Adapting a nearly two hundred year old novel set in a small English town for a mainstream Indian audience sounds like an arduous task, but thankfully the novel in question — Jane Austen’s Emma — has enough universal appeal that its plot makes its way fairly unchanged into Aisha. Sonam Kapoor plays the eponymous lead character in Rajshree Ojha’s new film, which sees upper-class New Delhi society girl Aisha take to matchmaking after successfully arranging (some might say engineering) a relationship for her aunt.
It’s at her aunt’s wedding itself that Aisha sets her sights on a new project, that being small town ugly duckling Shefali (Amrita Puri). Soon Aisha and BFF Pinky Bose (Ira Dubey) are unleashing the full power of their fashion sense (and Aisha’s father’s credit card) upon her, in the hopes of getting her hitched to the bumbling sweet shop empire heir Randhir Gambhir (Cyrus Sahukar).
It’s plain to the viewer that Randhir’s heart is set on our intrepid heroine, but Aisha remains blissfully unaware, seeing instead the potential for Randhir and Shefali to make a cute couple. It’s this and many other qualities of the girl that vexes childhood friend and sometimes nemesis Arjun (Abhay Deol); he keeps trying to get Aisha to grow up, to stop meddling in others’ affairs — she, meanwhile, flits from ill-defined careers in ‘event management’ to charity, though she spends most of her time shopping and matchmaking.
If all of this sounds a bit cliche, then you’ve cottoned onto the fact that, as mentioned before, the novel is nearly two hundred years old and is the template for many a romantic comedy since (including Amy Heckerling’s similarly modernized Clueless). That doesn’t mean that Aisha is to be written-off, as the movie is solidly entertaining throughout its two-hour-something running time.
It may have a completely predictable plot, and is frothy enough to make the head on a cappuccino envious, but Aisha is at least aware of its own simplicity. It’s confident enough to stick to the material without throwing in too much extra masala for safety, and delivers its story with a bright, easy touch. Unlike a lot of Bollywood movies, it has mood and a logic to the workings of its imaginary world, even if that world is a bit surreal.
It’s hard to judge whether or not a lot of this surreality is by design or merely good research. Unlike Heckerling’s Clueless, with its dictionary’s-worth of new pop culture slang and outrageous-for-the-sake-of-it fashions, Aisha plays it seemingly closer to reality. Still, though the makeup is frequently pancaked on (especially on heroine Sonam Kapoor) and the constant plugs for a particular cosmetic brand become more hilarious with each iteration, one starts to wonder where exactly the filmmakers’ allegiances lie.
The picture of rich young Delhi brats comes off as much more shallow than, say, the suburban Mumbai set in Wake Up Sid; the aspirations are more fleeting (if that even seemed possible), the lifestyle more directionless — even a mid-film marijuana smoke up and campfire guitar montage seems like it’s been staged for a clothing brand commercial, rather than something that is actually of value to the characters.
On the other hand, set up with such a petri-dish level of depth, it comes as a small disappointment that the film is not very convincing in the inevitable humbling and transformation of its main character. Once again, in a song montage, I didn’t quite know whether I was supposed to find Aisha bawling her eyes out (in two cities and over much comfort food) funny or genuinely signaling a change.
It is this failure to convey the nuances of the character that for me is the only real problem with Aisha. As the self-centred orchestrator of relationships, clearly spoiled rotten and oblivious, Kapoor plays the character well. We almost never like Aisha or root for her, but I’m not sure we’re ever supposed to. We’ve all known a girl like her at some point in our lives, and it would have helped both for the script to give some insight into her that garnered empathy, and for Sonam Kapoor to make us feel her pain better.
That the writing and dialogue is a bit uneven is only further thrown into focus by the fact that there’s some genuinely sparkling work going on elsewhere. Abhay Deol gets all the best lines and is sound in delivering them, as he usually does, both as incisively critical boy next door and noble heroic Man. “Abhay Deol Does Good” is a thing that can be said of all the actor’s work so far, but it doesn’t hurt to say it again.
The performance of the film, though, belongs to new find Amrita Puri. From small-town/big-city comic relief, to lovelorn ingenue and maturing young woman, her character Shefali gets perhaps the best-written arc, and Puri delivers with a feisty, endearing performance that even taken on its own makes the film worth watching.
To expect a dark and realistic coming of age story from this movie would be misplaced. Nor does it strive to be a sensational Madhur Bhandarkar style exposé on the vapid lives of young Delhi society types.
But as a primary-coloured serving of romcom cotton candy, you could do far worse than Aisha.
A Word About Subtitles
Sigh… I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but it must be said: English subtitles for Indian movies SUCK.
While my general complaint tends to be weak and clunky writing, and the usual raft of spelling errors, the subtitles in Aisha are particularly bad. Not only are they full of extra subtitles for dialogue and background song lyrics that don’t exist; not only do they have horrible mistranslations of dialogue that people in the movie are speaking in English; but the translation of Hindi dialogue is wooden, muddled and generally makes the film come off far worse than it actually is.
I don’t, as a policy, asign star ratings to reviews on this site. But if you’re going to see Aisha, and speaking not a word of Hindi have to rely on the English subtitles, feel free to take 2 or 3 stars (out of 5) off any rating you think this review amounts to, because the movie is being done a great disservice by the subtitles.