It’s quite conceivable that Ayan Mukerji - the director of Wake Up Sid - has been a traveller. Not the sort of traveller who stays in five star resorts but one who really gets to experience a city from its street level outwards. The sense of experiencing an environment for the first time; of learning how to function within it, is very well articulated in this unpretentious coming of age story. Aisha Bannerji (Konkona Sen Sharma) - a 27 year old writer from Calcutta is new to Bombay (as it is lovingly referred to in this film). There she meets with Sid (Ranbir Kapoor) - an immature but privileged college student who also eventually journeys to a world outside his comfort zone.
Mukerji has mentioned that his film is a little like Dil Chahta Hai (Farhan Akhtar, 2001) and Luck by Chance (Zoya Akhtar, 2009) and he’s not wrong. Wake Up Sid - like these films - has a youthful feel to it, a knack for character development, humor and attention to detail. In the opening scene - set in Sid’s bedroom we get a snapshot of where he’s at: superhero screen saver, Star Wars T-shirt, Spongebob sheets, empty pizza boxes and in the midst of Boy-dom there’s Sid vacillating between studying a business problem and drawing Homer Simpson. It’s a nice example of visual humor which evolves naturally - doesn’t feel contrived.
Or Aisha and Sid are flat hunting and have been told that someone in an apartment block named Sonia - is renting a flat. A curious child guides them to Sonia’s door where the lady emerges looking like she is selling her person as well as rooms. The child is in the habit of observing Sonia and is clearly entertained by her appearance at which point a straight-laced mother emerges to take him away from corrupt influences. The beauty of the scene is that it sets up economically yet powerfully two minor characters who appear in a major scene later on. So often peripheral characters appear in Bollywood films for no apparent reason never to be seen again. Here we have an example of the kind of detail that raises the film a notch.
In quite a number of recent romances dialogue and screenplay writers don’t seem to know what to do with characters when they are courting. They know that viewers are hanging in there for the declaration - the ‘I love you’ part but it’s almost like ‘killing time’ till that point. There are those who favor the cute interlude - flowers, ice-creams, chocolates or perhaps the raunchier club scene. Then there are those whose who contrive an accident, a drunken episode or perhaps a stalled car or cottage on a stormy night in the middle of nowhere. Once the couple has been thrown together by fate it seems such a chore to make their togetherness interesting because the characters are not the sum of their interactions but a set of clichéd responses to a set of tired situations. Wake Up Sid progresses very smoothly. Both characters are fleshed out and situations seem to unfold seamlessly if not a little too languidly. When clichés occur there is usually a slight twist involved which makes them more watchable.
It’s not that Wake Up Sid is more real. Portraying reality is not a measure of better filmmaking - and certainly Bollywood hasn’t made a feature of reflecting it. The film’s strength lies in drawing out points of contact - authentic moments of distilled emotion that connoisseurs of Bollywood romance appreciate. What we observe between the four walls of a shared apartment is akin to the journeys on trains experienced in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995) and Jab We Met (Imtiaz Ali, 2007) We realize in an instant why father and son have grown apart or how friends bond on the basis of a quirky sense of humor. All up it’s a very good screenplay from Ayan Mukerji. There are a few slow sections in the second half but it’s an understated narrative by Bollywood standards which breathes modernity but retains strong Indian family values.
Ranbir Kapoor has been boyish in all three of his first films but his acting in Wake Up Sid - more than the other films convinces me that he is a good actor. In Sawariyaa (S.L. Bhansali, 2007) the other-worldliness of his character made his motives more than a little unclear. Bachna Ae Haseeno (S. Anand, 2008) was focused on Ranbir to the detriment of the female characters. It is only now - freed from the constraints of monologue and engaged in meaningful interaction with other properly configured characters that his talent really surfaces. Whether Kapoor is very good at his craft will be apparent when he has played a wider range of roles. Konkona Sen Sharma essays a part which is familiar to her - one of an independent but slightly deluded career woman (Metro, Luck By Chance). The difference is that the character of Aisha is a tad more subtle and Konkona gives her the light and shade which good writing engenders.
There is no grandeur and spectacle from Anil Mehta, the cinematographer who gave us the larger-than-life Veer Zaara (Yash Chopra, 2004), Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (S.L Bhansali, 1999). The shared apartment in Wake Up Sid takes on many aspects depending on the film’s mood and time of day: from homely to glamorous; from stark to ugly. Aisha and Sid inhabit the space - not as talking heads but as moving, evolving beings. Songs by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and their picturisations complement the story telling without interrupting character development or narrative flow.
It’s a very good first film from Ayan Mukerji. What remains to be seen is whether he can cross from the semi-autobiographical material of his youth to the less comfortable terrain of writing about characters and situations which are more distant. I wish him well on his journey.