Udaan by no means is a perfect film. But it is definitely a memorable one. I didn’t want to go too far back in terms of Indian cinema. I firmly believe that there are quite a few contemporary Indian films that have rekindled my faith in Indian cinema. In the past decade, of all the ‘great’ films I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve spent a fraction of the time thinking and reflecting about what I’d seen, as much as I’ve spent reflecting on Udaan.
It begins with a group of boys sneaking out of their boarding school to a local, almost rundown theatre to catch a late night show of a low budget porno. This is an extremely impactful beginning. Firstly, it is somewhat a rite of passage in boys’ boarding schools to sneak out of the premises in order to ‘experience’ the world beyond the confined environment. It is more than just an anti-authoritarian streak. A lot of boys are sent away to boarding schools (a practice India seems to have inherited from the British system) at a very young age. They are there to be shown a glimpse of what the world really is like – uninhibited and unabashed, albeit in a controlled environment. Ironically, the boarding schools are seen as figureheads of confinement by almost all the boys who grow up in that system. They form extremely close bonds with other boys in order to ‘break free’ and truly interact with the outside world. And funnily enough, the imagination of what the outside world entails almost exclusively revolves around food or sex. Food at boarding school messes is almost exclusively pathetic, even in some of the best boarding schools in India. Even if it isn’t pathetic in taste, the boys feel that it is so, because of the dreary routine of unexciting food choices. You know what you’re going to get served based on what day of the week it is. And granted, there are surprises on some days, but most days, it is an enthusiasm sapping exercise. When you can predict – almost to a mathematical certainty – what you’re going to get and how it will taste, the process of eating food just becomes an anatomical exercise. The outside world, on the other hand, presents a buffet which is yet to open. You don’t know what you can get, and not knowing is terribly exciting.
The second major theme of the outside world is the possibility of sexual exposure. At that age, in a confined environment, mostly two things are troubling boys – their stomach and their hormones. There is a secret thrill in experiencing something which is considered taboo by the larger society. One can say that you now have the internet and the supposed luxury of browsing porn right there on your laptop. But that defeats the point of the exercise. The idea is to get away from the controlled environment. In a way, it’s like fulfilling your craving – getting up at midnight and raiding the fridge, even though you could have very well had the thing you wanted at dinner. But no, but getting up at midnight and devouring all that guilt from the fridge is a lot more fun. There’s also the larger economic angle to consider. Many youngsters in India don’t have the luxury to buy a laptop or get given one. The lived experience of watching a low budget porno at a single screen theatre in a small town, where no one cares about identification is uniquely exhilarating. And Udaan captures this perfectly.
The film also works as an honest critique of the hierarchical mentality that is entrenched in many parts of India. Beyond notions of cast, creed or religion is the superseding element of an implicit hierarchal structure that must be followed. This is evident is how Rohan initially tries to assert himself on his younger brother Arjun. Arjun, the youngest, is on the lowest rung of the ladder, below Rohan. Both the children are below their father, who is the omniscient head of the family. They not only need to call him ‘Sir’, they also should treat him with an unquestionable amount of respect. The father speaks on behalf of Rohan and Arjun, and whenever Rohan tries to speak for himself, he is met by a query – “Did anyone ask you?” “Lower your eyes and eat.”
This idea that age is a factor that ‘outranks’ you when compared to another person is extremely pervasive. It’s also seen in other aspects of social interaction. For example, the first time when Rohan visits the local bar. He is confronted by a gang of older boys, who say that they are his ‘seniors’. They teach him the proper etiquette of how to behave and talk to ‘seniors’. This senior/junior mode of thinking extends to an unquestionable worship of the person who happens to be the senior, regardless of his/her actions. Arjun, the youngest in the family worships his father, who is never mentioned by name by the children. Arjun is even joins his father in deriding Rohan every morning when loses out to his father, in a run around the local district. He mimics the way the father says “disgraceful”, as Rohan sits on the ground, completely exhausted from the run. The younger brother of the father, even though clearly empathetic towards the situation the children find themselves in, dares not question his older brother’s decision. He is the younger brother, he knows his place. Knowing your place is of utmost importance. Everything else functions like clockwork after that. The mentality is a weird adulteration of a militaristic attitude towards discipline. The beautiful sequence, when the power dynamics are changed – and the senior/junior divide is taken away – between Rohan and the boys at the bar, as he takes them for a spin in his car, is a powerful subversion of an unfortunate reality.
The film is also an acute representation of notions surrounding masculinity, and in turn, the institutionalised furthering of patriarchy. Rohan’s father wants to ‘toughen’ him up. He takes him for a run around the district every morning. He detests his younger brother who has put on weight and not retained his ‘manly’ shape. In his drunken state, he calls Rohan a “girl” because he hasn’t even had sex yet. This is an incredibly impactful statement regarding Indian society, where it is almost expected, if not encouraged, for men to become sexually experienced and the women to ‘save themselves’ for marriage. A sexually experienced woman is rebuked – though increasingly that’s not the case in metropolitan cities of India – but it is the case for majority of the population, living in small, lower middle class towns across the country, especially in northern and central India.
Attitudes towards literature and humanities verses other disciplines are also quite cleverly explored in this film. After reciting a poem to one of his friends, Rohan asks him, “Did you like it?” The friend nods affirmatively. Then Rohan asks, “But did you understand it?” The friend shakes his head. The father’s dismissive attitude towards pursuing literature and humanities as a life choice is a perception and unfortunate stereotype that is shared by many not only in India, but across the world. In an authoritative takedown, he says, “These writer sorts – put hair oil and comb their hair – wear a kurta and sling a shoulder bag and think they’ve achieved a lot of wisdom. Then they die either of frustration or of alcoholism.” His priority of economic sustainability is also a way of projecting his own failure to properly and adequately provide for his family. Rohan mentions that perhaps it would be better if they could get a nanny to take care of Arjun, considering both Rohan and the father are away from home so much. He is also sick of eating restaurant food every day. The father ruefully responds that “when you earn”, you can do all those things. But as long as you are “in my house”, this is how things will be. It is then ultimately absurdly ironic that it is the father, and not Rohan, who is the alcoholic in the family. It is another subversion of a perception that makes the narrative so delightful.
Undoubtedly, the emotional centre of the film is the gradually transformative relationship between the two brothers – Rohan and Arjun. The love and care that Rohan develops for Arjun through the course of the film is organic and heartwarming. In a film that mostly revolves around destructive relationships, this nurturing bond between two brothers forms the soul of the narrative. In Arjun, Rohan finds an audience for his writing. The scene, where he writes the poem, “Chandu’s bicycle” to Arjun is filled with tenderness and is an important step for Rohan in pursuing his dream. The short, sharp sequences where Arjun is the messenger carrying messages back and forth between his father and Rohan, are indicative of the tension within the family. These scenes also allude to the archer Arjun of the Mahabharata (after whom the son Arjun is named) who has the privilege of listening and carrying the message by Lord Krishna, that becomes the essence of the scripture, The Bhagavad Gita.
Over time, after watching the film several times, I’m unsure of where exactly I stand with regards to Rohan and his father. Prima facie, I felt clarity in opposing what the father stood for. He has some exceptionally cruel and unredeemable traits. However, my views have tempered since then. After all, it isn’t unreasonable to see your son secure his financial future, especially after he has been expelled from a prestigious boarding school. In India, where social stigma due to loss of reputation is an extremely important factor to consider, it doesn’t seem totally unjustified to perhaps make his son face some harsh realities. Furthermore, Rohan himself isn’t too sympathetic a character. He seems a bit too selfish and self-centred. He steals his father’s car at night to have his moments of ‘escape’ at the local bar, even after being expelled from the boarding school. He also is quite unkind towards his considerably younger brother. I found it quite satisfying that we, as the audience, weren’t given cardboard cut-outs to love or hate. The decision to grapple with the character shades of all the major characters involved was a reflective process that I thoroughly enjoyed.
When debutant director Vikramaditya Motwane came out with Udaan in 2010, it was bustling with raw emotion and unfettered energy. It was in many ways, an unpolished product. But these imperfections made the film memorable. Motwane wrote the screenplay with Anurag Kashyap (of Black Friday, Dev D, Gulaal & Gangs of Wasseypur fame). And without taking any credit away from Motwane, you can see Kashyap’s stamp all over this one. From the strokes of regional lingo to explosions of raw, unabashed conflict, Udaan is Kashyap’s brainchild as much as it is Motwane’s. Motwane has proven his mettle with a follow-up feature Lootera based on O’Henry’s short story The Last Leaf.
Young debutant actor Rajat Barmecha has delivered one of the most impactful debut performances as the rebellious Rohan. Aayan Boradia is set up in wonderful contrast as his brother Arjun. The brothers are the heart of the film. The film, however, rests ably on the shoulders of Ronit Roy, who plays the father of the two children. Easily a standout negative portrayal, with many shades of grey, as has become staple for most antagonists associated with a Kashyap film. Kashyap writes extremely intriguing character studies of the nature of evil. He just excels at creating characters that you just hate at first instance, but come to sympathise to a degree the more you reflect over time. The background music, with lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya and Anurag Kashyap elevate the narrative and are reflective of the thematic undertones of the film.
Kashyap, of course, is now well known because of the massive success of Gangs of Wasseypur. However, a couple of years before it, he was instrumental in giving us Udaan. It was unlike any Hindi film – especially when you measure it against the backdrop of commercial extravaganzas – and a uniquely reserved product. In many ways, it’s messy and unpolished. It doesn’t have the shock and awe quality of Gangs of Wasseypur. But it gets so many pervasive details of Indian society right on the money, that upon reflection, it remains one of the most memorable contemporary films about life in India in quite some time.
Brad Mariano: I didn’t love this film I have to say – it’s certainly engaging enough despite its quite unnecessary length – this film teeters on 2 1/2 hours which surprises me in hindsight because it didn’t really feel it, until you start thinking of all the weird subplots like the tough guys Rohan hangs out with and sort of repetitive stretches. But it’s pretty watchable, though it’s all a bit too broadly sketched for me. The actors are uniformly good and they bring a shade of a third dimension to their characters where the script gives them none. I love the old Arts=Good, Industry=Bad dichotomy as much as the next ambling writer but it’s laid on a little thick here, and Rohan’s father makes Mr Gradgrind from Dickens’ Hard Times look multi-faceted and sympathetic. But it’s not a bad film, funny in parts and conflict scenes are powerful, if exaggerated, and lord knows I could stand to watch more Indian cinema. I’m sure there’s context I’m missing, but this film was slightly too black-and-white in many aspects for me.
Conor Bateman: I can see why some audiences would love Udaan – it has a strong message about individuality and creativity, some evocative cinematography and fairly good performances. I liked it quite a bit but found a few elements deracted from the film quite significantly. First, though, the positives – the best thing about the film, for me, was the relationship between Rohan and his younger brother Arjun, which starts off somewhat cliched but ends up being supremely affecting. In addition to this, the original score is pleasant and, as aforementioned, the cinematography is often very impressive. The negatives, though, concern the way in which the screenplay often paints broad strokes of character and the film uses montage to its detriment (the factory working scene is particularly dull). In addition to this, whilst Ronit Roy, as the father, captures this seething fury impressively, he is pinned as an archetype and doesn’t do all that much to stray out of it. Unfortunately, since most contemporary films from India still utilise original songs, this is always going to be a major element of engagement with narrative and the songs on offer in Udaan are almost uniformly bad – filled with platitudes and at a tonal disconnect from what is happening on screen.