Sunday, July 5, 2020

Reviewing Jane: Without Music, Life Would Be A Blank To Me

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2010
Director: Rajshree Ojha
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Abhay Deol, Amrita Puri
Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

Bollywood and Jane Austen are a match made in heaven. A modern culture with strict class divides that retains some focus on arranging marriages, and a romantic comedy art form that expresses this culture which spends a large amount of time focusing on dance? Yeah, it's no surprise Hindi cinema and Austen's novels found each other. Our first experience with this intersection was the sublime Bride & Prejudice (which, to be fair, was an English film with an Indian director and cast that is more inspired by Bollywood than strictly belonging to it, but an excellent example nonetheless).

Today we alight upon Aisha, an adaptation of Emma. I approached it cautiously, because it is a fool's errand to assume any movie will be as good as Bride & Prejudice, let alone merely because they share the same country of origin.

Smart move, Brennan.

Aisha tells the story of - you guessed it - Aisha (Sonam Kapoor), a layabout rich daddy's girl from Delhi who struts the shops with her best friend Pinky (Ira Dubey). When charity case Shefali (Amrita Puri) arrives in Delhi from her home in a neighboring village, Aisha decides to make her over and fix her up with confectionary heir Randhir (Cyrus Sahukar). Of course this goes horribly awry, and Aisha finds herself scolded as ever by family friend Arjun (Abhay Deol), with whom she has a very antagonistic relationship that may or may not blossom into love, no spoilers.

JK, it totally does.

Anyway, first, Aisha must find herself entangled even further in the love lives of her friends, becoming especially complicated when the handsome Dhruv (Arunoday Singh) comes to town.

Additionally, for the Austen scholars out there, while Dhruv is pretty clearly our analogue for Frank Churchill, once more the character of Jane Fairfax seems to have been removed, this time replaced with the general idea of the city of Mumbai. Poor Jane Fairfax.

Emma is a particularly challenging novel to bring to the screen, so it's a very pleasant surprise that we've already gotten two masterpieces from it (1995's Clueless and Autumn de Wilde's Emma. from earlier this year, though it feels a lifetime ago). So I'm not exactly disappointed that Aisha is terminally mediocre. It's better than being actively painful to watch, cough cough Gwyneth Paltrow. 

In fact, it's almost annoying that nothing in the movie is particularly bad. If it had been, it might at least have made more of an impression on me. OK, the score is pretty bad, with its overreliance on saccharine Looney Tunes marimbas to really nail in that this. is. a. COMEDY. But beyond that, it's just plain plain. It doesn't help that I could recite the plot of Emma in my sleep at this point, but maybe that's not even an unfair bias because this movie nakedly cribs from Clueless more than the actual source text (see: the scene where they're on the couch fighting over the remote, the scene where she is left stranded in an unsafe neighborhood and needs to be picked up, the fact that she has a best friend/sidekick in the first place, etc. etc. etc.). The one place where it strays from the template of either work is the scene that gives Shefali a bit more grit in standing up for herself than any Harriet analogue has ever been given.

But whatever text it's using, it relies on it too much to make the romance click. Aisha gives a heartfelt speech in the end detailing all the ways Arjun has helped her in her life, bringing up a heap of examples that haven't been depicted or even hinted at in the film. We know they're meant to be together because of the source material, rather than the pair of them actually having any chemistry.

I have nothing against the performances in particular, it's just that Aisha is particularly obsessed with keeping its leads separate from one another, even for an Austen tale.

But here's the thing. A theory I have developed over the course of reviewing over two dozen Austen adaptations is that the obligatory big dance scene is the key to whether or not a film has any drive to craft a valuable cinematic experience rather than just blow Austen's story up onscreen and go through the motions with little thought to making a film object that's interesting in any way. Seeing as how dance is key to the language of Bollywood filmmaking, I thought this would be a home run. And it is, briefly. Oh so briefly. 

Aisha and her friends visit a club that turns into a sexy, chaotic, colorful Hindi tango where partner-switching mayhem leaves Aisha alone in a twirling maelstrom of bodies. Through motion and music, the dynamics between the characters are brought to light, in the manner of the best Austen adaptations. Unfortunately, every other musical moment leaves a lot to be desired, so it recklessly dilutes the power of this moment. 

The other music is presented lackadaisically, plastered over endless music video montages that do nothing to further the story (one of them is a particularly craven three minute L'Oréal ad), and the ever-important finale number that graces even most music-free Bollywood flicks is, to be frank, abysmal. It's flatly choreographed, shot and edited in a confusing flurry, and is plastered over with a poorly mixed song that's largely a cappella, leaving the poor actors to flounder, attempting to dance cheerily over a track that literally doesn't even have a beat. 

Let's call this an exception to my theory. Most Austen films only have one opportunity to present us with dance, and live or die on that opportunity. Here we are given a cool half dozen, and one successful scene doesn't lift up the tiresome mass of the rest. Such is the way with the movie as a whole. Altogether most of the ideas here aren't terrible, they just aren't aiming high enough. They might clear the low bar to exist as a mildly enjoyable Austen adaptation, but they graze the bar with their foot and faceplant right into the mat in the process.

TL;DR: Aisha does the bare minimum to exist as either a Jane Austen adaptation or a Bollywood romantic comedy.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1076
Other Films Based on Emma
Clueless (Heckerling, 1995)
Emma (McGrath, 1996)
Emma (Lawrence, 1996)
Aisha (Ojha, 2010)
Emma. (de Wilde, 2020)

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