I have to be honest and say most Indian films don’t always register on my radar. However, when sifting through the UK broadsheets last week I couldn’t help but notice mention of Aisha, (directed by Rajshree Ojha). I gave up on most Bollywood films when Yash Raj simply got too difficult to swallow, but I’ll look out for the occasional feature, especially if it’s produced by the Kapoor label. Largely attracting me to this film was the fact that it is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma; though I don’t recall a credit in the opening. As a literature graduate and ardent admirer of Austen, I had to see it.
Aisha is set in modern day, upper-class and superbly sanitised Delhi. Things are generally super clean and life is gloriously pastel-coloured for Aisha (Sonam Kapoor). The film runs along at a steady pace you quickly start to make connections and distinctions between the characters on screen Austen’s originals. Aisha is well characterised, as the matchmaking, snobbish and interfering young girl that she is; and as Emma is also intelligent and artistic, so too is Aisha. Following the successful arrangement of her aunt and a suitor, she quickly sets about making arrangements for others. What better way to begin this venture by starting with her newly adopted friend Shefali – a simple girl, but perfect for Aisha to play with (queue the fashion-based movie montage and mega transformation). As the rest of the film unfolds, the plot closely mirrors Emma and is easy enough to watch. Ojha takes us to wonderful locales of Rishi-Kesh, trendy cafes, nice boutiques, plush offices – in fact – we don’t really see Delhi at all. Maybe it’s a good thing that Ojha stays away from the grit of reality and stays in Aisha’s near perfect world – it would simply get too heavy otherwise.
Naturally, not all of Aisha’s matchmaking endeavours are perfectly realised. As we return after the intermission, we see the more serious ‘grown up’ second half of the film as the pace begins to slack a little. The film loses its effervescent quality and Aisha realises some home truths. This is depicted in a fairly satisfactory, predictable, coming of age like fashion.
There are some really good qualities in this film and the occasional touching moment. Overall, it’s pleasant viewing than most Indian films in the last year or so, with closer attention to mise-en-scene. That’s not to say it’s doesn’t fall flat in parts. The casting of some of the female leads is fairly standard, after a while – they begin to merge into a group of fashion models. The dialogue ought to be more Hindi. As it stands, it’s a rough blend of Hindi and English, which doesn’t help to serve the sincerity or impact of every scene. Viewers are left questioning if this is how people are speaking in Delhi, or if this is a hyper-reality for western and westernised audiences.
We learn from the outset of the film, that it has several commercial business and brand partners. The funniest moment was when Aisha’s painting her nails with L’Oreal nail varnish. With so much commercial affiliation, the ‘fashion focus’ of the film begins to feel a little contrived. Aisha could work better as the snapshot of an ordinary Delhi girl’s life, rather than one who is routinely involved in a grooming routine. Despite this, to stay true to Austen’s plot Aisha does need to be fairly affluent, so perhaps the Polo matches and visits to Dior are the correct semiotics here.
The music is a bittersweet aspect in this film, the score itself is overbearing in parts, and puts too much emphasis in replacing genuine characterisation. Randhir Ghambhir for example, is too heavily influenced by a dhol in the background. This harps back to the golden age of Bollywood where comedians and villains had their own little mini-theme playing in the background as they appeared. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily fit in a modern setting. The film does better at weaving in the song and dance numbers – these are seamlessly folded into plot and don’t take you away from the narrative to Switzerland for example.
A good test of this film is how it relates to those not familiar with Austen’s Emma. I found my fellow audience members constantly guessing what would happen, which was fun. Whether they understood the intricacies of emotion that Austen had originally intended is questionable. My biggest disappointment with this film was the neglect of the secondary characters, in particular Dhruv and Aarti (Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax in Emma respectively). They both share a complex back-story which isn’t present in Aisha and paints them in a negative secondary light.
The cheeriness of this film shines through, but it needs to make its mind whether it’s an adaption of Jane Austen’s Emma or a variation of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. However, where most Bollywood films of this genre are like rock-hard candy, Aisha is more like ice-cream: still full of sugar, but easier to swallow.