Saturday, January 31, 2009

U Me aur Hum

The late David Foster Wallace wrote a hilarious essay about taking a luxury cruise on a ship he rechristened the Nadir. You can still read it in the online Harper's Magazine under its original title "Shipping Out"; it was later published as the title essay of his nonfiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (Little, Brown, 1997). Here's a representative sample:

"The promise [of cruise-ship advertising] is not that you can experience great pleasure but that you will. They'll make certain of it. They'll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun. Your troublesome capacities for choice, error, regret, dissatisfaction, and despair will be removed from the equation. You will be able--finally, for once--to relax, the ads promise, because you will have no choice."

So a release from everyday reality and an escape from the burden of memory could be said to be the very purpose of a cruise. Or, as Wallace quotes from the cruise line's "positively Prozacian" brochure, "Just standing at the ship's rail looking out to sea has a profoundly soothing effect. As you drift along like a cloud on water, the weight of everyday life is magically lifted away, and you seem to be floating on a sea of smiles."

How fitting, then, that large chunks of U Me aur Hum (You, Me and Us, 2008), including its framing story, take place on a cruise ship. The movie recounts the saga of Ajay (Ajay Devgan) and his love for Piya (Kajol), a cruise-ship waitress who becomes a victim of (spoiler alert!) a Tragic Disease: early-onset Alzheimer's. Really early--Piya seems to be in her mid-20s in the flashback scenes (Alzheimer's symptoms are rarely detectable before age 60).

But this isn't the only stretch of the imagination the film requires. (More spoilers follow.) For one thing, Piya's symptoms come and go--she's capable of executing a seductive song and dance ("Saiyaan") for husband Ajay one minute, and then forgetting she's put the baby in the bathtub the next. (What is it with drowning-baby scenes? Heyy babyy (2007) also had a highly disturbing one.) In fact, when we first see Piya--in the present day, more than two decades into this inexorably degenerative disease--she's reading a thick paperback novel, and she listens attentively to Ajay's lengthy narration as he recounts how they met and fell in love on a cruise 25 years previously. She has no trouble remembering the plot and characters of a 700-page novel or following Ajay's story, but she can't recognize her husband of more than two decades? This movie needed to hire Oliver Sacks as a consultant.

The flashbacks are no more grounded in any sort of recognizable reality than the present-day scenes. Ajay is supposed to be a high-powered psychiatrist, but somehow he can't diagnose the dementia symptoms in his wife. And apart from some unconvincing aging by makeup in the present-day scenes, no effort has been made to suggest the passage of time: in the flashback scenes, none of the clothes, hairstyles, or music seems to date from the early 1980s. (Were cruise ships filled with blonde Russian pole dancers back then? Just asking.)

Wallace reported: "I don't think it's an accident that 7 N[ight] C[aribbean] Luxury Cruises appeal mostly to older people. I don't mean decrepitly old, but like fiftyish people for whom their own mortality is something more than an abstraction. Most of the exposed bodies to be seen all over the daytime Nadir were in various stages of disintegration." But--surprise!--most of the bodies on display in U Me aur Hum belong to an army of lithe young actor-dancers, who of course just happen to be taking a cruise together.

But I can deal with lapses in logic and a certain degree of unreality: this is Bollywood, after all. The flaws in this movie are deeper (or perhaps I should say shallower). Basically everything about U Me aur Hum and the dilemmas of its characters rings false, and so the big emotional moments are flat and uninvolving. This was a project conceived, produced, and directed by Ajay Devgan, and so there's not a lot of ambiguity about who to blame for its failures.

The main redeeming feature of the movie is Kajol, who seemingly can't give a bad performance, even of a character whose Tragic Disease has been rendered completely unbelievable by the scriptwriters. Not only that, she's looking great. In some of the cruise ship scenes, when she's out in the bright sunshine, you can see that she's now developing tiny, endearing, sexy laugh lines at the corners of her extraordinary eyes. Kajol is one of those fortunate mortals who just looks better than ever as she gets older. And since she's onscreen for most of the film, she keeps it from being a total loss--there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple of hours. But in the end watching U Me aur Hum was all too much like Wallace's cruise: it was only supposedly enjoyable, and I'm not tempted do it again.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent parallel you've drawn here!!!! I loved that David Foster Wallace essay, read it shortly before I went on the only cruise I've been on (and will probably go on)...haven't been able to bring myself to watch U, Me Aur Hum because sometimes filmi diagnoses (esp. of mental illness) make me really crazy (no pun intended).

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  2. Memsaab, ordinarily I can accept a character's Tragic Disease without examining the details too closely.

    In U Me aur Hum, though, the reality of dementia is left so far behind that it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief. Not even Kajol could make this story affecting, which is saying quite a bit (at least for us).

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