I remember an evening many years ago as clearly as if it was yesterday. I was with a girl,sort of a friend,the kind you speak to but not talk to. We were in a tiny dhaba close to college,where you could smoke illicit cigarettes and drink oversweet adrak chai,and she was speaking. The words were bullet-like,hard things about myself,things I hadnt heard before. When she was done,I was raw and unpeeled: on that hard dhaba bench,I left behind my old self,and started being what I am today.Udaan reminded me of that before and after day of my life,as I watched the 17-year-old Rohan running,breaking free into a future which promises to be very different from his present. Vikramaditya Motwanes beautifully-written debut feature,which took him seven years to bring to the screen,is also a coming of age of this kind of film in Bollywood. A coming of age implies that youve lived a life before,that theres been a journey,and that theres significance to both. The perennial Peter Pan heroes (and heroines) of Hindi cinema usually have no history,no credible backstories: they just are,and from whence they leap mid-screen,fully formed,there to jibber and jive,no one knows.
In this,as ever,Hindi cinema has taken its cue from society at large. We are not people whove encouraged our children to take wing and fly. A boy was deemed to have come of age when the patriarch decreed that it was time to marry. A docile bahu would be procured for the beta,the dutiful beta would carry on the family business,and a third generation would be readied for what their elders and betters declared was good for them. Rebellion would brew,but it would stop at choosing between an arranged bride,or a love marriage: ordered romance,or a falling in love outside of the extended familys purview,was the acme.
For decades,mainstream cinema started with lead players ripe for romance,and ended in a mandap. The two iconic films of the 90s,Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai lined up their winsome stars,and created a cosy,familiar,us-vs-them conflict between young love and confrontational parents,which closed with a convenient,conventional co-opt : those girls in threatening short dresses became daughters-in-law in sedate saris. And the boys became married men.
Its only in the last 10 years that the Me Generation has come to the fore,and new age Bollywood has kept pace. The Dil Chahta Hai boys were both representative as well as aspirational stars for the 00s: the parents were supportive,distant,backgrounded,the boys (not the girls,note,we still havent got to the point where Bollywood girls can be allowed to come of age) did what they had,to grow up. Ones love for an older woman defines him,another stops flitting between hare-brained,short-lived romps to snaffle a nice girl,and the third finds himself via true love.
Its interesting that Farhan Akhtar,who directed Dil Chahta Hai at a point when he was not much older than his leading young men,also made Lakshya,which focuses on one boy becoming a man. The first half focuses on the young layabout laying about,yawning through classes,squabbling with his ultra-focused girlfriend: in the second,he steps out of his comfort zone and goes to do battle for his country. His journey takes him from a shaggy-dog look to a stern crew cut,a manicured park to a stark mountainside pockmarked with gunfire,and in the end,he emerges a man.
Two other recent films,where boys head out to become men,come to mind. Wake Up Sid has a newish younger boy-older girl story,but Sid is a carryover from the past in terms of what he does and how he does it. And in Dev D,we have hopes that the dissolute Dev will one day become a man,only because a strong woman has decided to take him in hand.
Udaan is Bollywoods first genuine coming of age tale,because it takes an unformed adolescent and lets him struggle with his demons by plonking him in a place where theres no readymade comfort: no dream sequences,no song-and-dance,no artificial crutches. No girlfriend or crush to smoothen things. Rohan has to find his own way,and has to carve it from himself: his authoritarian father,who is given the sort of impressive detailing parents do not get in Bollywood,has his own dragons to slay. Its easier to smack a son than to give him respect,particularly if he is the antithesis of who you are. Udaan is also a subtle study of masculinity,of men and what they can be: the only females in this all-male story are a dead mother,an alive stepmother-to-be,and her daughter,all on the periphery. Leaving his old life behind,Rohan takes off into an unknown future,not knowing where it will take him. Only knowing who he is.
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