“Are you trying to say I’m manipulative?” an easily outraged Aisha asks early on in the movie. And the answer would have to be No, because manipulation requires you to think at least a little about other people.
An adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma directed by Rajshree Ojha, Aisha has a problem – it is a movie populated by a bunch of interesting actors who effortlessly outshine the titular lead.
First, a note about Emma: it is not my favorite Austen novel. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I have conflicted feelings about it. It’s right up there with the best of Austen’s work and Knightley is second only to Darcy in terms of my favorite Austen heroes, but it is also the story of a deeply unlikable central character. Emma is an officious little twit and seldom have I wanted to smack somebody upside the head as much as her.
Everybody mentions Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless when talking of the cinematic adaptations of this novel, but I personally think the version starring Gwyneth Paltrow was a lot more true to the spirit of the tale because The Goopster is pretty much the embodiment of the kind of charmingly beautiful horror I always imagined Emma to be. Silverstone is too warm to be entirely the Emma of the novel, just as Romola Garai is too sensitive in the BBC adaptation that came out last year. Oddly enough, Aisha could have done with some of that warmth and charm but Sonam Kapoor comes up low on supplies of both.
The only thing that made me think vaguely charitable thoughts about Emma, is when I saw her as a victim of her circumstances – she’s obviously smart, capable and well-off; if only her society permitted her to do something other than be a lady, she might have been more bearable.
Aisha (Sonam Kapoor) does live in a time and place where she can be something in addition to a lady – she simply chooses not to be anything else. She gardens, she bakes, she shops, she goes to events, she wears clothes, she throws lunches and dinner parties for her family and friends, and when she feels like doing something more, she dabbles in art.
Which is fine. What is not fine, is the way she sulks around this great life. She’s the world’s tallest toddler, throwing weddings for her dolls in this giant doll house called Delhi that God and Daddy have created for her entertainment, turning petulant and aghast when people refuse to fall in line with her plans for them.
Yeah. Fucking Emma. She reminds me a little too much of the person I try very hard not to be.
Apart from the heroine, the true charm of the novel lies in the people around her and their reactions to her well-intentioned if ultimately disastrous meddling in their lives. I do not mean to go on comparing the two, so I will nip that habit in the bud right here but I will say that if you were hoping to see Aisha skewer upper class Delhi the way Austen always managed to needle her society, you will be disappointed. But as nothing about this movie suggests it intended to travel down that route, I barely missed it.
Aisha is instead a movie about one of the most inept mean girls who ever mean-girled and the people who love her in spite of it. Her attempts to ostracize Arti (Lisa Haydon), for example, a perceived rival who is everything Aisha could ever hope to be plus more, are embarrassingly childish. And not in an endearing way.
But the only person who bothers to consistently call Aisha out on her bullshit behavior is Arjun (Abhay Deol), her sister’s brother-in-law. He teases her, fights with her, takes care of her, rebukes her, and is the only person who treats her with honesty from the get-go rather than waiting to be pushed into it when her behavior gets beyond bearable.
If you haven’t already got Abhay Fever, this is a movie that might just infect you. There’s a lovely scene at a party during the course of which Aisha finds herself in the disconcerting position of a wallflower right in the middle of her natural milieu as Arjun’s attention turns to other women. The song is the amazing Behke Behke, the dance moves are Latin, and Arjun is moving around the floor, partnering with different women. And the first thing that popped into my head was, “Oh my God, he dances like a gentleman.”
I don’t think I’ve ever had that reaction to any man dancing before. The restraint, the genuine politeness that makes him ensure that everybody is having a good time, the manliness of his partnering skills, the subtly different way he held Aisha… ladies, it was a moment of true Regency etiquette come to life. Of all the characters, writer Devika Bhagat and Abhay really nailed George Knightley in Arjun.
Ahem. Yes. So… there are other people. Like Randhir (Cyrus Sahukar), the eligible young bachelor -cum- lovesick pile on who Aisha’s trying to unload on Shefali (Amria Puri), the downmarket dowdy she decides to transform into a princess – or a pale clone of herself, as Arjun points out with unkind perception.
Shefali is, in fact, the star of the enterprise. She starts out as a fairly easy to mock caricature of a behenji from Haryana, but by the time the credits roll you suspect she was a far more successful queen bee at her Hindi medium school than Aisha ever was at her tony public school, and those are skills that chickie is going to use to much better effect too.
There is also Pinky (Ira Dubey), Aisha’s quirky BFF, who is far less apologetic about who she is yet conversely more worried about what it means to be her. Aisha, who is possibly the most deaf a person can get without actually being deaf, is by turns dismissive, insensitive, and judgmental to the marvelous Pinky’s on-going crisis of confidence – and then shocked when Pinky has the mother of all blow-outs.
Aisha isn’t likely to blow you away, unless you count Amit Trivedi’s outstanding soundtrack, and even Paltrow at the height of her Ice Princess powers made you root for her more than Kapoor, but it’s one of the better attempts at froth this year, especially if you’re an Austen fan.