compelling evidence that the two belong together, and anyway Surya seems to be, at best, a bit of a jerk. (He is proven to be a Nice Guy (TM) at the end of the film, but that post hoc justification of the romance does not retroactively fix the story.) Beth argues that Surya doesn't need a personality because the story is about Meenaxi, not him. I don't buy this argument. The message I get is that Meenaxi in the sort of woman who can lose her head over a guy with no personality. That is hardly revolutionary.
What makes this so frustrating is that Meenaxi is a terrific character, executed as well as can be imagined by the always appealing Rani Mukherjee, who can pull off loony-cute better than any actor of her generation. Meenaxi has a very real drive, which she articulates to her incomprehensibly nutty coworker Mynah (Anita Date) - a drive for financial independence, so that she can move out of her family's quite literally stifling home and marry at leisure, instead of at her overbearing mother's insistence. There is superb, if unsubtle, symbolism in that household which chokes the life out of Meenaxi's dreams; between an enormous stinking pile of garbage, Meenaxi's brother's impromptu kennel for wayward dogs, and her father's smoking four cigarettes at a time, Meenaxi cannot breathe at home. Yet she retains an exquisitely tuned sense of smell that guides and fuels her when she is away from home. These devices represent Aiyyaa at its clever best, and it's disappointing to see them squandered by the script's choice of such uninteresting prizes for Meenaxi as Bollywood fame and a ripped boyfriend.
Aiyyaa's direction certainly gives it a unique feel, almost theatrical, with an unusual and lovely background score and a parade of side characters that are wild and cartoonish and clearly intended to be funny. Whether this ensemble falls on the right side of the line between comedy and annoyance has to vary from viewer to viewer. For me, all the side characters are shrill and self-consciously weird, more puzzling and irritating than entertaining. Meenaxi's family members scream at each other from the first scene, her father's bizzarre collection of old telephones rings constantly, her brother's dogs bark, her wheelchair-bound grandmother caromes back and forth across the set flashing her gold teeth, all in a swirling cacophany that at least engenders sympathy to Meenaxi's need for escape, if it doesn't also induce a migraine. And then there is the inexplicable Mynah. Perhaps she is meant to make a point about marching to the beat of one's own drum, but in execution she is only strange, shrill, mystifying, and even - when she squeals orgasmically about John Abraham's muscles - embarrassing.
And so, despite some signs of cleverness and thoughtful intentions, I just can't say I like Aiyyaa. As a thought-provoking commentary on women's desires it undermines itself with its own superficiality. And as an entertainer, it veers so far into the wacky as to be more of a head-scratcher than a romp or a fun ride.