Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) wrote and stars in this poignant and funny made-for-TV movie about a group of architecture students at the end of their fifth and final year in 1974 New Delhi. I didn’t really know what to expect; the only thing I knew about it was that a very young Shahrukh Khan has a small role. What a gem it is, though! It’s Chashme Buddoor meets Fast Times At Ridgemont High in its deft portrait of student life and profane humor (and how interesting is it that all three films were made by women?!). There are no songs, and the background music consists mostly of Beatles tunes, which suits the ambience perfectly. The students are a mixed bunch— rebellious hippies, uptight “good” girls, goofy nerds, and the titular Anand “Annie” Grover (Arjun Raina), a hapless loser repeating his fifth year for the fourth time.
School legend has it that Annie ran afoul of the stern and humorless headmaster YD Billimoria (Roshan Seth), nicknamed “Yamdoot” (the messenger of death). Shahrukh explains how, on a dare, Annie went into the staff restroom to take a leak standing next to Yamdoot; apparently this was dastardly enough to guarantee that he would never graduate.
Annie’s friend Arjun (Rituraj) is determined that this will be the year that Annie finally passes his final thesis. Arjun and his girlfriend Radha (Arundhati Roy) are a modern pair; they are very open about their relationship—a fact that Radha’s hostel-mate Lekha (Divya Seth) finds appalling. Arjun has nicknamed Lekha “Lakes,” which infuriates her, although I’ve got no idea why.
Radha overhears Lakes talking about her one morning in the ladies’ room.
Radha is a feisty sort: a staunch feminist and supporter of the poor and downtrodden, and not one to take any insult lying down. On her way to class that same morning she takes care of an eve-teaser (sprays him with ink) and then exacts her revenge on Lakes on the classroom blackboard.
Crystal bowl intact! Hilarious. She’s prickly and arrogant, but I love Radha, and I love Arjun too.
They are funny, sarcastic, cynical and kind-hearted too, especially when it comes to sweet, simple Annie. Yamdoot’s harsh treatment of Annie over the years has brutalized the poor guy, and he has little faith left in his abilities. He doesn’t even really try any more.
Arjun convinces him to apologize to Yamdoot for his long-ago prank, which he does, but to no avail. Yamdoot is a hard taskmaster and very difficult to please. He mocks Annie’s thesis idea, with some justification. Annie’s plan is to urge urban immigrants to go back to their villages by planting fruit trees alongside India’s 60,000 kilometers of railway track, using fountains built onto the sides of trains to water them (his theory is that the soil by the tracks is already very fertile, since many people already use them as a public bathroom). Even his fiancee Bijli (Himani Shivpuri)—a bar dancer—doesn’t think very highly of it.
When Annie is arrested with Bijli in a raid one night, the police find a letter in Annie’s pocket. He has written to the Prime Minister about his fruit tree scheme, and the police call Yamdoot to the station to identify him. An annoyed Yamdoot does so, and gives Annie a ride back to his hostel, where he discovers that his beloved hen Sangeeta (he sells her eggs for a bit of extra income) has gone missing.
Noooo! A Ugandan student named Kasozi (Moses Uboh) and his roommate Mankind (Isaac Thomas) have roasted her for dinner.
Arjun and Radha give Annie a white rabbit to replace her, and as the class gets to work building their final project models Arjun and Radha help Annie with his, coaching him on how to present his ideas to the thesis jury and encouraging him. Will Annie finally graduate? Or will Yamdoot sabotage him once again?
The plot of the film is simple; its beauty lies in the characterizations and little vignettes of student life. There is plenty of humor, and lots of it is directed at the pretentiousness inherent in higher education (especially in the arts). The art teacher praises a sculpture of sticks and a feather that Radha has thrown together hastily, calling it “urban sophistication superimposed on tribal sensuousness.” There are also serious moments. You can cut the tension with a knife as the students wait to be called in front of the jury to defend their final projects, and the angst over becoming an adult and leaving school (or failing) is perfectly done. All of the performances are solid, and the details just right. I think Arundhati Roy should make another movie!
I’m still not clear on what the enigmatic (and lengthy) title really means…but it doesn’t really matter. And here is Shahrukh’s only other scene, where he explains why Kasozi grinds his teeth while he sleeps.
Sadly the film has never made it to VCD or DVD (to my knowledge)—this very poor print floating around on the interwebs is pretty much it. Apparently it was not aired again either after the first showing on Doordarshan late at night.
Oh Indian cinema, how you hurt me sometimes!