A movie whose title itself is an exclamation can't possibly be subtle or measured. Accordingly, Aiyyaa, which variously translates from Marathi into English as "Omigod", "What just happened?" and "I can't believe my ears", is a raucous and rambunctious experience. Marathi playwright and filmmaker Sachin Kundalkar's debut feature in Hindi is a bubbling, and occasionally overflowing, pot of flavours from Marathi farcical theatre, Hindi formula films, spicy Tamil movie songs, the absurdist comedies of Serbian director Emir Kusturica and the campy neo-melodramas of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodvar. The 12 October release stars Rani Mukerji as an incurable romantic for whom there is no difference between being asleep (and dreaming of starring in her own private film) or being in a waking state (and imagining her life as one long movie). Meenaxi falls in love with struggling Tamilian artist Suriya – more precisely, his smell – and then embarks on a fantasy-ridden pursuit that is signposted by parodic song-and-dance sequences.
It's high-volume, manic and breathless fun but also romantic, erotic and subversive – a complicated enterprise to handle for a filmmaker who has earned his stripes with realistic and serious-minded Marathi plays and movies. Kundalkar's big challenge on the screenplay, which he wrote, was striking the right tonal balance between Meenaxi's interactions with her potty family and her desire-heavy encounters with Suriya, who is played by Malayali actor Prithviraj. "When we did a rough cut of the film in January, we found it to be too loud and theatrical," he said. "That was because many of the actors are from Marathi theatre, and they were acting for the audience, whereas Rani and Prithviraj were acting for the camera. We have been boiling it down for the past few months from hot milk into a sweet."
Apart from Mukerji and Prithviraj, the cast has a garrison of Marathi talent, including Nirmitee Sawant as Meenaxi's hysterical mother, playwright and occasional actor Satish Alekar as her father, Anay Wagh as her canine-obsessed brother Nana and Anita Date as her work colleague Maina, who just happens to be (of course) a local version of Lady Gaga. The only sane person in the set-up is Subodh Bhave's Madhav, the man who could be the suitable boy that Meenaxi actually needs.
Aiyyaa is a Technicolor expansion of one of the episodes in Kundalkar's Gandha, made two years ago. The 2010 Marathi movie contained three stories linked by the theme of smell. In the first story,Lagnaachya Vayachi Mulgi, a young woman who is being hustled into marriage, gets attracted to a student artist because of the way he smells, which is also the core of Aiyya 's plot. "We have left that short behind – it was pure, beautiful and quiet," the 36-year-old director said. "That was a conventional and traditional story – a decorated piece. Aiyyaa is a stance against decoration and symmetry. My word to every department in the production was to break the symmetry. When you do so, middle-class values go away and something else emerges."
Although Aiyyaa is in Hindi, it's also his commentary on Maharashtrian society, Kundalkar said. "They can't even dream big things – they are very happy with what they get during the first half of their lives, and then they sulk for the other half. Meenaxi, however, fights till the last moment."
The "something else" that results from opting for an unconventional storytelling style is what makesAiyyaa subversive: Meenaxi's desire for Suriya is not virginal white but red-hot sexual. She wants him, and she says so, thus inverting the idea that only women can be objects of fantasy. "Meenaxi doesn't look for security, protection and money – she has a definite choice and she feels physical attraction," Kundalkar said. "We can't assume that women don't care for physical attraction."
For Kundalkar, the first image of Aiyyaa, which features in one of the songs in the second half, is a sexual fantasy that Meenaxi has at a petrol filling station. Let's just say it involves a motorcycle, a fuel pump and a beefy employee who happens to be Suriya. "The girl's fantasy of the petrol pump man doing her – that is the centre of Aiyyaa around which the film has evolved," Kundalkar said. "Why can't desire be sexual? Why does it have to be sacrifice, attachment and commitment?"
Popular cinema provides the key that unlocks hidden fantasies and overcomes inhibitions, especially through the sexually suggestive songs. Is Suriya named after the handsome Tamil superstar? "I knew of Suriya before I knew of Prithviraj, so perhaps that was unconscious," Kundalkar said. "If you're talking about a hot actor from the South, you mean Suriya."
The fact that it's Meenaxi who is panting after Suriya and not the other way round is why Mukerji chose to do the film, Kundalkar added. "She had seen Gandha and she liked Aiyya's story, but she said she would agree only after she read the bound script," he said. Mukerji, who strikes a superbly judged balance between acting over-the-top and underplaying the lovely-dovey moments, considerably helped shape the movie, Kundalkar added. "I wanted the Marathi family to be played by Maharashtrians and the Tamilian character to be from south India," he said. "I wanted Rani because her face. The character has a tight and long graph, and nobody else could have done it. The actress encouraged Kundalkar to "open the knots" of guilt about playing to the gallery. "I had inhibitions about creating anything is popular, but Rani told me not to feel guilty about pleasing people," he said. "She told me that it wasn't a crime to make a popular film, that I had the potential to make people happy, but wasn't doing so because of my background."
Apart from directing Marathi films like Restaurant (2006) and Gandha, Kundalkar has written short stories and plays, including Chotyasha Suteet in Marathi and Dreams of Taleem in English. The figure of a motorised wheelchair-bound silver-haired woman is from Dreams of Taleem, which in turn is from Kusturican absurdia. "The film is a cross between Kusturica and Almodvar," Kundalkar said. "I connect with Kusturica's films, there is an Indianness to them – big families shouting, cacophony, a lack of morality. Maina is like [the transgendered character] Agrado from All about My Mother."
Aiyyaa helped Kundalkar blend together his taste for liberally spiced popular films and the nuanced flavours of international cinema. "Until I was exposed to serious cinema through film festivals and screenings at the Film and Television Institute of India, I was raised on conventional cinema," said Kundalkar, who was raised in Pune. "Then came a phase in my life when I was into nuance and depth because my cinematic education, which was how I made my early Marathi films. When I started Aiyyaa, Rani opened it up for me; she took me back to my childhood." Had it not been for Mukerji, he said,Aiyyaa's characters would have been more controlled and more inhibited. "The characters now behave as they wish – popular cinema lets you do that," he said