In a fortnightly series, a kind of a double bill, we pick two films which have similarities that may not be obvious at first glance. In the first instalment, we discuss Zoya Akhtar's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri (1970).
Four friends, Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee), Sanjoy (Shubhendu Chatterjee), Shekhar (Robi Ghosh) and Hari (Shamit Bhanja) are in an ambassador, on their way to the forests of Palamou. Ashim is driving, Sanjay is reading out passages from a travelogue about the place, then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand. Shekhar also has a book. They are chatting among themselves. Hari is sleeping. Shekhar decides to screw with him. When they stop at a petrol pump, he wakes him up by saying that their car has broken down; they need to step out and push it. Hari is annoyed when he discovers that it's another of Shekhar's pranks; he charges at him, holding him by the collars.
It's the first time we see Shekhar pull a prank on Hari, but it'll hardly be the last. A couple of scenes later, after they leave the petrol pump, he takes another jibe at Hari. In response, Hari throws Shekhar's book out of the car window. And so begins Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), which turns 50 this year.
Now cut to this scene in Zoya Akhtar's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011). Arjun (Hrithik Roshan), Imran (Farhan Akhtar) and Kabir (Abhay Deol) set off together in a rented SUV on their long-planned road trip, in Spain. They stop at a gas station. In the washroom, they play one of their old boy pranks on an unsuspecting local, freaking him out by pretending that there is something like a monster behind him. After refilling the car they drive toward their destination and Arjun gets a call. It's a work call—not for the first in the trip, but definitely the last. 'Why don't someone throw away his phone?,' says Kabir, in half-jest. Imran obliges.
A group of friends. In a car. The beginning of a trip. A gas station. A prank. And as a result, an object belonging to one of them being thrown out from a running car. Men acting like boys. The startling similarities in these two scenes from Aranyer Din Ratri and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara don't end with the fact that Arjun and Imran, like Shekhar and Hari, almost come to blows.
Even the seating of the characters in the car is eerily similar. Shekhar and Arjun in the front, on the left; Hari and Imran in the back.
But if you look at the roles they play in the narrative, Robi Ghosh's Shekhar is in fact more similar to Farhan Akhtar's Imran: the Funny Guy in the group, the one making the jokes.
And Shamit Bhanja's Hari is similar to Hrithik Roshan's Arjun in that they have both come for the trip after a bad break-up. We see flashbacks of their break-up scenes (Aparna Sen makes a brief appearance as Hari's ex). Both men try to stop it from happening, but it's too late.
They are both tense and less carefree than the others. Even though Arjun will gradually loosen up, Hari will remain the odd-one-out, often excusing himself from plans as he sets about on his own, such as sneaking out from a fair with Dulli (Simi Garewal), the Santhali girl we see several times in Aranyer Din Ratri, to the forest, where he sleeps with her. Much like Imran, who also has a one night stand with a local Spanish girl, Nuria (Ariadna Cabrol).
Arjun, instead, will find true love in Katrina Kaif's Laila, who we see for the first time in the beach. Imran, a natural flirt, makes the first move, walking up to her and chatting her up, almost hitting home run with a Laila-Majnu joke (that sounds lame on paper but flies on screen thanks to Akhtar's comic timing and ironic delivery), but later giving her up for his friend (with who he has a history).
Similarly, Shekhar is the first to spot Sharmila Tagore's Aparna, near their bungalow, alerting the rest that there are women in the vicinity. But we almost instinctively know that romance will bloom between Aparna and Ashim.
Aranyer Din Ratri is an ensemble movie, but Ashim and Aparna's romance remains at the centre, played by Soumitra Chatterjee and Tagore, the big stars of the cast (with a history of being paired opposite each other, in Ray's Apur Sansar and Devi). Just like the main romantic track in ZNMD is between Arjun and Laila, played by Roshan and Kaif, the big stars of the cast.
Roshan's Arjun and Chatterjee's Ashim are also similar in that they are the Corporate Achievers in the group; Arjun is a financial broker in London and Ashim a rising executive in a Calcutta firm. As a result, they are the most overworked, and in a way, get the most out of the trip, which also explains why they get the main romantic track.
Which leaves us with Shubhendu Chatterjee's Sanjoy and Abhay Deol's Kabir, the 'neutral' ones, and their woman counterparts in Jaya, Aparna's widow sister-in-law, and Natasha, Kabir's nagging fiancé, played by Kaberi Basu and Kalki Koechlin respectively. Even though Aranyer Din Ratri has a group of four friends and ZNMD has three (unless you count Bagwati), the structures of the two films are perfectly in alignment.
Arjun, Imran, Kabir, and Ashim, Sanjay, Shekhar and Hari, are archetypal characters. And contained in them are certain universal truths that cut across cultures and languages and decades.
What do we make of these connections? What does it mean? If this was a case of plagiarism, we might have got characters that are copy-pastes of each other: Arjun = Ashim, Imran = Shekhar, and so on, not the complicated criss-crossing of character traits that we see between the two films. When I had the chance to meet Zoya Akhtar in 2015 and told her my theory, she said she had never seen Aranyer Din Ratri. It's still a possibility that Reema Kagti, who co-wrote the screenplay, saw it at some point in her life, and the similarities we see is the subconscious doing its job.
But barring the car scene, where the similarities are eerie, it's perfectly possible that the rest of it is just how genres work. They have a basic template and structure.
Even though Aranyer Din Ratri was coming from in a tradition of Bengali travelogue literature, and ZNMD was more in line with Hollywood movies such as Hangover, Arjun, Imran, Kabir, and Ashim, Sanjay, Shekhar and Hari, are archetypal characters. And contained in them are certain universal truths that cut across cultures and languages and decades. When a group of bachelors go on an all-boy's trip, they will seek women; only in Akhtar's world she is a diving instructor who says lines like 'Main 16 ki thi jab maine apni pehli diving kee thhi' (I was 16, when I did my first diving), and in Ray's an elegantly dressed cipher with an eclectic collection of books and music records. On the night of their first day itself, they will hit a local bar; only one group will get beers and the other will get drunk on mahua. They will try out a local experience rooted in the traditions of the place; it's just that in ZNMD, they go to the Tomatina festival and in Aranyer they visit the local fair where they buy tribal jewellery for their women friends.
They will probably even take part in a sport. Only the guys in ZNMD try out high-end adventure sports chosen by each, as part of a pact they had made in school, and the city-bred men and women in Aranyer play Memory Game, a masterful sequence in the film through which the characters reveal their deep inner selves.
For all their similarities, ZNMD and Aranyer Din Ratri are also different in the way they were made, the scale and budget they were made in, and the audience they were made for.
The transformations that the characters in ZNMD undergo are strictly restricted to their personal lives, disconnected from the politics of the world typical of mainstream Bollywood: Arjun's realisation that he should 'live' a little more; Imran resolving his daddy issues, and Kabir mustering up the courage to tell his fiancé that he is not ready for the marriage yet.
The internal journeys that the men in Ray's film undergo are much more complex. He holds them accountable for their casual indifference and hypocrisies. Aparna punctures Ashim's ego when she lets him know that she lost the memory game deliberately; she probes his social consciousness when she tells him that he had put the chowkidar's job in danger by trying to bribe him and occupying the bungalow without a permit. Hari gets his payback when he is beaten up and pickpocketed by a local, the same local who he had wrongly accused of stealing his wallet. And in a haunting scene, when Jaya dresses up and approaches Sanjay, invitation in her eyes, he's too scared of social conventions to reciprocate, even though he likes her.
Pauline Kael described Aranyer Din Ratri as "the subtlest, most plangent study of the cultural tragedy of imperialism; the young men are self-parodies–clowns who ape the worst snobberies of the British", calling it "a major film by one of the great film artists". But it wasn't a commercial success when it had released in theatres; "The film is about so many things, that's the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands," said Ray.
ZNMD, on the other hand, didn't get the critical acclaim of Akhtar's debut film Luck By Chance (2009). The set-up makes you feel that you have to be rich enough to be able to afford these 'life-changing experiences'–although it is still a lot of fun, there is a madness in it, that works. But Akhtar achieved what she had set out to with ZNMD: it gave her her first hit.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is streaming on Netflix and Aranyer Din Ratri is available on YouTube with subtitles