Aisha is based on Jane Austen’s sparkling novel about 18 century rural society - Emma and its film adaptation - Clueless (Heckerling 1995) which deals satirically with modern-day teen life in Beverly Hills. Produced by Anil Kapoor, Aisha is a vehicle for his actress-daughter Sonam Kapoor. She quite effortlessly, embodies the role of an indulged young woman who channels her abundant energy into misguided matchmaking projects. Sonam looks stylish, smiles beautifully and fills the screen with the charm and youth of her character.
However, this latest adaptation of Emma directed by Rajshree Ojha, is inferior to the two most recent Hollywood versions - Clueless and Emma (1998, McGrath) because it is the casualty of a stultifying Bollywood trait - that of engendering narcissism by favouring a select star at the expense of the ensemble and thereby skewing the entire screenplay to accommodate the adoration. Kites too suffered because of a similar preoccupation.
The essence and wonder of the original text is its insight into social interactions - its stand-out depictions of the undercurrents, tensions and hidden agendas that are at play when people gather to celebrate, entertain or seek diversion. These are largely missing from the screenplay (Devika Bhagat) and dialogues where moments from Clueless are highlighted without the satirical ‘bite’ that made them effective. Aisha subjects her hapless but willing provincial friend Shefali (Amrita Puri) to an urban make-over so she can attract a wealthy, well-connected husband. In the original and in Clueless, this intended husband is a social snob who ingratiates himself to the Emma character so she doesn’t notice his shortcomings. In Aisha he is a bumbling but basically nice guy (Cyrus Sahukar) so that we don’t get the tension, humour or irony of the situation.
Another eligible young male in Aisha’s circle Dhruv (Arunoday Singh) is a similarly watered-down version of an Austen character who originally had wit, charm and a huge propensity for self- promotion. These traits do not receive ample treatment because the film is busy promoting Sonam in the role of Aisha as charm incarnate. There is simply no room for another to share the platform. In Clueless the Dhruv-equivalent brims with style and is the epitome of cool; in the original too, he is socially influential and interesting. Dhruv in Aisha emerges as a beefed-up but not particularly noteworthy yuppy with a bland personality so that one cannot see why Aisha is attracted to him or why he might be a candidate for her match-making program.
Also unnecessarily ‘spoilerish’ were the fits of jealousy that Aisha directs at Arjun’s Jolie look-a-like girlfriend Aarti (Lisa Haydon). It is hard to accept a high level of social interaction between Arjun and his rather sophisticated girlfriend on one hand and Aisha and her younger circle of friends on the other yet they go camping and clubbing together. By far the most competent aspects of Aisha are either borrowed from the original text or Clueless. Its original touches such as the love affair of Aisha’s girlfriend Pinky (Ira Dubey) or the addition of the Aarti character, were rather second rate.
Even though I didn’t enjoy Bride and Prejudice (2004) - also an Austen derivative, I really liked Chadha’s depiction of Mr. Kohlie. He was truly an Indian version of the hilarious Mr. Collins. If only the Aisha characters had been conveyed through a more satirical lens then we may have been treated to an engaging comedy of errors which mocks social behaviour instead of a very ordinary chick flick with an unwieldy ending - almost drawn from Bridget Jones’ Diary in its exaggerated level of angst and remorse. The songs (Amit Trivedi) are catchy but poor picturization does not draw them into the narrative as features or focal points.
If you are an Austen buff and have enjoyed previous Emma adaptations, Aisha will disappoint at the character, screenplay and dialogue levels even though the acting is uniformly competent. If you go with the intention of seeing a rather inconsistent chick-flick you may find some entertainment value in this film.