In this concluding post cum editorial, the June/July blog editors Smriti and Sonakshi reflect on the movie, Udaan, and the editorial experience.
Before there were laptops, clouds and drives to keep records of our work, writings, and photos, there only really was paper. Paper is concrete, real, singular. As an introverted middle schooler who liked to write, it didn’t take me long to discover perhaps what was so empowering about the written word on paper: the story existed outside of you, outside the mind, it was real. I had a small nest of friends, who would occasionally read these stories written on pin-pages (so that the school notebook won’t be ruined). On my best days, I could fill up two whole pin-pages, put them together, and act as if it’s a whole novel.
In the climactic scene of Udaan (trans. “Flight”, Hindi; dir. Vikramaditya Motwane), the father burns the protagonist’s diary of writings, full of poems and stories that he had penned. The scene is quiet and stark in its destruction, as compared to earlier examples of parental abuse shown in the film. The pain, then, is purely not only the loss of creation of the young coming-of-age child’s words, but of an imaginative landscape, built independent of the father’s fascism, a landscape of the fictional to escape the real. The fire, eating away the diary until only the ash remains, adds to the protagonist – Rohan – and the viewer’s grief. I remember bawling when I watched the scene as a girl of thirteen, mourning not the effort that went into that writing, but the imaginative world. Words are so easy, but when they come together, they can create whole, full spaces of freedom. The child feels the power of this freedom most acutely, because in childhood, all words are effortless, free of judgement.
But while Rohan, almost seventeen and having been away from his father’s home for the last eight years is given the effective accessibility to the world of the literary, to articulation, his eight-year-old half-brother, Arjun, is more or less not within this world of expression - having lived and brought up only by the father, Arjun is a quiet child with less than perhaps ten dialogues in the film, two of which involve him walking upto Rohan and saying “disgraceful!” in a mirroring of his father’s use of the word. Arjun effectively functions as the mirror image of Rohan’s childhood: a child who “is primed to have his spirit killed by the monstrous father...unusually glum and passive, almost as if he were shocked into silence,” (Desai). Arjun traverses the space of possibility within the film, in quiet observance, showing the draconian power of the father figure within the household - not through words or actions, but in silence. Mid-way through the film, having been admitted to the hospital after being hit by his father, Arjun is perhaps numbed by his own sense of fear. When asked repeatedly by Rohan about what happened, Arjun is expressionless, quiet, “he does not speak at all,” (Desai).
This quietness is mirrored but channelised in Rohan, who escaped the attempts of his father to be “mechanised”, to be made into the perfect urban industrial child who goes to work, studies, earns, and sticks by the paternal rule. Arjun, then, represents the father’s second chance, “to correct his failure to machinize Rohan,” and imbibe the quiet, army-like discipline that will ensure the complete suppression of the child’s imagination and free spirit. Arjun’s silence, then, is not a fragile one lacking power, but full of the nightmarish pain of having one’s freedom and one’s words being beaten into nothingness. As Rahul Desai, writes: “kids are meant to scream, misbehave, chatter, cry and laugh loudly...it is this kid’s inherent inability to do so that becomes the most disturbing – and the evocative – aspect of Rohan’s journey.”
The ultimate goal of the father is to ensure that the male child grows up into a “real” man: throughout the film, he attempts to insult Rohan by saying that he resembles a girl, and perhaps even writes like one. A drunken stupor leads to the father stating perhaps the thresholds of masculinity in a series of questions to his son - asking him whether he smokes, drinks alcohol, or has had sex. When Rohan says no to all the three questions, the father goes on to berate him as a girl, lacking the sense of masculinity that he puts value in. Throughout the film, we see the attempts of the father to beat “masculinity” into the two sons, speaking of violence as reformative, or even necessary for their upbringing. For the father, it is this genealogy of male violence borne due to patriarchy which makes him believe that his self-cultivated quietness and lack of emotional health is something good, to be prized, to be ingrained in his children. Yet his emotional immaturity is present and perhaps more explicit in his drunken stupors, where he proceeds to insult Rohan, Arjun, and even his brother. To be quiet, for the father, is a virtue: his quiet son does not spark any concern in him, only Rohan’s insolence does.
Literature, in this sense, becomes a representation of the mother figure in the movie for Rohan, who treats his writing as a space of tenderness and is told by the end that his mother wished deeply for Rohan to become a writer. In words, Rohan is free, empowered, independent: his ability to exist within the bounds of his imagination reaches a climactic point where “we see Rohan narrate a story to an entire ward of patients and doctors, leaving them spellbound – only to be interrupted by the arrival of his father,” (S, Shruti). Shlomo Ariel believes this to be the “socially coded media of make-believe play of childhood,” where the child’s imagination goes inward, “taking the form of daydreaming and merging into the child’s stream of consciousness,” (Ariel 89). Meanwhile, Arjun is unable to enter even the world of make-believe, where the whole 2 hour and a half long movie features only one scene of him talking to his toys. The burning of Rohan’s diary, then, symbolises the complete moment of literary loss, of transitioning towards adulthood, wherein loss becomes the passage of leaving behind the passivity of childhood. Rohan is furious, angry at the loss of his words, through which he could channelise his inner sense of rebellion. The channelisation allowed him to remain quiet and submit, to some extent, to the father - it is their loss which brings him to the realisation that he and Arjun cannot be free, cannot be himself, as long as he stays within the father’s grasp.
The opening sequence of the film involves a discussion on fathers in Rohan’s friend group, after all of them are expelled from the school. It is a discussion of absent, silent, uninterested fathers, fathers which withhold affection and expression and believe it to be the virtue of adulthood, fathers who believe they must be called “Sir” and always shown the humility of respect. Meanwhile, the kind fatherly figure of the film, Rohan’s uncle and the father’s brother, is unable to have children and is almost given the place of the substitute, caring relative until he too is insulted in a drunken rage by his brother.
A still from the movie. Source: cinemachaat.com
“Udna band karo. Pao ko jameen pe rakho” condenses the child-parent relationship in the movie. The need to clip soaring imagination, mandating the child to be tied terra firma establishes an unhealing division between the protagonist and his father. Imagination is also intricately tied to the protagonist’s desire to pursue literature. It is the only avenue that allows him escape from the constricting power dynamic between his father and him. It is only through fancy imaginings, through writing, that he is able to afford an escape, however temporary, from the “hypermasculine” world.
The protagonist’s father dismisses his recitation in the park, declaring that it will be published by “Sarita, or some other women’s magazine” – clearly creating a gendered schism, adhering to the binary of rational men and emotional women, and necessarily imprinting it upon the psyche of not only the protagonist but also his tenderly young younger brother. If the park scene hammers nails in the coffin of the dwindling relationship between the father and the son, the scene at the hospital seals it. While the protagonist devises his way into the hearts of his step-brother, and the other patients in the hospital as well as the staff, his rosy flourish as a budding writer is pruned by the arrival of his father from Kolkata. After a heated argument, marked by bouts of frustration, the father offers an apology – guided by selfish motives, of course. He has decided to remarry, and in a fashion evocative of Dickens’ “Hard Times”, asks the protagonist to dedicate his full time to the factory.
It is only fitting then, by the end of the film that Rohan outruns his father. In keeping with the titular significance of the movie, Rohan makes the final leap, rather the final flight of faith by rescuing his step-brother from the adamantine clutches of the authoritarian father. The end of the film promises a new beginning for the protagonist, Rohan as well as a hopefully secure future for Arjun, the step-brother.
I am grateful that Smriti asked me to get on-board with the CCYSC team to work with her. It was her brainchild in the form of the concept note that provided me the enlightening opportunity to read brilliant responses to the theme of “dis/quieting the child”.
The essays that poured in as responses to the themed call were a delight to read. Touching a wide range of topics - from the whitewashed representation of Buddha in Western popular imagination to the implications of violence on children in Kashyap’s and Hosseini’s fiction, from the role of horror upon children to the lasting impact of caste politics upon child psyche, from the intersection of the Swadeshi movement and Roopkatha to the subversive role of silence as a form of power and consent in childhood, the essays initiated a dialogue between the themed call and all things contemporary and relevant.
We hope you had a good time reading these expansive essays just as much as we did.
Ariel, Shlomo. Child’s Imaginative Play: A Visit to Wonderland. Praegar, 2002.
Desai, Rahul. “Memorable Bollywood Characters: Arjun from Udaan.” Film Companion, 7 May 2018, https://www.filmcompanion.in/features/bollywood-features/top-50-memorable-bollywood-characters-arjun-udaan-vikramaditya-motwane-rahul-desai/.
S., Shruti. “Udaan: Writing One’s Way to Liberation.” Film Companion, 11 Jan. 2021, https://www.filmcompanion.in/readers-articles/udaan-movie-writing-ones-way-to-liberation-a-movie-that-inspires-me-vikramaditya-motwane-ronit-roy/.
Smriti Verma graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English Honours from Hansraj College, University of Delhi in 2019. She works as a Poetry Editor for Inklette and the Ideate Review, and has, in the past, worked as a Jivisha Fellow for Slam Out Loud, teaching poetry to students from low-income backgrounds. Earlier in 2020, she received Kirori Mal College’s Oceanvale Prize for her research at the intersection of feminist theory and disability studies in Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom. Her interests involve film, creative writing, and cultural studies.
Sonakshi Srivastava graduated from the University of Delhi, in 2020, and is currently an MPhil scholar at Indraprastha University, Delhi. She is also a South Asia Speaks fellow, and is working on a translation project with the renowned translator, Arunava Sinha as her mentor. Her areas of interests include modern literatures, postcolonial literatures, literatures of the Anthropocene, memory and trauma studies, animal studies and ethics, food studies, and Indian Writing in English.