About ten minutes into Paa, director R. Balki manages to find his feet with a scene in which 12-year-old Auro (Amitabh Bachchan) calls out his mother Vidya (Vidya Balan) on her Mother India complex. “Why all this unnecessary suffering?” he asks, displaying excellent son skills, and it must be a stone heart that refuses to go at least a little “aww”.
This is good because the beginnings of this movie are not encouraging. It kicks off with a competition in which patriotic children present their vision for the India of the future held in the most awesomest, happiest, giggliest, adorablest school ever that’s incidentally named after a former Emperor of India (British). Presenting the top prize is India’s youngest, dashingest, amazingest, coolest [in his “own words”, according to the principal who clearly has no clue that you’re automatically docked coolth points if you’re the one using the term to describe yourself] Member of Parliament Amol Arte (Abhishek Bachchan).
Auro, using the special-needs-child-is-always-brilliant clause of international movieland, is the winner of the competition. This allows our cool MP to have an extremely uncouth reaction wherein he stands stock still and stares in shock for minutes on end at this old man in school boy uniform (shout out to AB Sr.’s prosthetics team, Christien Tinsley & Dominie Till, who did a splendid job). This is dutifully recorded by teams of media people who’re apparently on the all-important MP-visits-arty-farty-school-competition beat and Auro is outed as a child with a rare disease called Progeria.
So the media does the responsible thing – it gathers outside the school gates and yells, “FREAAAAAAK!!! Show us the FREAAAAAAAAAKKK!! We want to see the FREAAAAAAAAAK!!!”
Understandably Auro is not pleased and more than a little scared of this unwanted attention. He is especially not pleased with the “donkey” MP who brought it all about and unleashes the wrath of Google search on his ass. And thus an unlikely friendship is born.
When news leaked that Paa was about a young boy with a heartrending disease, a number of people felt we were about to receive the Taare Zameen Par of 2009. I’m happy to report that Paa is lot less lugubrious, waltzing lazily with an airy step and a sense of humor, unhindered by a crushing sense of its own importance.
It is a message movie, but the message isn’t centered around Auro and his illness. Amitabh Bachchan is not the new Darsheel Safary. No, Paa reserves its crusading zeal for something a great deal more dear to the heart of its producers, Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd.: the media and its steady jettisoning of ethics in favor of tabloid sensationalism in the battle to net the most eyes by yelling the loudest.
And look, I’m not going to give them a tough time of it. The amount of speculation that family has to live under is ridiculous and if they wish to unleash the powers of Bachchanalia (oh yeah, Jaya B. shows up to read the opening credits, looking tons better in a casual saree than all the weird stuff she wears to red carpets. There was even a smile or two that reminded me of the days when she wasn’t Amar Singh’s scary mascot) to hand out a few spankings here and there, then more power to them.
[I would like one thing: will someone who watches Indian cable news please tell me who those three journalists are modeled upon? Thanks!]
Although the movie is called Paa and its lackadaisical plot eventually meanders around to focus on Auro’s quest to connect with his father, his mother and grandmother, whom he calls Bum (Arundhati Naag), are the ones who really stand out in their characterization.
When Vidya comes home to her mother, pregnant and alone, all Bum wants to know is if Vidya wants to keep the baby. After dancing around the topic for a bit, she finally blurts out that she can’t talk about this to her mother. To which Bum replies that she’s spent most of Vidya’s life as a single mother – she can support her daughter’s single motherhood if necessary.
It’s such a beautiful moment. There’s the good mothering on display, of course: Bum’s steadfast refusal to act like the benighted model of motherhood that Vidya clearly half-expects to erupt at any moment with a storm of “karamjalis” and “maatimilis”. The ignominy of admitting that you had sex – premarital sex! – to your mother trumping the fact that you’re sitting in front of her discussing options about your pregnancy.
But what really got to me was the implicit determination of a mother to ensure that her daughter could avail herself of all her choices. Even as Vidya trots out a long list of reasons why she can’t bring her baby to full term – a list that sounds like things she feels her mother must be thinking but not expressing – Bum is waiting at the other side of the mother-child trial-by-fire where her child’s choices are of paramount importance, above all other considerations.
Which is why the later, absolutely context-less scene of Vidya smugly counseling a DINK couple to have the child that nature intended them to have before the lady half’s uterus explodes is a serious WTF. Perhaps it was a way to inform the audience that even with all the heartache of mothering a special needs child, Vidya has never regretted her decision to become a single mother – except we pretty much already know that every time she so much as looks at Auro.
Vidya is an excellent mother, staring down nosy playground matrons with her superior medical knowledge and stifling her need to smother her precious baby with the care that could possibly prolong his life at the cost of his happiness at doing everyday things like going to school.
Good for her. Because she sucks as a gynecologist with her “procreate or die” speech. And no, tacking on a “it’s your choice, of course” at the end of it doesn’t make it better. It’s like cake or death. Gee, I wonder what I should choose.
The other thing that niggles at me is related to the central plot point and is a common reaction for me when I bump into similar storylines – while Vidya is entitled to her feelings of hurt and anger, I feel I must point out that Amol had a perfect right not to want a child. The choice to have a baby isn’t merely a woman’s. Unless the woman actively wishes to be a single parent, the man gets to have a say.
So I felt Amol was apologizing for the wrong thing at the end because he definitely did have something to apologize for. He pulled a dick move – if you’re not ready to be a father and you’re depending on a condom to keep the mini-hordes at bay, then for fuck’s sake, wear a bloody condom! It’s not like you have to haul a truck full around for it to work or something. It’s a tiny piece of latex that will easily slip into one of the gazillion pockets of your jeans if not your wallet. And if you don’t have one on you, then either learn to be inventive in the sack or else keep your pants buttoned until you can lay your hands on one.
Not having worn a condom on that all-important day(remember kids – it only takes once) the correct way to act is to ask the woman what the next step is going to be, not hectoring her into arranging a doctor’s appointment all by your lovely self. Ask Chris Rock for directions. He’s got Auro down pat.
That is actually the best part about Paa – the kids. They might be movie-adorable but their obsession with all things scatological, the quasi-grown up talk, the camaraderie… it all rings very true. Auro’s best friend and the little girl who follows him around (the pay off for that kid is one of the cutest things ever) are especially hilarious. Balki handles it all very well.
Unfortunately, on the down side, as a director, Balki still believes the cinematic meal isn’t complete until a plate of cheese has been placed on the table. The silver lining is that, unlike Cheeni Kum, this time we aren’t handed chunks of Velveeta to munch on. Even as you recognize the amazing hokeyness of the climax, it’s a little hard not to be taken in by it.
And the reason for that is Amitabh Bachchan. I like to give him a hard time on occasion – and he richly deserves it – but he really is one of India’s finest actors. Even if he weren’t The Bachchan and 67 years old, I’d still think Auro was a fine piece of work. A greater compliment I can’t pay him.
Vidya Balan, after a slew of forgettable movies, once again turns into an actress you enjoy watching. It appears she has learned the power of the bitchface is an enormous thing and must be doled out only upon occasion instead of being used as a crutch to express any and every emotion from anger to sadness to tiredness. Abhishek Bachchan sounds amazingly Anglicized – more so than usual for some reason. But he looks hot again! So that’s him done his bit.
Paa may not be the !Masterpiece! that its publicity was selling, but I see that as a plus. It’s sweet and funny and oddly moving without turning into a total cheezoid weepfest. You can take that as a recommendation if you like.