Cast: Kajol, Riddhi Sen, Tota Roy Choudhury, Neha Dhupia And Zakir Hussain Director: Pradeep Sarkar
There was a time when single mothers were a routine presence in Hindi films. Maaaaaaa, as she was known, was a saintly figure who spoke at a low volume deemed appropriate for the Bhartiya naari, was usually widowed or had had her husband cruelly separated from her by the evil villain, she wore white or very muted shades, attire other than saris was an absolute no-no for her, and her greatest act of aggression would come if ever her son’s life was in danger, at which point she was known to ask Bhagwaaaan if he was nothing more than a “pathhar ki murti” (stone statue).
That whimpering, simpering pativrata aurat has thankfully been retired from among Bollywood’s stock characters. Her disappearance has been a double-edged sword though, leading to rare sightings of single mothers as a whole in recent years.
In that sense, the oddly named Helicopter Eela is a welcome change (oddly named, I say, because the expression “helicopter parent”/ “helicopter mom” is not commonly used in India, and clearly Team Eela realises that which is why they try to explain the title awkwardly early on with a fleeting and pointless graphic). Director Pradeep Sarkar (Parineeta, Mardaani) brings us a woman whose husband walks away from her for a flimsy reason, leaving her to fend for herself and their only child. In the way she dresses and conducts herself, Eela Raiturkar is a woman of today. She has professional ambitions and had once scoffed at her boyfriend when he said marriage would put an end to all that for her. When her spouse leaves though, her life begins to revolve entirely around their son Vivan. She relegates her career and her dreams to the background, making the boy the solo agenda of her life. At what point does love begin to suffocate the object of your affection? And what purpose does such a love serve? These are the questions Sarkar seeks to address in his new film.
Drawing up a balance sheet for Helicopter Eela is quite easy since this is not a very deep film. On the Assets side is Kajol’s innate dynamism and the joy of seeing her back on the big screen after a gap of three years, among the Liabilities is her decision to largely over-act the role of Eela. Asset: Riddhi Sen is an utterly lovely artiste. You may remember him as the abusive child-husband in Leena Yadav’s Parched(2015). In a larger role here, Sen brings extreme credibility to his performance as the teenaged, college-going Vivan, and imbues the Vivan-Eela equation with warmth.
Liability: some poorly chosen guest appearances, most especially Mahesh Bhatt who plays himself. His terrible acting unwittingly creates the impression that Bhattsaab may possibly be leering at Eela though that does not seem to be the film’s intention.
Asset: the screenplay gives Vivan a convincing internal journey. Liability: it fails to do likewise for Eela. The writing is so fixated on her bubbly personality and a surface exploration of her obsession with her son, that it does not give us an opportunity to look within her. After a dramatic twist in her relationship with Vivan towards the end, for instance, she returns to a stage she had once passionately sought, but we are expected to believe that that is what she still wants because we are told that is what she still wants, whereas her own behaviour does not indicate whether she is doing so to win Vivan back or because the flame within her has genuinely been reignited.
Liability: the characterisation of Eela’s husband Arun is an absolute zero. He is initially projected as a good guy, but his motivation for quitting home comes across as silly and contrived, to say the least.
For these reasons, the credits hold a disappointing revelation – Helicopter Eela is written by Mitesh Shah and Anand Gandhi, who are among the co-writers of this week’s other Hindi film release, the unconventional Tumbbad. Gandhi, of course, is best known as the director of the fabulous Ship of Theseus (2013). While this screenplay no doubt has a sense of humour, and Sarkar along with Sen and the young supporting cast manage to effectively recreate a Mumbai college milieu, the cursory writing of the heroine is the film’s undoing
Sure the songs by Amit Trivedi and Daniel B George are frothy and hummable. Sure Swanand Kirkire’s lyrics for ‘Mumma Ki Parchai‘ are a hoot, filmed well and edited smoothly on a frustrated Vivan giving vent to his exasperation with Eela. Sure the imposing St Xavier’s College building in Mumbai has immense visual appeal. And sure the theme is feminist. But when a feminist venture stumbles in the writing of its central female character, you know you have a problem. I could not help but wonder what this film might have been if Gauri Shinde had written and/or directed it. Helicopter Eela means well, but it ends up as an often fun but almost entirely superficial Mom com, a sort of English Vinglish without depth.