I don’t know about your schools, but in mine (Indian School Muscat, or ISM for those of use who have survived that enigma) Drama and Theatre weren’t big. Oh sure, you did have the odd teacher who’d come along every few years, fuelled by passion and memories of his or her golden youth (usually five years past) in some sleepy hill station boarding school where ‘The Classics’ were paraded out — bedsheet togas, pathetic iambic pentameter and all — and put on show in some august hall whose seats were varnished every other week. They’d pick up everyone who ever scored in the top five in English in every class*.
(* – Thankfully, despite achieving this, I was never taught by one of these imbeciles or was considered too uncharismatic. The few times I was pulled up I stood very still at audition and read in a continuous, droning whisper.)
The result would be a huge number of very bad ‘Indian Victorian’ accents (I can’t describe this any other way, except that it is so excruciatingly bad it makes me want to punch someone while simultaneously drilling into my eardrums through my sphincter with a frozen echidna), a great number of puffed chests swelling already overfilled gasbags, and then either the exams or periodic tests would crop up (as they do in Indian schools, every other week) and Mummy and Daddy and Mr. Vice Principal would put all rehearsals on hold because little Bunty had to study all the time and get 99 marks in everything (Mr. Vice Principal wanted everyone to get 99 in everything so that the overall grades of the year would surpass the rival Indian school across town), or Mummy and Daddy would realise that they don’t give out little trophies or certificates for a play and tell Bunty to go back to athletics practice so he’d get some on Sports Day.
End result: not many plays.
More frequent would be the Middle or High School Alpha Female, destined from birth to break free from the shackles of Savage India and be educated in ‘The States’. Hence, she played softball (when we didn’t even have a team or anyone else who knew how to play it) and only dated people on the basketball team, rolled her Rs and used various words as punctuation (“Like, I mean, rrrruuuhly.”)*
(* – This, I realised, was much more endemic in Dubai, where the glut of private Indian schools led to each institution developing its own accent based on how expensive it was (more fees = more States-bound little munchkins). I can still spot an Indian High School girl in seven words or less. Anyway…)
Alpha Female, no doubt feeling the twitch of alienation in her anorexic little bones after watching the ‘school play’ episode of Beverly Hills 90210 (or any of the various high school shows of the time) would burst into the classroom the next day, gather her gang of like-minded cool folk the rest of us steered well clear of (the smart ones, anyway. Most just couldn’t even understand what language they were speaking, and vice versa) and set forth her plan of action. This usually involved buttering up the same kinds of teachers I’d mentioned before (freshly burned from the previous term’s adventure of trying to teach Bunty that “How” in Shakespeare did not mean, “How?”), only instead of the classics they’d think of putting on West Side Story or something else that would give a proper vent to all those rrrruuuhlys they had stored up over the year.
Alas, exams would come about, maybe Sports Day. Or, as would usually happen, Alpha Female would have a fight with Alpha Male — the hitherto default male lead of the Extravaganza(!) — and Beta Female would act as ambassador between the two parties while hitting on Alpha Male as she always wanted to. Big Muscle, Intense Guy, Comic Relief and various Lesser Females of the pack would run helter-skelter and gossip or hit on Alpha Female, and then the winter vacation would come along and people would go back to watching Beverly Hills 90210 or NBA Inside Stuff.
End result: not many plays.
There were, however, two kinds of theatrics that one was bound to encounter in a year. One was the school elocution, a torturous affair during Lower School because the entire class had to stand up on stage and belt out some kind of silly poem written by an absinthe-addled Englishman, in forced Indian Victorian that the teachers thought was the proper way to speak (bastards).
In Middle and Secondary Schools it became torture only for the audience, as the best and brightest of each class was picked up to subject the rest of us to more prolix, absinthe-addled verse. Worse, the elocution always seemed to take place on the same day of the week we’d have our only art class (bastards). The sole highlight of these affairs was when someone would flub a line and whisper a terse — but eloquent — “Shit!” (I think they got extra points)
The Second, more free-form method of theatrics was known as a skit.
The very term sounds mediocre and transient. Skits were usually performed by five man or woman troupes on Teacher’s Day, Children’s Day, those five days after the exams but before the winter vacation when people would come to school but nothing was taught, and at various Scouts and Guides thingamajigs (I only ever attended the three day camp in the desert, staying well clear of any regular meetings involving spurious knot-making instructions and disturbingly cheerful renditions of Anna-na Cycle-a Belle Yillee Seat Yillee Mudguard Yillee Yillee!)
First problem — and, to be frank, most damning: Skits were usually written by the students themselves. Oh nooooooo.
Oh, the horror of watching five people you sort-of get along with during the week suddenly turn into giggling, lobotomised train-wrecks of ‘thespians’ making some kind of unoriginal five minute monstrosity (that always ended with everyone saying the catchphrase of the ‘show’ at the same time)! I remember one was a direct rip-off of a supposedly popular — I’d never heard of it — Hindi sitcom (a term always used lightly) except to stave off nonexistent copyright lawyers they changed the show’s scene/episode ending catchphrase (Hindi sitcoms and school skits seem to share much DNA, hence my loathing for both) to something else (Genius!). The term they came up with was “Oof!”, which by the end of it the audience was saying anyway.
Second Problem: Skits were perfomed by students with no Pavlovian input from teachers, and so while it did finally free them from the curse of Indian Victorian, the delivery ranged from dead (Bunty) and bored (Mallu girl) to overboard (Elocution Boy) and requiring subtitles (Like, rrrruuuhly). It was not even bad enough to be good, if you know what I mean.
The one time I somehow ended up becoming part of a skit (I was bored, the group was sitting one row in front of me and their comedic stylings were, how shall I put this, skitshit), I added in bits of writing to what was supposedly a guy’s radio set tuning to different channels at random, with crazy — I said, Kerrraaaazy! — results. I’ll admit, even my 14 year old self couldn’t come up with anything too interesting or good (I did do something I was proud of a few months later, but that’s another story for another time) and mainly I streamlined a few jokes and helped things along.
Came time for the audition, for the Teacher’s Day show, and our boring bunch of nerds got up on stage (these guys weren’t nice nerds: they thought Transformers was a three mark Physics paper question). The year previous I had been a part of a sickening white-shirt/black-pant/red-bowtie group song recital that made it to the final show, where I had left the stage with a leap and a fist pump that got more applause and laughs than the entire performance, much to the surprise and embarrassment of my colleagues. Heh. Anyway, we got into our skit (being one of the writers I was also, unfortunately, one of the ‘actors’) and we lasted all of two minutes. I think it was the unpalatable juxtaposition of a cooking show with a news report on a famous (at the time) murder involving a tandoor oven that sealed our fate.
Needless to say, I didn’t write that one (or if I had, it would have been filthier).
Skits are terrible. You can do them well, but the chances of that happening at school are about zero and, well, zero. About the same amount of chance that you’ll be able to bang out a rollicking Musical Shakespearean TrageComedy Event in between exams, periodic tests, unit tests, Sports Day and private tuitions in an Indian School.
I’d pretty much forgotten about either, um, ‘art’ form, until today, when I saw Pyaar Ke Side Effects.
I’d missed it in theatres because the trailers didn’t look interesting. The teaser poster was much more promising, but the subdued nature of the TV promos made me take it off my “Watch it in a theatre” list. There were a lot of Hindi movies coming out last September, and I like to watch as many of them as I can even if they seem in the slightest bit promising, because Hindi movies are my opiate and without watching one or two every week — any movie — I get grouchy and depressed.
Now, a lot of people had to told me, “YOU MUST SEE PYAAR KE SIDE EFFECTS!” in a voice roughly approximating all caps. It seemed to be a movie that instilled the kind of wide-eyed, excited feeling that I rarely see in people who, unlike myself, aren’t movie nerds.
So yesterday when I was browsing through the racks of my DVD rental store I came across a copy with that same alluring teaser poster I had seen a year or two before. Rahul Bose is usually hit and miss for me: good in Jhankaar Beats, great in Chameli, and Mumbai Matinee looked so bad I didn’t even bother. Mallika Sherawat is not usually a memorable actress (she can, in fact, be quite terrible) and I don’t find her sexy. Still, all those enthusiastic recommendations plus the thought of seeing India’s most clearly defined mainstream Sex Symbol acting with a guy who is known for never dancing and singing on screen, being in practically every ‘Hinglish’ and Crossover movie of the past ten years, and playing rugby, piqued my curiosity enough rent the thing.
Note to self: don’t listen to anyone. Ever.
The movie is as awkward as any of those skits I saw in school, and is full of the kind of vapid, overbearing characters I avoided (and who are now, unfortunately, possibly tormenting my geek friends in America. I feel for you guys). When the protagonists aren’t acting like idiots they’re delivering punchlines to technically funny jokes as if they’re sliding dead fish under their neighbour’s porch. Granted, I’m not the target audience for this kind of movie — I have a brain and not the pretence of one — and I know enough people who would relate to this stuff (worse, they are this stuff) but that’s still no excuse for the kind of amateurish direction that runs through the production. Once in a while the cinematographer wakes up and gives us a five second shot that isn’t boring. Once in a while a line that is funny is actually delivered that way, and for those few moments you think the film might actually turn around and start behaving like, well, a movie.
Alas, we’re stuck with Rahul Bose playing the standard commitment-phobic, confused urban man he usually does, with none of aplomb of Jhankaar Beats, or the quiet sincerity of Chameli, and Mallika Sherawat, while never as bad as she was in, say, Kis Kis Ki Kismat, is never any better than just okay. It doesn’t help that her character is flat and unlikable.
Side characters come and go. Ranvir Sheorey plays the crazy roommate (because nobody has a normal roommate, of course) and does so quite well with what little he’s given. Then they go and ruin it by ramming in a clumsy attempt at a character arc towards the end. Other people play other stereotypes and are quickly forgotten or just annoying enough to make you hit fast forward.
About the only character who actually comes off as having a brain is Sophie Chowdhury, and she’s the damn item girl. When your sexpot has more sympathy than your lead, there’s trouble. This, of course, leads to the same thought I had after watching Dil Se, which is, “Oh thank God the two crazy people got together and the sane one is left alone.”
[Dil Se SPOILERS ahead]
Unfortunately, Pyaar Ke Side Effects does not end with the two protagonists blowing themselves to lovelorn smithereens by triggering a suicide bomb with their embrace.
In fact, it barely seems to end. Suddenly there’s an even clumsier (than everything before it) attempt at slapstick, guns and horses and a chase are cobbled together for fifteen seconds while the DOP goes off for a smoke and leaves the camera on ‘landscape’, and the credits roll while the final lines are still being spoken. They don’t even resort to the good old Hindi sitcom and school skit formula of ending on a catchphrase (the Sidey Stud’s oft-repeated “It’s not a big deal” could have been trotted out one last time, thereby summing up the whole experience nicely, just like that school skit ten years ago!).
I’ve learned a lot of things from Pyaar Ke Side Effects. Never trust the movie recommendations of Indian High School Dubai girls. My classmates could write better. Hell, half of them could act better, even Elocution Boy. Never has “Written and Directed by” meant so little. The quality of Cinematography does not increase with the amount of cleavage on screen. All those vapid kids you knew in school will go though a similar experience as the characters in the movie, and just like them they won’t actually learn something, get married and have kids anyway.
Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.
© Vishal K. Bharadwaj, 2007, All Rights Reserved