Retake: Disastrous foreign trips and the tools of rediscovery
Indians have travelled to unknown locations in our films, but when it’s to a different country, there is anxiety, thrill and a humbling reckoning with the self.
In a scene from An Evening in Paris (1967), a handymen arrives drunk at his master’s doorstep. After being scolded for his behaviour he says, rather coarsely “Seth ji ye Europe hai, Hindustan nahi. Yahan gussa karne ka anjaam bohat bura bhi ho sakta hai apke liye”. The rest of the film is as the name suggests, an awkward soiree with a number of European countries in attendance, each playing host to typical Hindi cinema baddies, schemers and the near consistent trepidation that follows our women everywhere. But in the case of the foreign trip, the unseen, and the unanticipated takes on a new meaning, mirroring more often than not the journey, a woman’s sexuality has to make from inside the secure yet restricted space of her home, to the open world. It’s also a journey India as a nubile country has undertaken in its years of growth and exposure. And nowhere else does this trope hold truer than the awkward, often chaotic foreign trip.
In Govinda’s Hadh Kar di Apne, Govinda plays Raj, a detective who goes on a Europe trip to investigate a murder that also lands him in love. Raj, is of course an echo of the name that started Hindi cinema’s love affair with the diaspora – Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. In DDLJ, Simran takes a Europe trip fraught with unanticipated events, missed trains and kamikaze choices. In Purab aur Paschim, Manoj Kumar is the proverbially named Bharat, on his way to schooling Indians living in Europe, who have become detached from their homeland. Incredibly, in both An Evening in Paris and Purab aur Paschim, Pran is the villainous toad, a man who in his contrarian ways confronts the protagonist’s Indianness. In a scene from Manoj Kumar’s film he tells the protagonist while smoking an expensive cigar inside a revolving restaurant “Chaar roti mein se ek roti karze ki khata hai tumhara desh”.
The idea of foreign travel underwent overhaul with the blooming of a nascent IT industry and the economical provisions of globalisation that made foreign travel, both easier and in some cases, even necessary. Hindi cinema’s journey somewhat mirrored this change in landscape with its characters starting to routinely travel to foreign countries and using them as the picturesque background for uniquely Indian stories. A key ingredient of each of these stories, however, was the suspicion of the foreign element, the tendency to doubt the other as a way of rediscovering your own roots. Naturally, rarely have foreign trips, until maybe Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha amounted to the kind of transformative experience that was rejected by journeys preceding them.
In Pyaar Toh Hona Hi Tha, the anxiety around international travel is reversed as Sanjana, played by a Paris-dwelling Kajol travels to India to reclaim her lost lover. In one of the scenes the jet plane she is travelling on, experiences unprecedented turbulence and is yet turned into a cathartic, winsome party of sorts with the song “Jo hona hai who hona hai, phir kis baat ka rona hai”. In Dil Chahta Hai, Aamir Khan travels to Australia, where he falls in love but not before hazy, awkward encounters with foreigners that leave his love interest, Preity Zinta, anxious. There have been stories set in our cinema that deal entirely with the life of immigrants in foreign countries, championed to a large extent by Shahrukh Khan’s golden phase, but the journey into the unknown has often served as the perfect parable for an India in its infancy, learning to both embrace and distance itself from the world’s methods.
Journeys are expedited emotional rollercoasters and they make for fertile landscapes to set inner conflicts in. The change in scenery echoes the possibility of transcending the human form to become something elastic, something more elaborate. Travel is of course part of literal life, but in a young country coming to terms with doubt and fear, it is also a conundrum, a dive into the unknown. We know, perhaps better than most, where we come from but where we are headed, and what we wish to discover, is a choice the mind makes on the go. It’s why Subhash Ghai’s Pardes becomes a stand-off once Ganga arrives in a foreign country. The journey to somewhere, so to speak, can also be journey away from your previous self, the one route not everyone is prepared to take.
The chaos of foreign trips is a near universal trope, explored briefly but effectively in something as popular as the hit sitcom Friends. The exoticism of an alien landscape naturally lends itself to confusion, crass decision0making and ultimately, cathartic discoveries. These discoveries aren’t a leap of knowledge or learning, but the awakening of sensorial figments inside the human heart that require the nudge of unfamiliarity to recognise that which is next to you. It’s incredible how love stories, kick off in the shadow of unrecognisable places and faces. Is it familiarity then that the heart seeks? A sense of togetherness, through love, and maybe even longing.
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.
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