If we were more informed, we would draw parallels with Top Gun... except we've never actually seen all of Top Gun.
Vijeta tells the story of young Angad Singh (Kunal Kapoor, real-life son). As his mother, Neelima (Rekha), describes him, Angad is an Angry Young Man. He has just failed out of another boarding school, much to the consternation of his stern father, Nihal (Shashi Kapoor, real-life father), and he is angst-ridden, aimless and toying with the idea of suicide. Home is a toxic place, where Angad's parents engage in nasty arguments - the residues of Nihal's past infidelity - and the battle lines are drawn - Angad sides with his mother, resents his father.
OMG and anyone would resent this guy. Shashi is excellent as the horrible pater familias.
Oh, Holden! Hang in there!
It takes a visit from his maternal uncle, Arvind (Om Puri), to kick-start Angad's adulthood. Arvind, with his ruler-straight posture and meticulous precision, is a military man. After being shown around the warboat Arvind works on, Angad is inspired: he wants to join the air force too! While his mother and grandmother (Dina Pathak) agree to the idea, Angad's father is adamantly opposed. After more oppressive tension, Angad is finally allowed to go.
The rest of the film follow his slow awakening and maturation as he transforms himself from an emo punk into a responsible, sympathetic and brave young man. In the final quarter of the film, India goes to war with Pakistan (it's 1971, apparently?) and, after several tragedies, Angad's rite of passage ends on a bittersweet yet hopeful note.
A gorgeous, slow, Zen tracking shot. Just perfect.
Angad's three buddies, each a religious rep - Hindu, Muslim, Christian. The guy on the right, K.K. Raina, was fab!
Now that plot summary doesn't really do justice to what is a considerably more complex and interesting film. We'll try to mention the major themes we noticed, but obviously - being non-Indian and with a tenuous grasp of recent Indian history - we can't cover everything, as we probably didn't get everything. And unfortunately our usual guru on all things Hindi cinema, Prof. Philip Lutgendorf, hasn't reviewed this yet.
Fathers and their children. If Angad's Growing Up is the foreground theme, then Fathers is the background. While the plot centers on Angad, it is bookended and constantly informed by the story of his father, Nihal. In the very first scene, a sleeping Nihal suffers a flashback to Partition-era Punjab and we see that most of his family was murdered in the rioting. The last scene, likewise, features the resolution to Nihal's plotline. In this way, the movie's a lot like the great Mississippi Masala, where the child's coming of age is cast against the broader historical angst that the father brings with him.
On-screen, off-screen father...
...and son. We at the PPCC love visual parallels like this. Sigh!
The relationship between Nihal and Angad is one of the film's big emotional hooks. Initially, Angad is full of resentment for Nihal's past infidelity and Nihal's treatment of his wife. Indeed, Nihal is a very flawed man: he is the self-pitying patriarch, throwing his weight around, quick to remind everyone of how hard his life has been, and, when that doesn't work, using the slow poison of guilt. Argh! The arguments between Nihal and Neelimi were painfully evocative, mostly because they were so real. Expect no masala melodrama with which to emotionally distance yourself! Instead, the film works to show you how alienated father and son initially are (see also the themes of religion), so that, in their moments of closeness, it's all the more poignant. Alas, expect no masala-style weepy reconciliation either. Sigh.
The second most important father is the air force instructor, Verghese (Amrish Puri). Our young Angad falls in love with Verghese's daughter, Anna (Supriya Pathak), and there is much hero-worshipping of Verghese by everyone - Anna, Angad, the other fighter pilots. He's like a father to his air force students, and he is generally a great guy: stern yet sympathetic, strong, blah blah. Basically he juxtaposes starkly against the relatively selfish and somewhat spineless (wait 'til you hear his excuse for the infidelity! it's very WTF) Nihal. However, the film's ultimate message seems to be an acceptance of flawed human beings. Nice.
Religions. Most mainstream Hindi movies that we've PPCCed are primarily from a Hindu perspective, with Islam, Christianity and Sikhism playing supporting, stereotyped roles. It was very refreshing to see a movie told from a Sikh perspective. While the usual Blunt Hindi Movie Pluralism is present - Angad's fighter pilot buddies are a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian - these guys aren't caricatures. Furthermore (and interestingly!), the second most prominent religion in the film is Christianity.
Another way in which religion is used is to create more distance between father Nihal and the rest of the family. While Nihal's nightmares show that he used to live as a devout Sikh, when he wakes we see that he's shed the dastar and wears only the karra bracelet. His secularism is emphasized further: he's a bit boozy and he works on (self-described) "low-grade" films featuring cheesy Western song and dances. Meanwhile, Angad has been raised devout, and Neelimi sings devotional songs at dawn and listens only to classical Hindustani.
Flight. It was cute to see a movie about growing up using flight as the main symbol. Angad's departure from the nest becomes literally all about learning to fly, and one of the pivotal scenes is when he takes his first solo flight. It's one of the sweetest and most inspiring moments in the film, and we can only thank Govind Nihalani for letting the plot slow down so we can admire the gorgeous cloud kingdoms with Angad. This sequence also ties in with the theme of fathers, and it's very affecting overall.
Angad's first solo flight, which is a great sequence. Another director who loves the motif of flight: Hayao Miyazaki.
Modern India. If we have any criticism of this film, it's that the canvas is very broad - with discussions on war, rioting, Partition, patriotism, death and so forth - and some scenes (such as the very protracted battle sequence in the end) could have been cut to leave space for more domestic, small-size bliss. Director Nihalani spends a lot of time in the beginning establishing the domestic reality of Angad and his parents, and the camraderie of the air force academy. Yet the latter half of the movie begins to get more and more large-scale, until all its themes are just bursting at the little plot's seams!
Similarly, the dialogue becomes progressively more and more large-minded, with pilots, fathers and wives-to-be all discussing heavy-handed issues like death and bravery over their tea. We think the film was far more effective when, instead of talking about these things, the characters did what real people do - petty arguments, easy-going chat - while perhaps thinking about the larger issues.
Also, another criticism: Rekha's arc begins importantly but becomes progressively overshadowed by the father-son bonding, which seemed a bit unfair.
But we can't really complain. Nihalani is an excellent director. He is humorless - both Vijeta and the previously PPCCed Droh Kaal are serious films tackling weighty subjects - but he is also humanistic. At least, we like it when directors take the time to build up their environments via small, human details: the morning devotional song is a perfect example, showing us Nihal and Neelimi during their morning routine. Nihalani's use of dreaming and foreshadowing is also excellent.
All the performances were very good, though the PPCC wouldn't say they were something to name your first-born after. Kunal Kapoor was very charismatic as the earnest, soft-spoken Angad, and everyone else - Shashi, Rekha, Om Puri, Amrish Puri - was solid, though sadly not mind-blowing (which we always hope and expect them to be). Overall, Shashi was very effective as the tyrranical and fragile Nihal - it's always a treat to see him play these darker roles! - but there were some moments that left a bit to be desired (the opening nightmare of the Punjab rioting). Or maybe we're just WAY too used to Shashi's Shocked Face, which we associate immediately with Masala Shashi. Surprisingly, we think a stand-out performance was K.K. Raina as Angad's fighter pilot buddy, Wilson. Raina takes this peripheral role and really fleshes him out - just watch his body language during the cricket match, it's great!
Just like it's impossible not to wonder about the off-screen relationship of Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Chori Chori, it was hard not to wonder how much of the father-son relationship in Vijeta was informed by reality. In particular, at one point Nihal exclaims, "You want to show me your principles. I've sold them cheaply, I've compromised. I make low grade films. But I slog all day to give you a better life!" Well, gosh, that could be Shashi talking himself! And Shashi ji, there ain't nothing wrong with "low grade", populist cinema - heck, some of it's transcendental!