Saturday, April 9, 2016

Ishq Vishk: A Bollywood Mansfield Park

Rajiv (Shahid Kapoor) and Payal (Amrita Rao) in Ishq Vishk
There's a psychological phenomenon known as the "frequency illusion": once something is brought to your attention, you start noticing it everywhere. Now that I've embarked on the Six Months with Jane Austen project, I'm starting to see her influence in unexpected places.

In "A Bollywood Persuasion" I lamented the scarcity of Bollywood Jane Austen adaptations. I had only counted three: from worst to best they were Aisha (based on Emma, 2010), Bride and Prejudice (based on Pride and Prejudice, of course, 2004), and Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It, based on Sense and Sensibility, 2000).

But it turns out that I just wasn't looking closely enough. Austen's Mansfield Park features a sensitive, shy, slightly awkward young woman, Fanny Price, who has been in love with her cousin Edmund Bertram since she was 10 years old. Edmund treats Fanny like his kid sister, though, and is instead dazzled by the new girl in town, the pretty, vivacious, but shallow Mary Crawford. Will Edmund ever recognize that all the time his true love has been right next to him?

That plot should sound familiar to viewers of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening, 1998; it's #2 on the list of "The Top 10 Shah Rukh Khan movies").* But the "shy girl secretly in love with her male best friend" plot is also central to another Bollywood film, Ishq Vishk (Love and all that, 2003; direction and story by Ken Ghosh, screenplay by Vinod Ranganath).**

Payal (E & I favorite Amrita Rao) has loved Rajiv (Shahid Kapoor in his first leading role) since they were children. Now they are attending "Spencer College" (a thinly fictionalized St. Xavier's), where the students seem to spend most of their time hanging out at the student union, planning beach parties, performing in dance competitions and getting bad advice from the Love Guru rather than going to class:

The music is by Anu Malik, with lyrics by Sameer; the playback singers are Sonu Nigam, Alka Yagnik and Alisha Chinoy.

Rajiv can rely on the bright, studious Payal, of course, to answer for him when attendance is taken, do his homework, and slip him test answers.

Rajiv wants to belong to the popular clique, but everyone in the group is in a steady couple: to be accepted he'll need a girlfriend. (Everyone in the clique also looks to be about 30 years old, but never mind.) When the group plans an overnight excursion to the beach at Alibaug, Rajiv pretends to Payal that he's fallen in love with her. Payal believes that this is the fulfillment of her dearest wish; Rajiv, of course, is simply using her so that he can go on the beach trip, and is planning to dump her right afterwards. As he tells his friend Mambo (Vishal Malhotra),

Throughout the film, Shahid's boyishly appealing good looks are used to set up expectations of wholesome virtue that his unsympathetic character then systematically undermines.

That night Rajiv discovers that Payal's parents are away, and tells her that he's coming over to see her. She is panicked that her parents will return and find him there, but he insists:

Payal's first hint that Rajiv might not be worthy of her devotion.
When he shows up, Payal can't leave him standing on the doorstep—the nosy neighbors will start gossiping. She has no choice but to let him in. He asks for a drink, and while Payal is getting it, he notices something on her dresser: her diary.

Rajiv discovers that he is on every page:

Payal is shocked and hurt that Rajiv would read her diary:

Payal's second hint.
But despite these warning signs, Payal decides to open her heart to Rajiv—a decision she will come to regret.

A few days later Payal observes the fast of Karva Chauth. Rajiv is touched despite himself, and vows to complete the ritual by giving Payal her first sip of water and first taste of food at moonrise. He sneaks into her room, but—perhaps unsettled by the sincerity of Payal's emotions, or the ritual's implications (a wife fasts during Karva Chauth for her husband's long life)—keeps making a joke of it. Payal tries to tell him how much it means to her:

At Rajiv's urging, Payal has already begun to do things against her better judgment. When he asks her to go on the beach trip with him and his new friends, Payal has to lie to her parents to get their consent. She quiets the twinges of her conscience by focussing on her feelings for Rajiv.

At the beach, Payal draws Rajiv away from the rest of the group for an emotionally intimate moment:

Rajiv misunderstands her intentions, and immediately betrays her trust by trying to pressure her for physical intimacy. She struggles to break away from him, and has to slap his face to get him to stop. Heated words are exchanged, and the scales fall from her eyes: she suddenly realizes why Rajiv has been paying attention to her:

Payal's heart is broken:

Back at school, Rajiv rebuffs Payal's attempts to apologize (of course, she has nothing to apologize for). Payal finds herself instead the unwilling witness of Rajiv's attempts to win the new girl at school, Alisha (Shenaz)—just as Fanny Price is subjected to the pain of watching Edmund's courtship of Mary Crawford. Alisha is everything that Payal isn't: conventionally pretty, popular, rich, stylish, "modern." Rajiv thinks that Alisha is everything he could want in a girlfriend. But, as Edmund Bertram discovers in Mansfield Park, you should be careful what you wish for...

I don't want to overstate the virtues of Ishq Vishk. It rarely strays very far from the formulas of teen comedy. Sometimes those formulas are employed effectively—there's a painfully embarrassing attempt by Rajiv's father (Satish Shah) to have The Talk about sex that proceeds pretty much as awkwardly as my own father's did with me—and sometimes they descend into crude humor and slapstick.

But Ishq Vishk is also surprisingly moving. Although Rajiv and his girlfriend quest are ostensibly the focus of the film, its moral and emotional center is Payal. Thanks to Amrita Rao's touching performance, we come to share Payal's feelings of hope and pain—just as we share those of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.

Amrita and Shahid's very natural-seeming, warm onscreen chemistry is even more apparent in writer/director Sooraj Barjatya's film about "the journey from engagement to marriage," the powerfully affecting Vivah (Marriage, 2006). But if you want to see where that chemistry began, Ishq Vishk is available from Shemaroo Films for free on YouTube; click the CC button to view with English subtitles.

* KKHH also includes a reunion between the heroine and the man she loved eight years previously and for whom she has kept a torch burning ever since, as in Persuasion.

** The title is untranslatable; in Hindi or the Hindi-English hybrid Hinglish, the rhyming reduplication of a word (as in English Vinglish (2012)) adds both emphasis and a slightly ironic, slightly dismissive tone. It's something like the Yiddish "shm" or "schm," as in the Yinglish "fancy-schmancy." An English equivalent might be to follow a word with a wry "and all that," thus my rendering of Ishq Vishk as "Love and all that."

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