Why You Need to Rewatch Aiyyaa
Aiyaaa (2012) establishes its campy, pulpy and thoroughly romantic roots right from the start as as the audience is thrown into the multiverse of Meenakshi’s daydreams: She’s mouthing Madhuri Dixit’s lines from Tezaab (1988); she is wriggling on a haystack a la Sridevi from Mr. India (1987); she’s wearing red and leaning against a tree, pretending to be Juhi Chawla in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). As she flits from one iconic romantic song sequence to another, the most obvious deviation is the pair of thick white-rimmed sunglasses that Meenakshi (Rani Mukerji) wears in each daydream, a reminder of the rose-tinted glasses she dons in real life. Aiyyaa is best understood – and enjoyed – when one settles into this blurry space of real and cinematic, of the possible and impossible, of the singular and the meta. It remains memorable for moulding a world that celebrates female desire in all its powerful, quirky glory and also doesn’t punish the woman for it. How many of those do we have?
Let’s get the weaker aspects of the film out of the way: Aiyyaa opened to a tepid reception and some of this can be attributed to its 142-minute run time. Two hours and 30 minutes can be a challenge for any plot, but two hours and 30 minutes of a story about female desire? We weren’t ready. Thankfully, the film is available in Netflix and if you’re exhausted by the steady barrage of brawny alpha males that have been ruling the big screen of late, then director Sachin Kundalkar’s masaledaar Aiyyaa may be the palate cleanser you need.
Aiyyaa creates a hypnotically original world. Meenakshi’s family consists of a father who must smoke four cigarettes at all times; a brother who harbours dreams of owning a multi-storeyed house for his beloved street dogs; and a blind, wheelchair-wielding and periodically-omniscient grandmother who has gold-plated teeth. Her colleague Mynah (Anita Date) is dentally-challenged and smuggles alcohol to other employees in a red, monkey-shaped water bottle she’s named Jumbo. If you think this sounds kooky, wait till you see the fantasies Meenakshi escapes into once she falls for Surya (Prithviraj Sukumaran), a mysterious Tamil painter whose smell is so mesmerising that Meenakshi even follows him into the men’s washroom.
This fragrance, and Meenakshi inhaling it, becomes a sensual motif over the course of the film. What begins as a giddy crush in Meenakshi blooms into a full-bodied desire for Surya. A woman’s daydreams are barely ever chaste – a notion most mainstream narratives pretend not to know but Aiyyaa uses to its optimum. No bobbing dahlias or other floral euphemisms for our Meenakshi. Instead we get the song “Aga Bai”. Nude paintings resembling the caves of Khajuraho don the walls as Meenakshi belly dances to a mesmerising beat. The belly dancing – often performed for the male gaze – alongwith Meenakshi’s revealing clothes and her troupe of female dancers had enough to easily resemble an item number. But it’s clear that Meenakshi runs this show because here, the subject of desire is Surya. The camera moves langorously over his sculpted body as he pours water over himself. Prithviraj channels the hyper-masculinity associated with the strong, silent (and muscular) type, but in Meenakshi’s daydreams, his masculinity is for her benefit as lifts, tantalises and pins Meenakshi against himself. Meenakshi’s fantasies, tempered as they are with filmi masala, culminate in another grand and sexually-charged setpiece: “Dreamum Wakeupum”. Her inner world allows Aiyyaa to mould a reality where a woman’s desire is placed front and centre, where the man is eye candy (and wearing as little as the woman), and where sensuality — regardless of how explicit or immodest it is — is fun.
In Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), Faye Wong’s character periodically breaks into a policeman’s house to clean up his place, bob her head to music and just chill. The idea is inherently creepy, but the director uses this habit to elaborate on a larger theme of loneliness and the magic of chance, fleeting connections. Aiyyaa also shows Meenakshi following around Surya for his scent but this takes on a much more significant meaning when we keep in mind how closely smell is tied to occupation and how it has often been used to belittle people from the working class and lower castes. For Meenakshi, Surya’s smell is linked to her idea of freedom and fulfilment.
Foul smells surround Meenakshi’s real life. There’s an overflowing garbage can left at the entrance of her house. The smell of garbage cuts through her fantasies in the opening sequence and infects her dream world so that her happy dance is interrupted, only for her to be crushed by two garbage-filled trucks. It is telling that Meenakshi describes her sapno ki duniya (world of dreams) as “completely clean, fragrant, and with empty spaces.”
When Meenakshi first meets – or smells – Surya, that drawing of breath is almost meditative, a break from the frenzy of her eccentric house and the pressure to ‘convince’ prospective grooms into marriage. Surya presents the idea of romance itself, which is a dream shared by most people, particularly middle-class women like Meenakshi. “Shaadi ke pehle pyaar toh hona chahiye na (one should fall in love before getting married),” she laments on the day she’s to be ‘seen’ (at 6 pm and 9 pm, much like show times for movies in cinemas) by suitors. Like an average woman, she dreams of having some money, a small room to read books and listen to the radio and of finding love, but this is a tall order. “Itna sa toh khwaab hai mera,” she says. “Magar meri jaisi ladkiyon ko har chhote chhote sapne dekhne ke baad unhe paa ne ke liye jhagana padta hai (My dreams are modest, but girls like me have to fight for every tiny dream in order to achieve them).”
Surya becomes a heady and necessary escape for Meenakshi, much like her filmi daydreams. The closer she gets to marrying a man she isn’t interested in, the more brazen she becomes around Surya, following him and even entering his house under pretences. Aiyyaa disguises very real pain under what looks like the silly fancy of a melodramatic woman. It acknowledges that making a film about a woman’s sexual desire would be impossible without addressing the larger issues around women desiring anything at all. Mukerji brings all of this and more into her performance of Meenakshi, pulling off a magic trick when she makes us forget she’s one Bollywood’s biggest stars. Even when she’s dressed in outlandish costumes for the song sequences, Mukerji is always that middle-class Marathi mulgi who dreams of romancing Shah Rukh Khan, starring in shampoo ads and sitting on the couch of Koffee With Karan. All of which we’d seen the actor do around the time Aiyyaa came out.
Perhaps as a subtle hat tip to the fact that it’s almost impossible to prioritise women’s desire in our everyday lives (built as they are upon patriarchal foundations), the universe of Aiyyaa is entirely whacky. Every character has their own set of quirks and every scene is packaged in unlikely details in an effort to disguise some very real truths about prejudices that we’ve held on to in Indian societies. Under the escapist madness of Aiyyaa is a question that no one wants to answer: Is a next-to-impossible world of suspended disbelief the only place where an Indian woman’s desire may be considered natural instead of transgressive?