[Disclaimer: 1. I have not seen Peepli Live, or most of the other ‘critical’ hits of 2010
2. Spoilers if you haven’t seen Udaan]
“Udaan” was ‘critically acclaimed’, which automatically gave it the kiss of death as far as viewership and the box office go. Unlike a lot of exercises in that genre though, it was a brilliant film. Here are some great things about Udaan:
1. It’s About Something:
Bad relationships. In a word, that’s what Udaan is about. It features a set of characters who all have bad relationships, and demonstrates how one can actually establish a good one. This theme takes precedence over star acts, over the need to throw in music and dance sequences, even the need for a traditionally 100% happy ending. Its cast is thus made up of character actors and newcomers, Manjot Singh (in a cameo) being the only really ‘known’ film actor. And its plot arises from the characters these people play, and their interactions.
2. It’s Real:
Most films involving father figures and corresponding troubles involved said father (played by Kader Khan, Dilip Tahil, Kabir Bedi, Anupam Kher or if the film was anywhere near decent, Amrish Puri) being either the Thakur, or some sort of Industry head (Mr. Sanghania/Malhotra/Oberoi/Roy etc.) so as to include the shot of him walking majestically down the haveli steps, either to greet the hero or angrily denounce him. Most father issues pretty much began with “I love ….”, had the hero walk out of the house halfway through, and reconcile with the Dad after saving him from Gulshan Grover, Shakti Kapoor et al. And of course, there’s a grand closing shot of the family all together in the best clothing the sponsor could supply.
Contrast Bhairav Singh (the dad, played by Ronit Roy) to this scenario. Forget majestic, the man drives a Contessa in (circa) 2010! He lives on the first floor of a seedy dilapidated house with only his sons for company. He runs a small scale factory in Jamshedpur. All this despite the pedigree of a posh school and (presumably) college education. Could this be what gives him his ego and air? In other words, could his own smallness be why he must needs tower over his children and dominate them at all times? Could those (unmentioned) failures be why he tells Rohan he cannot make it? Udaan presents realistic issues like this, with realistic outcomes. A man who cannot deal with himself cannot realistically be expected to deal with his kids. And thus we get an ending which feels real, however realistic it may actually be.
3. It’s Subtle:
Topics covered in Udaan are pretty much the territory of Madhur Bhandarkar films, which follow their own homogeneous script, devoid of thus things as characters, subtlety or nuance. But look at how Udaan deals deals with its ‘villain’, Bhairav Singh. As mentioned earlier, the man is himself small and seemingly non-significant, which goes a long way in explaining (not justifying) his attitude towards his sons. The film moreover establishes him as a caring father, when he tells Rohan that contrary to the latter’s impression, he did visit him once at his boarding school. The kicker is his next line “Tumhare principal se bhi mile the”. He says he didn’t speak to Rohan because he was out playing and looked happy doing so, which he did not want to disturb. The scene establishes him as a father who cares deeply about what his sons do, though not so much how they are. It’s more interesting given that he’s drunk at the time of confessing this.
Similarly we get mention of Bhairav’s childhood when he discusses how he would have been pounded with the factory steel if he had ever talked back to his father, and when he gives Rohan his watch on his eighteenth birthday. The watch is a rite of passage for eldest sons. Bhairav Singh has a brother who seems his opposite, calm and easy going. Could the beatings and ‘disciplining’ also be a similar rite? Bhairav’s character is established thoroughly, showing us he is as much to be pitied as reviled.
4. It’s Detailed:
The opening scenes of Udaan establish four friends as troublemakers at their boarding school. We see them sneak out to watch a blue film at the local theatre, and get caught. What is interesting is their conversation outside the principal’s office the next day. One anticipates his father breaking his leg, another being sent to Singur to study in some godforsaken place. Manjot Singh’s character states that on reaching home, his father will simply ask him when he is leaving next. And Rohan has no idea about his father. All four, in short have bad relationships with their respective parents. Could this be why they are in boarding school? Or troublemakers? That this much detail is included in a throwaway scene (the three friends are not seen for the rest of the film) is what makes Udaan such a masterpiece.
5. It’s Poetic:
Jai Arjun Singh writes how one can see Arjun and Rohan as stages in progress towards Bhairav Singh. It’s equally easy though, to see Bhairav Singh as an overgrown child. He is moody, petulant, stubborn beyond any semblance of reason and carelessly spiteful, all negative traits markedly visible in children. Like a lot of children, he is reluctant to learn or change, and his meticulous routine seemed the hope for some eventual salvation (Brush your teeth, do your homework and say your prayers and one day all your dreams will come true) that is sold to kids. As mentioned earlier, Bhairav’s failures make him unpleasant. It is equally possible that his insistence on routine and ‘the right path’ is because he hopes against hope (like a child might) that they will give Rohan success.
6. It’s Fearless:
Udaan was brave enough to deal thoroughly with something real. In doing so, it was fearless enough to avoid stars, and so cast as teens people who looked like teenagers. As mentioned before it did away with stars entirely, made up of character actors. And most importantly, its ending was completely open ended. We know at the end Rohan has summoned up the courage to leave home and take responsibility for his little brother. We have no idea though how an eighteen year old dropout will take care of himself plus one. Whether he will succeed at writing. Or even where he will spend his next night. Its the ability to take a chance like that that makes Udaan one of the best Indian films of recent years.
[PS: The ending didn’t go well with a lot of viewers, including a friend of mine who wished they included an end message or something, to say Rohan became a great writer. Doubtless said viewers would also prefer to know that Arjun grew up to become a National Sports Champion, Rohan’s friends succeeded wildly at his restaurant and became millionaires, and Bhairav Singh tearfully reconciled with his sons just before his Steel factory went public or struck oil or something, putting everyone, including Rathod the Warden, in a grand Haveli for the closing shot. Morons]