Udaan, one of this year’s entries at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, is a coming-of-age tale set in the heartland of India and tells the story of seventeen year old Rohan Singh (Rajat Barmecha) who is expelled from his boarding school in Shimla, along with three of his friends, and is forced to return to his hometown of Jamshedpur to his estranged father, Bhairav Singh (Ronit Roy). He discovers that he has to put up with not only the tyrannical ways of his father but also with his six year old step brother Arjun (Aayan Boradia) who is treated no better than Rohan by their father. Bhairav makes Rohan work out every day. He gets him admitted to an engineering college and instructs him to work in his steel factory. It is clear that it is not just the steel he wants to temper. Rohan regretfully abides, wearing the bland white jacket over his snarky one-liner T-shirts. More interested in the ambiguity of poetry than the precision of engineering drawing, Rohan starts bunking classes, winding up at the river bank to write. Naturally, writing becomes the tool for him to express himself, apart from other methods like shouting into a deserted basement at the dam and reciting largely improvised stories to patients and staff at the local hospital, where his brother is admitted for a few days.
Rohan is portrayed by debutant Rajat Barmecha. Barmecha plays Rohan straight, without the usual film vocabulary actors succumb to, and he is the greatest success for the film. With their long lashes, his eyes suggest everything from desire to rebellion. As Rohan, he appears to be the kind of person who seems to be willing to listen to your problems and the kind of person who hopes that you listen to his. With his “feminine” countenance (a feature that his father derides heavily in the film and the reason I predict that he won’t make it big in Bollywood), he’s also the person you believe won’t be parading his chutzpah or doing something alarmingly foolish. In short, he appears to be a person whom everyone will trust. Ironically, he lies to his father whenever he is in potential trouble (In a well realized arc, he later chooses to tell the truth to his father, not out of guilt, but because he knows that he knows his father well enough and that he can handle the consequences). He would probably have gotten away from his father and his rigid laws if it wasn’t for Arjun, whom he seems to view as a younger, not-yet-scathed version of himself. Predictably, he becomes Arjun’s surrogate father (and mother too, if we are to consider his oft mentioned femininity in the film). Meanwhile, Bhairav’s brother Jimmy (Ram Kapoor), who does not have children of his own, becomes Rohan’s surrogate father and the latter, his surrogate son. Each of the three otherwise unrelated characters is connected to the others via the beastly persona of Bhairav. These are all familiar writing tricks, of course, but first-time director Motwane treats the text with skillfulness of a semi-veteran.
You know that a coming-of-age film is on the right track when it starts with the protagonist jumping over the walls of his hostel into the city streets. In fact, Udaan strictly adheres to the path laid out by the genre, carefully working out culture-specific variations and steering clear of conventional pitfalls of the nation’s industrial cinema. The latter was possible perhaps because the film draws inspiration more from the west’s treatment of the genre than from the melodramatic traditions of Bollywood (more on this later). There seems to be an influence of virtually every landmark coming-of-age film in Udaan. Rohan and his college friends, high on booze, deliberately pick on a group of mooks at a pool hall – a scene that seems directly out of Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973, the appropriation doesn’t seem like homage or pastiche for it is employed in a very similar fashion for very similar effects. One might also recall that Anurag Kashyap, who has co-written and produced this film, had already harnessed Keitel’s LSD trip in his reworking of Devdas, which Motwane co-wrote). Rohan’s and younger brother Arjun’s having to put up with an authoritarian father they barely know has echoes of The Return (2003), but where, in the latter film, the father is a mythical, metaphorical figure looming over the kids like a phantom, Bhairav is an everyman grounded in reality (One of Rohan’s friends tells that every father in the city is like Bhairav). The teenagers driving like crazy through the city streets at night, too, might have been from Nick Ray. But it is The 400 Blows (1959) that Udaan seems to want to emulate the most. Right from Rohan’s breakout from the regressive boarding school, to the motif of running and up to the final freeze frame on his face (albeit on a less ambivalent note), Udaan smells of Truffaut’s masterpiece (There’s a fleeting, pretty stunning image of Rohan’s face, framed head on with harsh light from above, which recalls young Doinel’s). And that’s besides the fact that this is Vikramaditya Motwane’s debut film and might be highly autobiographical.
Udaan’s embracing of these films, especially The 400 Blows, and the tropes of the genre as treated by the west is of note because it is what defines the interesting politics of the film. Udaan is, at its centre, a war against tradition in all its shapes and sizes. Bhairav is the symbol of tradition and conservatism in the film. He acts like his father did and metes out the same kind of punishment to his kids as his father had to him. With his dark glasses, trimmed moustache and perpetually disgruntled look, he is the quintessential patriarch guarding the passage between tradition and modernity. He has married thrice, works out extensively everyday, drinks every night, smokes throughout, doesn’t hesitate to use his belt on his six year old, ridicules his first son’s feminine looks and is probably also proud of this skewed sense of masculinity of his. He admires the famed industrialists and other icons of Jamshedpur and literally prostrates before them. He calls his brother Chotu (“little one”, which he sure isn’t) and insists that the kids address him as “sir”. His brother Jimmy is the counterbalancing force to Bhairav in the film. He is a man who had chosen the road less traveled (and supposedly failed). He is a progressive man who believes that Rohan should do what he wants to. It is Jimmy who paid any heed to what Rohan’s mother felt her son should become. Bhairav, on the other hand, is disgusted by Jimmy’s impotence and obesity (he would have anyway called Jimmy impotent, given his definition of what being masculine is). The two vastly different father figures, resulting from a schism within the family, are the choices provided to Rohan, who similarly has to choose between industrial work and poetry. Obviously, he chooses to emulate Jimmy, and in a predictably rebellious manner.
[Udaan (2010) Trailer]
Along the film, Rohan repudiates everything that is traditional and everything that binds him to his biological father. He shatters the rickety old car of his father with a crowbar, he discards the familial watch that Bhairav gives him on his eighteenth birthday (a familiar cliché in Indian cinema) and he even punches his father right on the face. Towards the end, he manages to make his father chase him unsuccessfully, once and for all, after having run behind him everyday. He will perhaps become everything his father isn’t (which is exactly what the latter tries to prevent). There is also a conspicuous absence of women in the film. Motwane and Kashyap avoid the pitfall of succumbing to the view that all women are victims of tradition. There are two women who are alluded to in the film – Rohan’s deceased mother who wanted her son to be a writer and his friend’s mother who chastises her son for having thrown out his abusive father out of the house – who, too, reflect the dichotomy between modernity and tradition that Jimmy and Bhairav respectively represent. Moreover, Rohan being a very liberal person like his mother (whom he seems to have a lot of love for) and his wanting to break away from Bhairav’s patriarchy puts the film onto an oedipal course as well, which is not very alien to the narrative at hand. One reason why Udaan is one of the few truly liberal films out there is because it carefully avoids, through its script choices, subscribing to that awful pseudo-liberal axiom that you can follow your dream no matter who you are. By locating the protagonist in a regressive middle class setup (which is beset by the problems caused by the recession) and eventually shifting him into a more progressive, flexible middle class, Udaan comes across as an honest, non-exploitative bourgeois film. Of course, it does not mobilize this trajectory for more overtly political purposes (Rohan father is a steel industrialist in Jamshedpur while his friend’s parents live in Singur. This tempting premise is left unexplored), but that’s probably because the film chooses to work completely within the genre.
This liberal support of the individual, free of all traditional baggage, is what makes Udaan a very “western” film (“western” in the same way Kurosawa was) and it is perhaps what makes the film very offbeat with respect to Bollywood cinema as well. Where the typical film would have portrayed Bhairav as an ogre on the outside and a child within (he would probably have confessed his love for his son to a friend or would have spread a blanket over Rohan while he’s asleep!), Udaan retains him as a threatening force. There’s no gentle giant act that Bhairav is made to undergo. But that does not mean that he is merely a concept or a one-dimensional monster. What makes him very human is the fact that he seems to know that he’s acting it all out. He’s a man blinded by tradition no doubt, but seems to be aware of that limitation. He tells Rohan that he didn’t have much to say to him when he visited his school. Even when he apologizes to his kids (before he distracts them from reflection), he does so within the limits of dignity allowed by his “character”. The triumph of writing lies in its belief that it need not “prove” that Bhairav is a human being. He just is and Ronit Roy plays him with the same kind of conviction. This consciousness of one’s limitations and the choice to be what one is also goes down well with the basic libertarian idea, which the film espouses, of a man making up his own destiny (which is very frequently mutated to condemn crimes of all kinds).
Udaan’s one more connection to The 400 Blows must be noted. While Truffaut’s work tried to break away from a tradition and the moral squalor that it seems to have brought, it simultaneously represented a move away from the traditions of cinema, with its technical radicalism and its inclination to make cinema author-centric. It was a battle being fought against the tradition (of quality) on multiple levels, virtually kicking off the New Wave. Udaan, on the other hand, has its feet planted firmly on the genre. Motwane is not a strict modernist like Truffaut was. Even if he is opposed to tradition and might be using cinema as a medium of personal expression, he does not go to the extent of taking up genre-blending or self-reflexivity. Sure, it does break away from the conventional story telling methods of the national cinema, but it does so only to adopt conventions of a different cinema. The aesthetics of the film – sunrays scattered by tree leaves piercing the camera lens, faces gazing towards infinity from the edge of the frame, cute symbolism, characters dragged softly into and out of the shallow focus and guitar riffs trying to create the blues – virtually cry out “Sundance!”. Some of the lines feel very scripted (a shortcoming that is commented on within the film and nearly overcome by making the protagonist a writer). But there are stretches in Udaan that are also directed with considerable finesse. There is much restraint in the score. Where a lesser film would have tried to cover up the silence with piano pieces, Udaan dares to leave it as it is. In the film’s most striking moment, Rohan relaxes on a cot after having dragged his heavy trunk upstairs. There’s no music. Almost no sound. Just the anxious face of a teenager back from an arduous journey and ready to embark on a longer and more important one. The shot lasts a few seconds. You wish it went on – the shot and the journey.