In this series we look at films that deserve another look with fresh eyes
What’s it about:
A middle-class girl, crazy about 90s Bollywood, and who has a heightened sense of smell, longs to break free from the confines of the conservative Maharashtrian society. Her days are spent daydreaming, working as a librarian in an art school, and trying to dodge prospective grooms her parents have chosen for her.
When Aiyyaa released in 2012, most critics, while noting the singular artistic ambitions of the film, weren’t too taken by the rest of it. The film could be frustrating, and there are moments where you go WTF, and not in a good way. But…
Meenakshi isn’t a rebel in an obvious way. She doesn’t even put up a fight about not wanting to get arranged married. But what gets her through eventually is her curiosity and her ability to fantasise, fuelled by Bollywood and… Tamil soft erotica
Why it still works:
There is a song called ‘Mahek Bhi’ from Amit Trivedi’s superb soundtrack, with lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, that encapsulates the essence of Aiyyaa. It says fragrances also have a story to tell, if you listen to them. How does the fragrance in Aiyyaa smell? It’s the fragrance Meenakshi falls in love with, even before she has seen the man who seems to be its source–a Tamil guy in the art school where she works as a librarian. Is it a… drug, as she at first suspects? Or is it some kind of male pheromone that Meenakshi—who confesses that she finds darker skinned people more attractive—finds irresistible?
Heady with uncontrollable desire that seems to pull her towards it like a magnet, Meenakshi spends most of the movie trying to find the real source of this fragrance. It turns out to be the key that liberates her from the dreary life she is trapped in.
Sachin Kundalkar’s movie revolves around the most underrated of human senses, reaching for the sublime and the mysterious. And more than Meenakshi, it’s the mind of the filmmaker that is laid bare, where many interesting things are going on and not everything necessarily comes together.
Kundalkar’s painterly eye for colours—particularly blue, which, incidentally, forms the title of the book he has written, Cobalt Blue—meets his taste for the garish excesses, exemplified in the picturisation of the songs which makes lip-smacking use of the artifices of set-design.
On the one hand, in Rani Mukerji and Prithviraj, Aiyyaa has stars from the Hindi and Malayalam industries, and on the other, actors from the local television and film industry such as Nirmiti Sawant, Subodh Bhave and Amey Wagh make it seem like a film handcrafted in Pune. A bunch of the latter play high-pitched, hysterical family members–gleefully exaggerated characters that Kundalkar use to critique the middle-class Maharashtrian society about how insular they are.
Meenakshi isn’t a rebel in an obvious way. She doesn’t even put up a fight about not wanting to get arranged married. But what gets her through eventually is her curiosity and her ability to fantasise, fuelled by Bollywood and… Tamil soft erotica. It’s a triumph of individuality, and an unabashed celebration of female desire (which like the recent Assamese film Aamis, is shown manifesting in indirectly sensual ways). It could have been called The Secret Life of Meenakshi Deshpande.