It really is a bit hard to believe that Gippi is a Karan Johar production. No, it’s not surprising that the first Bollywood film about 14-year-olds comes from the man who arguably first imported the American high school fantasy - a la Archie Comics’ Riverdale - into our cinema, with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998, and also gave us last October’s updated version: Student of the Year.
What’s surprising is that unlike the perfectly-coiffed glossy creatures masquerading as schoolkids in Johar’s films, his production of Sonam Nair’s Gippi has a school that actually seems like a school, and kids who mostly look and behave like kids. Most surprising of all is its heroine. Admittedly, the plump child (who might have something to do with Johar’s own past, if his interviews are to be believed) has figured occasionally in his oeuvre: but either he grows up to be Hrithik Roshan, as in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, or he’s relegated to being the nerdy nice boy who’s still sadly single eight years after school, as in SOTY. It’s pretty remarkable, then, that Nair’s directorial debut not just allows its plump protagonist to be the film’s heroine, but actually celebrates her refusal to be made over.
The plot is uncomplicated but the things it deals with are refreshingly new on the Hindi film screen. Gurpreet Kaur, better known as Gippi, is a regular 14-year-old with regular issues, stemming mostly – but not only – from her slightly more-than-regular weight. Her school uniform’s grown too tight for her over the summer, she feels fat and unattractive and a bit of a klutz.
Add to all this the problems of puberty: growing breasts, getting your period, acquiring a bra – and falling in love. But what makes everything worse is that whenever Gippi has an embarrassing moment – her chair tipping over or her buttons popping open or her chemistry experiment blowing up in her face – her Little Miss Perfect classmate Shamira is waiting around the corner, ready to rub it in. And then Gippi finds herself competing for school elections against Shamira…
What’s ironic is that Shamira – the slim, high-achieving, fashionable rich girl – is really a version of the heroine in a Kuch Kuch or SOTY. Except that instead of being a Poor Little Rich Girl that we’re supposed to sympathise with, Shamira’s version of Little Miss Perfect is here cast as nastiness personified. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Jayati Modi’s rather-too-shrill attempts to bring Shamira’s excessive villainy to life are responsible for the falsest notes in the film: especially her cruel outburst against Gippi at the party.
The only time Shamira seems somewhat believable is during the climax, when the film decides to turn around and give us an insight into the pains it takes to maintain her self-anointed heroine status. “I haven’t eaten ice cream for three months,” she declares in a hilarious self-pity speech. “Even my goddamn socks have to be perfect!”
But if Shamira is a cardboard cutout, Gippi and her friends are endearingly recognizable – even if they’re types. There’s the slow but ever-reliable best friend, Aanchal (Doorva Tripathi), the slightly doltish but utterly sweet admirer, Ashish, and the supportive younger brother Booboo (Arbaaz Kadwani). Taaha Shah, who debuted as Luv in 2011’s Luv ka the End (a ‘youth’ movie of the exact sort one is glad this one isn’t), puts in a satisfying turn as Arjun the dreamboat – a senior school boy whom Gippi runs into and develops a convincing first crush on. And then there’s the wonderful Divya Dutta, who brings an attractive combination of vulnerability and joie-de-vivre to her role as Gippi’s recently-divorced mum.
It’s true that the parents’ super-civilized divorce, with the mother actually attending the father’s second shaadi, seem a little impossible to believe in Gippi’s social context. But Dutta’s arc of the narrative – the non-English-speaking, beauty-parlour-running mother whose husband (Pankaj Dheer) has unceremoniously replaced her with a leggy young white woman – provides a nice companion track to the film’s central message: that it’s crucial to find confidence in who you are, and if the people you find attractive think you’re not cool enough for them, well, they’re the ones losing out.
The moments between Gippi and her mother are some of the loveliest in the film, and one feels grateful that Dutta’s character doesn’t need an English Vinglish style makeover-plus-speech to earn the respect of her children.
At the centre of the film is the young Riya Vij, perfectly personifying the sometimes sulky, dance-crazy schoolgirl who’s picked Shammi Kapoor as the alternative soundtrack to her life.
When Gippi dons a yellow feather boa and a mad wig to shake wildly to Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe, you can’t help but be thrilled at her liberating lack of feminine modesty. The idea of Gippi may well be inspired by popular Western TV shows like Gossip Girl and My Mad Fat Diary, but Sonam Nair does succeed in giving us a heartwarming, almost believable Bollywood version of an Indian teenage world – and one in which hot boys and fat loss aren’t the answer to one’s troubles. I say, Yahoo!