Films make me different kinds of happy. Bleak, hard-hitting movies make me happy to have feelings. Frothy rom-coms make me happy to get a break from those feelings. Sly, satirical comedies make me laugh. Affecting family dramas make me happy to be human. A solid sci-fi thriller or supernatural spookfest makes me happy to have an imagination. Even terrible films make me happy to have a sense of humour. Cinema is, in every way, my happy space – a space that feels more pronounced during this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
There is, however, one film that makes me happy to be alive. It's a wholesome, intangible kind of happy – like food critic Anton Ego tasting the ratatouille and being flooded with memories of the morning he fell in love with food. Mansoor Khan's Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, starring Aamir Khan as a college drifter who finds himself through the sport of cycling, is my bite of otherworldly bliss. I've watched the film umpteen times, I've watched scenes and songs, I've watched singular moments ("Sanju, change the gear!"), and somehow I feel like I've always come out a better – and temporarily happier – person. It's not just about smiling and cheering and enjoying the satisfying crescendo of an underdog victory. Every element of the film is uplifting for how effectively and cleanly it's composed.
But I believe there are three specific aspects of JJWS that help culminate my personal pursuit of happyness:
Maybe the most endearing trait of this film is its dramatic ode to ordinariness. In the larger scheme of things, the heroic exploits of Sanju and gang pale in comparison to grand sports biopics, lofty rags-to-riches arcs and adult conflicts. It's just a bunch of kids goofing off in a sleepy North Indian hilltown. But the entire film is shot with an innocent student gaze – college rivalries feel like international feuds, a sports-day race feels like an Olympic final, a red-blooded infatuation feels like a do-or-die love triangle, English and privilege and the colour black feel like evil Western capitalism, red middle-class-ness feels like chaste Indianism, and so on. (I also like that culturally historical names – Rajput, Queen's, Xavier's – represent the antagonists). The setting is modest, the problems mundane, and yet it wears its twists and turns with the pride of a larger-than-life potboiler. What this does – and did, when I was six years old in 1992 – is assure the average rat-race-trapped child that redemption is an everyman language. Anyone, anywhere, can be a film. After all, cinema is found at the intersection of perspective and time.
I woke up to the passion of competitive sport with this film. The adrenaline rush of watching Sanju kick into gear in that final (stilted) shot of the race inspired me to play – cricket, football, cycling, marbles, mindgames, anything. I remember getting so pumped by repeated viewings of Sanju's last push that I took it upon myself to learn how to ride a cycle, tirelessly, on my own, over eight hours of a hot summer afternoon. By evening, I could push the pedals for at least half a minute without tilting over. This in turn lent a very physical dimension to my mid-90s adolescence: There wasn't a day I wasn't trying to win a game against friends who became Shekhar Malhotra and his cocky Rajputs in my eyes. Even today, JJWS reminds me that I had an immensely active, sporty and social childhood…before technology turned me into a grumpy stay-at-home writer.
I've never had a ear for lyrics. It's melody or nothing. But JJWS was my first real memory of not just enjoying the music album of a Hindi film but also obsessively lip-syncing to it. Yahaan Ke Hum Sikander became my school anthem. Shehar Ki Pariyon became my festival anthem. Jawaan Ho Yaaron became my friendship anthem. Pehla Nasha became my first-crush anthem. (Thanks to Pooja Bedi, I discovered Marilyn Monroe). I still sing along without knowing it. I learned to notice the words that linked the notes. JJWS made winning accessible, it made heroism probable, it made life filmable and most of all, it humanized music-and-dance as more than just a crafty, choreographed skill. After all, poetry is found at the intersection of rhythm and time.