Sunday, October 14, 2007

Cheeni Kum

I watched "Cheeni Kum" the other day. I found it refreshing. None of that melodrama where the guy or girl doesn't express his/her feelings to either their parents or the object of their affection, and mercifully, no aerobic gyrations by scantily clad gals and guys on the streets of London. A story about love that can happen at any age without being apologetic for it. A story that does not have sugary sweet parent-child emotions where the kids “obey” their parents and parents mouth philosophical dialogues straight out of Ramanand Sagar’s mythological serials.

Amitabh Bachchan plays Buddhadev Gupta – a chef with an acerbic tongue that does not even spare his own aged mother, an ego, attitude and a passion for his work all related to each other and single at 64. Yes, never been married! He owns a restaurant called "Spice6" in London, of which he is also the head chef, considering the culinary practice a work of art.
Tabu plays Nina Verma – a 34-year-old single, lovely lady, who’s visiting London and as fate would have it, walks right into Buddhadev’s restaurant and his life.
They meet when Nina sends back a plate of Hyderabadi zafrani pulav that is too sweet for her palate and Buddhadev comes to the table and unleashes his ire and ego at her. She leaves but not without sending him hand-cooked authentic zafrani pulav soon, thereby humbling the otherwise cocky restaurant owner cum head chef. Their romance unfolds slowly with Nina being classy and bold at the same time. Not for her the coy, come-hither-but-stay-away-from-me confusing signals typically sent out by our heroines. By the way, our heroines are saying out loud what is in their heart, be it a Kajol in “Fanaa”, or Rani Mukherjee in “Hum Tum”. The background score by Ilaiyaraja as well as the one or two songs are superb, understated but mellifluous and creating the mood for the romance.
Another endearing part about the movie is when Buddhadev and Nina have a small disagreement over the perennial vegetarian/non-vegetarian issue. They are sitting at this seaside cafĂ©/restaurant out in the open. Nina orders a fish dish and Buddhadev orders vegetarian pasta. When Nina asks him how he manages to eat “ghaaspoos” (grass – the term used to tease vegetarians with), he launches into an ardent speech about how the fish that she is eating are being missed by their relatives.. something that I, as a vegetarian, can identify with. They end up calling each other “ghaaspoos” and “tangdi kabab” (a meat dish).
The measure of how far our cinema has come when it comes to matters of a sexual nature is illustrated not by passionate lovemaking scenes but by cheeky, double-entendre scenes:
Nina asks Buddhadev to do a sprint towards a tree and back to check whether he has the stamina to do something beyond just holding hands. And then, there is Buddhadev, covered in awkwardness as he attempts to buy a condom at the local pharmacy owned by an Indian sardar. If I were him, I would sneak off to a local, white-manned department store, where I could pick up the said item anonymously. But, it just shows how taboo having a sex life at 60+ still is, for some Indians.
The “Meet the Father of the Bride” session is totally whacky with Paresh Rawal essaying the part of Nina’s father, a self-confessed Gandhian, who indulges in some non-Gandhian practices, such as consuming chicken and the occasional social whiskey. He launches into a “satyagraha” without food or drink when he hears from Buddhadev in the loo of a hotel, that he wishes to marry his daughter. The daughter does not bow to emotional pressure either. Some of the dialogues will be pretty hard to stomach – such as Nina asking her father when he is planning to die as he says that he would not allow Nina to marry Buddhadev as long as he is alive. But, it is not that Nina does not care about her father. She rushes to Delhi from London when her dear papa is sick and sits by his side through most of his self-imposed hunger strike, trying to win his approval. But, seriously, this part is what made the movie drag on and on.
Finally, all’s well that ends well.
Zohra Sehgal as the aged but spirited mother of Buddhadev, who revels in “Sex and the City” (gosh, she, too!) and “WWF” on the flat screen TV in Buddhadev's sprawling London home, is a delight to watch. She should get more meaty roles.
Swini Khara as the young, precocious cancer patient, who wants to watch adult DVDs before she dies as she is not going to live to see them, does a great job, too, leaving her mark even in a side role.
Amitabh and Tabu play their parts to perfection. Amitabh probably never had it this good even in his youthful heyday. He is like a bottle of wine that tastes better as it ages. As for Tabu, her long silky straight hair, radiant face and traditional salwar kameezes, kurta-and-jeans attire, add a luster and sexiness to her, even without revealing costumes.
Paresh Rawal is hilarious, as usual.
Finally, a round of applause for the debutant director,
Balakrishnan. He deserves to be commended for this work. More power to less-shrill dialogues, less loud humour.
All in all, a sweet movie, without the dripping, sickly sugary-sweetness of most of our romantic movies. Truly, “kum cheeni” (less sugar)!

Marriage and Family

This week’s U.S. News and World Report (October 15, 2007 issue) editorial column talks about how children in two-parent households have a better life than those in single-parent households, how the husband-wife traditional family is the best to raise kids who turn out to be healthy, responsible citizens.
Well, common sense suggests that if both parents are educated and if there is a constant source of income in the household, be it from one or both parents, the children are likely to receive a good education, healthcare and other benefits. This is definitely a good thing.
What about children in bad marriages or of divorced parents? The author in the said column even goes further as to say that Social Security and benefits programs should encourage marriage and not single parenthood.
But, can personal behavior really be incentivized? Maybe, in some cases, yes. For example, the Indian government did encourage smaller families to control the population, by massive public broadcasting programs and other means. But, in a democratic setup, people have to essentially believe in the principle behind the measure, to be a participant in implementing it.
The people who believe that marriage should not be a precondition for sex are going to go ahead and do it, anyway. Carelessness about contraception or the failure thereof is going to result in at least a few babies out of wedlock. Even among those who wait to get married and have babies, there is no guarantee that the couple is not going to split or that both parents will be alive till the child turns 18.
This brings us to the term – “family”. In today’s times, the family, at least in America and even in urban India, is mostly the parent/s and the kids living together. In the old days, in India, many people lived with their parents well after marriage. In fact, one sometimes had all the brothers living together under one really large roof with their wives and kids. Even today, there are quite a few such units that we call “joint families”.
In the modern or nuclear family, single parenthood is a costly thing. The single parent is the sole provider/caregiver/mentor for the children and this can be a particularly overwhelming task. In a structure where the spouses are not the sole providers/caregivers, the children are also looked after by other elders such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. It is like having free daycare cum family atmosphere. I sometimes wonder, if Americans also lived in such structures, rather than moving out of their parents’ nest after 18, would the single-parent statistics be very different? Another factor working against single-parent families is the low-income individuals who undergo out-of-wedlock pregnancies and do not have much of an education or high income to support their kids with. Added to that, if these parents are already in the grip of drug/alcohol addiction, then the children would really have a rough childhood.
But, what about the educated, well-paid professionals who don’t find the “right person” to commit a lifetime to, but find that their biological clocks are going away, tick-tock, tick-tock? Will they not also just have a baby so that they don’t miss out on motherhood? I am saying “motherhood” because it is usually women who have a shorter fertile period to have babies and also motherhood is, well, physically far more demanding than fatherhood (not the raising of kids part, just the bearing them part, before all you men jump at me).
Affluent actresses such as Angelina Jolie and Sushmita Sen adopted children out of wedlock and they are greatly admired for it. Many Hollywood celebrities bear children before getting married and the father is also pretty well-known.
In my opinion, marriage was originally meant as a structure for companionship, support in old age as well as emotional, physical and financial support throughout, as well as a unit to raise children. Today, we expect romance, great sex and the world out of it besides the above-mentioned factors. We expect to commit to one person all our lives and have emotional, physical, social and financial fulfillment till death do us part. Whether this is possible for all marriages on earth is a question that yours truly cannot answer as it is too profound, too complex for any individual alone. No wonder, commitment-phobia seems to be more common.
But, was marriage always the one man-one woman sole family unit? History points out quite the contrary. While the single husband-single wife union seemed to be pretty common, polygamy and polyandry were quite rampant, too, at least among the royals and other elite people. Did the children of such structures end up as lesser human beings? We don’t know. In the Ramayana, that epitome of family values, Rama was the eldest son, his father had three wives and the step-brothers got along so fabulously that today’s blood siblings would be ashamed of their own petty rivalries. Now, don’t for a moment, think that I am endorsing polygamy/polyandry.
All I am saying is, both marriage and family, as social institutions, have changed with time, across cultures around the world.
I somehow don’t buy the argument that marriage-first-kids-later, is going to solve all the socioeconomic problems of the world. What any child needs is love, acceptance and responsible caregivers who are genuinely concerned about his/her wellbeing and who are there for him/her not only till he/she is ready to fly, but also later. A loving father and mother united in a socially-sanctioned institution is a great gift to a child. But to say that the others who make a genuine effort to raise children right in a responsible way, who have made choices that society does not approve of, are somehow doing a lesser job, makes me feel a tad little uncomfortable.