Director: K. Balachander
Cast: Mumtaz, Rajesh Khanna, A.K. Hangal
Synopsis: Ram Shashtri, an upper Caste Hindu Brahmin, lives in a small village in India, but has a very large family, consisting of his wife, Savitri, five daughters and three sons.
Movies such as this mid-70s Indian melodrama highlight how much the relaxing of censorship has enabled more adult themes to be explored (in sometimes lurid depth) often at the cost of good storytelling. Aaina’s storyline is straight out of 1940s Hollywood and yet, despite its two-and-a-half hour running time, remains completely absorbing until its ill-advised third act, which not only slows things down considerably, but also ratchets up the melodramatic histrionics it had previously managed to at least keep bearable, if not quite in check.
Shalini (Mumtaz) is the eldest daughter of Ram Shastri, a stubborn priest whose rigid principles mean that his family of eight children and long-suffering wife live in poverty. When the previously immature Shalini discovers her mother, who has been driven to the brink of madness by their situation, preparing poison for her children, she determines to assume the role of ‘mother’ for the family, and finds a job. The family quickly begin to rely upon Shalini’s wage and, as the financial demands from her family increase, Shalini finds herself driven into a life of prostitution through a series of circumstances beyond her control. She manages to keep her secret life hidden from her family until she returns home from Bombay for her sister’s wedding…
The similarities between this Bollywood movie, and those earlier Hollywood melodramas of female sacrifice go further than just the storyline. Like its earlier US counterparts, one suspects Aaina’s resemblance to the real world is highly superficial. Ram’s family of nine all look suspiciously well-fed for ones living in penury; in fact Mumtaz has the kind of undeniably full and voluptuous figure that could never be maintained on a daily bowl of rice. Her performance, however, is extremely self-assured, keeping the viewer’s sympathy and belief throughout a 180-degree character change that is as abrupt as it is unlikely. She also manages to convey a sly eroticism in her early scenes of juvenile immaturity that she cleverly abandons when her character goes on the game. The silly premise, in light of Mumtaz’s complete command of her character, of having Shalini lose her (equally silly) laugh once her life takes its tragic turn only to have it return at the film’s finale, is therefore rendered unnecessary.
As with all movies of this type there is a heavy reliance on coincidence that has no chance of ringing true. While Shalini is working as a prostitute in Bombay, one of the punters finding his way to her place of work is none other than the man who loved her in their home village, but whom everyone thought was dead after he sent a telegram to his father saying he had died in the war (yeah, the plot holes are as big as the coincidences, but that’s half the fun of camp flicks like this); another punter turns out to be the fiance of Shalini’s sister. After a while you start believing that all the young, eligible men in India spend their holidays getting their jollies from Bombay prostitutes. The symbolism also, is straight out of Movie-making 101, with Aaina’s photograph on the wall of her love pad growing dirtier and dingier as the money-making years pass. For all its failings — and there are many – Aaina remains curiously likable; it’s like a hopeless younger sibling who is so desperate to please that you can’t help but respond to them. Only the final act, in which Shalini returns home for her sister’s wedding, spoils things. The previously fast-paced storyline slows to a crawl as director Balachander takes his time tying up all the loose ends — and none too convincingly, it has to be admitted — and you end up feeling as if you’ve watched two different films.
The epic sweep to which Aaina seems to aspire is hopelessly out of its reach (the film looks as if it was filmed on a shoestring budget), and perhaps once the tacky hipness of all things 70s has passed it will look as shoddy as it probably truly is, but until then this one’s recommended for the mindless but enjoyable melodrama that it offers.
(Reviewed 1st January 2007)