Every few years, a generation comes of age. Some stand on the cusp of adulthood, ready to take on the world, feeling invincible, the headiness of youth propelling them forward to take a dive into the ocean of their ambitions. On the contrary, there is another group within the same generation – lackluster, aimless, sans direction, like little boats tossed about on careless seas. One of my favourite films from the 2000s, Ayan Mukerji's refreshing directorial debut Wake Up Sid (2009) perfectly encapsulates both these types of individuals. The story chronicles the coming of age of young Sidharth "Sid" Mehra (a boyishly charming Ranbir Kapoor), a rich spoilt brat who must confront the inevitable end of childhood and step into the adult world. His life changes when he meets Aisha Banerjee (the ever elegant Konkona Sen Sharma), an aspiring writer from Kolkata who moves to Mumbai to pursue her dreams.
I have fond memories of watching the film almost every weekend when it aired on television, at the age of thirteen. Young, naïve and just discovering new sides to myself as adolescence dawned on my still childlike self, the film drew me into its world of ambition, independence and growing up. And yet, I loved Wake Up Sid not for its eponymous titular character whose journey the film chronicled. The film was close to my heart because of the character who served as the catalyst to his change – Aisha. At thirteen, I could not yet understand all of Aisha's dreams and goals, but her defining trait – of the desire to live her life on her own terms – made me fall in love with her. Of course, one could say, that her aesthetically decorated apartment also played some role in this, because I always dream of having such a quiet, cozy nook for myself in a city with hustle bustle like Mumbai.
Revisiting this film, seven years later, I can say that Wake Up Sid remains as fresh and relevant as ever. Watching it as I spend out my last year in college at home, the film is distinctly nostalgic – serving up scenes of college life that one now craves, the rambling conversations in the canteen, going out with friends and exploring the city but most of all, simply the feeling of being young and experiencing the joy of being alive and savouring every moment.
At the same time, I found that I could now relate to Aisha more than ever. As much as one could argue that Aisha, like several other female characters in films, serves to discipline, reform and bring direction and purpose into the life of the man child protagonist of a Bollywood film, I beg to differ. Wake Up Sid is different. Aisha is as important a character in her own right in the overall narrative of the film. We see glimpses of her rich inner life, something female characters are not often accorded in literature and cinema. She is not the conventional bubbly heroine who exhorts the male protagonist to enjoy every moment of his life. She is no social butterfly, who brings smiles to the faces of everyone she meets. The film is unafraid to show her as an introvert – as someone who enjoys writing in a quiet corner as a noisy party rages on around her, as someone who prefers a walk with a companion rather than flit about from person to person in a party, quickly forgetting names and conversations.
Yet, unlike stereotypical shy girls that cinema has often given us, she is not afraid to explore the world around her. The film shows her taking off on solitary rambles, exploring Mumbai on her own. She is unapologetic – frankly telling Sid to his face that she cannot see herself being with someone as immature and childish as him and that it is better they remain friends. Although eventually we see Aisha and Sid fall for each other, theirs is not a typical meet cute or a story of love at first sight. In fact, one wonders how these two individuals, poles apart and as different as chalk and cheese could ever end up together.
This unconventional friendship, of a young man and a woman older than him, still remains a rarity in cinema. And it is a friendship that allows for frankness and equality, with Aisha asserting herself, bluntly telling Sid to his face that she cannot clean up after him and that the world does not revolve around him and his little epiphanies, even if they are as mundane as learning to make eggs. This too makes the film a triumph – it chronicles the everyday mundanities of living, the chores of cooking and cleaning that one must compulsorily undertake on one's own and which facilitate independence.
This independence is not just functional but extends itself to the perspectives and choices of its characters. Sid rejects a conventional career at his father's flourishing bathroom furnishings manufacturing company, choosing instead to work in the thriving and creatively stimulating workspace of a magazine. The film also ensures that it portrays its characters as young people who can think for themselves and who are courageous enough to express contrarian and perhaps even unpopular opinions. Aisha confesses politely to her boss that she does not enjoy jazz and does not think that she ever will, at the risk of being judged and perhaps even disliked for such a perspective.
More than a decade since the film originally released, Wake Up Sid is a film that looks both at the past and the future. It is filled with nostalgia for a bygone childhood and adolescence, perfectly captured in the photographs that Sid's father takes of him as a child and that he takes of a neighbour's little son. But the film is equally filled with hope and anticipation for the future that lies before us stretched out like an endless horizon.
As I write these concluding lines, I am reminded of the hand woven pages of Aisha's diary. Our lives are like those empty pages, waiting to be filled and like Aisha and Sid, we hold the pen of choice between our fingers and it is we who can write our stories and lead it to truly glorious directions.