Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Chori Chori Chupke Chupke

Chori Chori Chupke Chupke ("Quietly, Secretly") (2001), like Kya Kehna (1997/2000) (a previous Preity Zinta film that also centers on questions of sexuality and motherhood) is frustrating and fascinating, regressive and progressive, taboo-breaking and convention-affirming, in roughly equal measure.

A brief plot synopsis for those who haven't seen Chori Chori Chupke Chupke: Raj (a remarkably subdued and so surprisingly tolerable Salman Khan), the fabulously rich grandson of a major industrialist, marries Priya (Rani Mukherjee), who is soon pregnant. But due to the requirements of the plot, she has an accident that results not just in a miscarriage, but in her permanent infertility. Since Raj's granddad (Amrish Puri) has such an emotional investment in great-grandchildren, Raj and Priya decide to conceal her condition from the family, and Raj goes in search of a woman to be a surrogate mother.

A search which takes him, as it would any reasonable person, to a bar that features the dancing girl Madhu (Preity Zinta). No sooner does Raj watch Madhu bumping, grinding and crawling across tables in "Diwani Diwani" ("Crazy, Crazy") than he decides that this is the ideal surrogate mother for his and Priya's child.

One problem: no, it's not that Madhu can quote the hourly and nightly rates for her company, or that she has trouble extrapolating those rates to a full year. It's that she lacks manners: she's crude, loud, and tacky, which will never do. So Raj embarks on a Pygmalion/My Fair Lady/Pretty Woman makeover of Madhu.

It has to be said that Preity Zinta does a great job of making you cringe at Madhu's crassness, while keeping her character basically sympathetic. The whole setup is misogynistic and classist; on the other hand, when just before the intermission Madhu is finally revealed as the Preity Zinta we know and love, elegantly striding through an airport in a chic pantsuit, the transformation is striking. I guess the movie ferreted out my own unconscious class prejudices.

So Raj, Priya and Madhu jet off to Switzerland, where they'll live for a year in order to conceal Madhu's pregnancy and perform several dance numbers with spectacular background scenery. Of course, Madhu isn't impregnated in a clinic or even using a turkey baster, but the old-fashioned way. Despite the double suspension of disbelief involved (first, that this incredibly rich couple is unaware of the medical technologies of surrogacy, and second, that Raj doesn't find the transformed Madhu to be attractive), the impregnation scene is actually rather sweet--Raj can only perform after he's drunk enough to imagine that Madhu is really Priya. One night, of course, is all it takes for Madhu to get pregnant--and to fall hopelessly in love with Raj.

Oddly enough, Raj's family begins to wonder at his insistence that they have to stay in Switzerland for a year, and they show up in a surprise visit to convince the couple to return to India for the birth. (Priya stuffs a pillow under her sari to fake pregnancy, and Madhu is passed off as the wife of a business associate.) There's a remarkable scene in which Priya's mother-in-law (Farida Jalal) massages Madhu's swollen feet and legs with oil. In Hindu culture, of course, the feet are considered to be the most unclean part of the body (thus the gesture of touching an honored person's feet as a sign of respect), and the feet of a prostitute/lower caste woman especially so. Preity does a great job expressing the conflicting emotions this act--the touching of her feet by an elder/superior--arouses in Madhu: shame, embarrassment, pleasure, gratitude.

Back in India, Raj's granddad has arranged a ghod-bharai ceremony for the "expectant" Priya. Wanting the child to be blessed, Priya convinces Madhu to attend the ceremony in her place. Of course, a semi-transparent veil is enough to conceal Madhu's identity during the ceremony, since Preity and Rani look so similar. It's not like Preity has rosebud lips and sharper chin while Rani has a generously wide mouth and a squarer jaw, or anything like that...

I realize that to complain about the implausibilities of a Bollywood plot is to miss the point. Instead, I should just confess to enjoying the pleasures the film offers--the obvious onscreen chemistry among all the principles, and particularly the terrific performances of Preity and Rani. There's a great confrontation between the two in the final part of the film where Madhu decides to keep the baby and the saintly Priya finally lashes out in very convincing anger. If the conclusion of the film reaffirms that in Bollywood, motherhood is the condition that absolves all sins, it's just the price you pay for admission. And under the, er, veil of reaffirming traditional values, the movie has managed to suggest a number of fairly radical propositions: that one's identity is more a matter of life circumstances than of ineluctable fate; that the reduction of a woman's value to her childbearing ability is highly damaging; and that love--like generosity and self-sacrifice--takes no heed of caste or class boundaries. As with many Bollywood films, you just have to take the crunchy with the smooth.

4 comments:

  1. I do so love the last line of this post - so true.

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  2. Leave it to you to find something intelligent to say about this. All I could muster was "This is SO DUMB!"A commenter on my blog pointed out that all of the surrogate motherhood stuff happens in Switzerland, not in India, which 1) removes it from harsher inspection/condemnation and 2) keeps the movie version of motherland "pure."

    What I remember most about this movie is that Rani espouses some crap about how not being able to be a mother means she's incomplete as a woman. (Am I remembering that right?) I really cannot handle that.

    I forget - is there any discussion of why Rani and Salman couldn't just adopt?

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  3. Beth, thanks for your comment. While I don't specifically remember the Rani comment about motherhood, it's certainly possible--part of this movie's wild dichotomy between regressive and progressive impulses.

    And speaking of which, it's Rani (sorry--Priya) who insists that they can't adopt, because the child has to be of Raj's blood. Yeah, it's that bad.

    But both Rani and Preity are terrific, and their performances in this movie manage to rescue it--for me--from the worst aspects of the script (but just barely).

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  4. daddy's girl, if in Bollywood you have to take the crunchy with the smooth the sexual and class politics of this movie make it Extra Crunchy--too crunchy for many, perhaps.

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