Let’s take a romantic lit drive up the bridge between Roma and Gully Boy
Taimur Ali Khan Pataudi may be the best known cherubic toddler in the country. Paparazzi are on his trail constantly. Photographs of him break the internet constantly. But who accompanies him in these photographs? Nanny dearest, maybe more often than mama and papa. The sweet lady is highly paid. There have even been flattering comparisons of her salary with that of the prime minister. Nannies are definitely a thing in today’s upwardly mobile India. As are drivers, janitors, security guards, gardeners, maids …
Roma, the film that created the most Oscars buzz this year, is Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s heartfelt tribute to his nanny, Liboria ‘Libo’ Rodriguez, presented as Cleo. He has spoken of how she, like so many domestic workers, took on several roles that parents are supposed to perform. Even his filmmaking career grew from the spark of her labour, as she took him and his siblings to the movies, sometimes double and triple bills. In an unusual choice it was chef Jose Andres who introduced Roma at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, as a tribute to the “invisible people in our lives”.
The many cinematic achievements of the film have been extensively discussed, but its salient power draws from autobiography. It’s like the Ranveer Singh’s Gully Boy character, who writes songs but wants somebody else to belt them out, until he is told, well if he won’t tell his slumdog story why will anybody else? In an age of contested truths, every autobiography may also be dogged by controversies concerning factual accuracy, but still it carries an authentic emotional weight.
The points of view of Roma and Gully Boy are far apart, one voices malik ka beta the other naukar ka beta. From this essential difference many others flow. But there is something important in common, a Rodney Kingesque solution to the class chasm, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all JUST get along? Can we get along?” In Roma this means malik ka beta’s heart in and of itself bridging upstairs, downstairs – such as it can. The Gully Boy fairy tale has the driver ka beta becoming a celebrity, of sorts.
This makes Roma the more uncomfortable film. In telling scenes that open and close the film, Cleo is cleaning the household driveway. Littered as it is with dog poop, this takes swaying with a brush and detergent powder and water. The cinematography is mesmeric. It’s like Cleo is dancing. It’s been compared to how Chantal Akerman filmed woman peeling potatoes, the ritual charged with repressed anger. Except Cuaron’s Cleo is sublimely placid, unendingly giving, not doing much for herself, listening, obeying, hardly even speaking much, but all the time framed by a panoramic camera loving her like Mona Lisa.
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy is more twitchy than Cleo, the cinematography is accordingly more keyed up, sometimes its Mumbai is dreamy and sometimes dysmorphic, it’s not set where the driver’s employer lives but where he lives. And of course the apna time aayega heat suffuses the soundtrack. But while the palette isn’t neorealist like Roma the sentiment is similar, as exemplified in the Doori song. When Gully Boy Murad Sheikh is watching his memsaab crying from his driver’s seat, wants to comfort her but can’t, he raps, “Ab dekho to hum paas hain lekin socho kitni doori hai, ab kaisi yeh majboori hai, ab socho kitni doori hai.” We are so near but so far, what kind of albatross, distance, is this?
Watching my first Cuaron film Y Tu Mama Tambien in a Florida theatre 17 years ago i oohed and aahed over how the cattle and shanty and peasant laden Mexican streetscape looked so much like desh. My better travelled and less sentimental friend dampeningly said, most of the modern world looks like that. Our conversations about class and cinema are fundamentally informed by this play between distance and nearness. Bridges are valued because they are comforting. Taimur’s nanny looks content. Roma and Gully Boy don’t erupt into violence, riots, revolution. Could these fairy tales be reality? Speak on Rodney King.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.