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Of pretence and finding yourself

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-09-2017 Jai Arjun Singh

Watching two recent films—both somewhat uneven and protracted, but also full of inspired little moments and good performances—I was reminded that role-playing and masquerade have been vital themes throughout the history of screen comedy. In Hindi Medium, the well-off Raj (Irrfan Khan) and Meeta (Saba Qamar) pretend to be poor and live in a lower-middle-class district for a few days so they can exploit a school quota system for their child. And in Bareilly Ki Barfi, the simpleton Pritam (Rajkummar Rao) is forced to pose as the self-important author of a book written by his friend.

In both cases, minor deceptions are set against, or foreshadow, major ones. For instance, a hilarious little scene in Bareilly Ki Barfi shows that Pritam has led his mother to believe he is a high-flying car salesman. The film lets us think this too for a few seconds—we see him in a fancy showroom speaking carefully rehearsed English sentences in an urbane patter. But when a customer says he’ll take the blue one, a close-up has Pritam reverting to his small-town dialect, hollering for it to be wrapped (“lapet lo!”), and the setting changes; it turns out he is a sari-seller.

For all the breezy fun—or slapstick—in such stories, they often serve as parables too: Disguise or pretence are shown as having a liberating function. Midway through Bareilly Ki Barfi, it seems like Pritam has turned into a Frankenstein monster, shrugging off his chains, relishing his new life a little too much. This turns out to be a red herring: In the end he goes back to being the sweet, shy boy who wanted to help his friend all along. But there are also telling moments such as the one where, having parked his bike in the middle of the road in heavy traffic, he puts on a bit of “swag” for the furiously honking motorists around him—and one senses that this isn’t just a performance, that he is enjoying this opportunity to be someone else. Or to tap into a latent side of his personality.

Hindi Medium makes it clear that Raj and Meeta were once lower-middle-class themselves, but having moved up the social ladder, they now have the aspirational pretentiousness of the nouveau riche. And though the film never stops being lighthearted, they must face the repercussions of their game. A slapstick scene becomes sombre when a genuinely poor man, Shyam (the always wonderful Deepak Dobriyal), who had befriended Raj, discovers that the latter is a “sahab”. And for all the self-serving superficiality of the protagonists’ journey when it began, by the time it ends, they have new reserves of empathy—it is possible to hope they will be better people (and more responsible parents) in future.

There are obvious moral lessons on offer in a story about privileged people temporarily experiencing the unprivileged life (Preston Sturges’ superb 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels may have provided the cinematic template for this sort of thing), but it can work in the other direction too. One of my favourite films, the dialogue-less 1987 Pushpak, has an out-of-work man played by Kamal Haasan getting the chance to fill a rich man’s shoes and live in a plush hotel suite for a few days; but he also debases himself in the process, and the not-so-desirable side of the moneyed life comes to haunt him in the form of a hired assassin. Decades before that, in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual early films, Rich And Strange, a working-class married couple comes into a sudden inheritance, goes on a long cruise, gets to indulge themselves, but also becomes bored and corrupted as a result.

But coming back to this matter of so many films being about people pretending to be other people and often discovering alternate personalities within themselves—isn’t this what many actors do too? There are countless instances, but consider Cary Grant, one of the finest movie performers ever in my view. Grant belonged to a generation of Hollywood personality actors who were often seen as playing “themselves” in film after film. Yet, as many biographers have noted, his suave man-about-town personality was a carefully constructed one, miles removed from that of his “real” self, Archie Leach, who was born in a poor family and worked as a circus performer before trying his luck in the movies.

Little wonder one of the darkest, most self-referential moments in a 1940s Hollywood film came not in a noir but in a great screwball comedy, His Girl Friday: During one of the many exchanges of rapid-fire banter in that film, Grant, playing a newspaper editor, looks off screen and says “The last man who said that to me was Archie Leach…just a week before he cut his throat.”

As the writer David Thomson put it in an essay titled “Educated Archie”, the line is “a tremor in the great satin shroud of Hollywood illusion”. But it is also a reminder of how closely linked illusion and reality can be; and that not just movie characters but also the actors who play them—and the viewers who watch it all—can have different personalities jostling for dominance.

As a shy child, I used to be disbelieving when I read pieces claiming that some high-profile stars—from Robert De Niro to Amitabh Bachchan—were very reserved in real life. Over time, though, I realized that it is possible to be deeply private or even unsocial while also having a secret self that relishes the spotlight; that introversion and extroversion are not airtight categories, and shy people might have a showman side that can be a revelation even to themselves. Bareilly’s Pritam would probably agree.

Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.

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