Socha Na Tha (2005. Written and directed by Imtiaz Ali. Starring Abhay Deol and Ayesha Takia)
Twenty-something Viren (Abhay Deol) has returned home to India after finishing his studies in America. He is young, urban, hip, modern, glib -- and confused.
Aditi (Ayesha Takia) is seemingly shy and reserved, but beneath that facade is a girl who is full of life and always ready for a little masti.
Aditi knows what she wants -- or, she knows what is required of her as the niece of her wealthy family who have looked after her since the death of her parents, and that sometimes what you want takes second place, and as an adult, you just deal with that.
The two might never have been destined to meet -- in fact, the film's opening sequences see them frequenting the same places (department store, bowling alley),
but always passing each other by -- except for one thing: each of them comes from very traditional families who believe that the right way to settle someone down is to arrange their marriage.
Aditi agrees, Viren resists; he's been secretely seeing Karen, his girlfriend of three years, and he thinks he wants to marry her. He's conflicted, though: does she love him? Will she agree? And how will he convince his very traditional Hindu family to accept not only a love-marriage, but a love-marriage with a Catholic girl?
In the midst of all this turmoil, Viren agrees to meet a girl selected by his family, thinking that he can use the process to buy himself some time while he figures out what to do. By chance, the girl his family has selected is none other than Aditi.
The two meet, and in a moment alone together, they share their stories, and, thinking they both want something different -- someONE different -- they agree to scupper their families' plans for them. Viren will refuse the match, and that will be the end of it.
So they think. But the refusal sets off a bitter feud between the two families, and to complicate matters? Viren and Aditi have hit it off so well that they become friends almost immediately. Aditi helps Viren out with his relationship with Karen, but instead of Viren becoming more assured by the choices he is making, he becomes increasingly confused about what he really wants out of life, and what he should be doing, and everything he actually tries only serves to complicate his, and ultimately Aditi's life more. Viren finds himself more and more tied up in knots the harder he tries to untangle his life. Aditi retreats into duty and acceptance, unwilling to put herself and her desires before her duty to her family.
Socha Na Tha is a debut film in a number of ways: it was the vehicle chosen by Dharmendra and Sunny Deol's Vijayta Films to launch nephew/cousin Abhay Deol. I read an interview with Abhay who said it was also Ayesha Takia's first time in front of the cameras (though not the first of her films to be released). And it's also a first film for director Imtiaz Ali, and his first time writing as well.
I love first films. I love the potential they hold, and I love watching seeing that potential develop as people go on to make more films. And I'm more forgiving of first films, because I'm willing to let people make some mistakes as they find their footing and hone their craft.
Socha Na Tha's themes aren't terribly original, and in fact, I'd argue that they reflect Vijayta Films perfectly: duty to family, the clash between modernity and tradition, and especially a respect for traditional and/or family values. In fact, if the film falls down anywhere, it's that these themes are hammered home to us at regular intervals, and in the course of that hammering, the three families involved (because there is the clash with Karen's parents as well) are painted in shades of black and white, with very few moments of grey. It would be difficult to believe that the bitterness that develops would be overcome at all in order for Viren and Aditi to be together. The moments of grey are there: for example, there is a lovely scene at the end when Viren's father comes to terms with their elopement -- but they are few and far between, and the film suffers for it, I think.
That said, there is much to commend Socha Na Tha, and much to reward a patient, forgiving viewer. I am an unabashed fan of Ayesha Takia, and she does not disappoint here: her Aditi is bubbly and vivacious, yet, with a core of vulnerability and sadness that arise from her sense of duty to her family. She appears confident, if shy, when we first meet her, but we watch her become more torn and confused and yet determined to do what is required of her as the film progresses.
Patience is required, though, with Abhay Deol's performance, though if you can persist until the film's final half-hour, you will be amply rewarded. Deol's Viren is cocky and at times rather unlikeable, especially in the first part of the film. To be fair, Viren is immature and thinks he knows it all, or knows better than his family, and Deol captures that perfectly most of the time.
Of interest to me is that there is one scene in the film (one in which members of Aditi's family discover the two of them have been meeting on the sly, and confront them) that I absolutely loathe. Deol's performance just doesn't work -- his timing is off, his Viren is unpleasant instead of just cocky and immature -- he comes off as someone just trying too hard to get it right, and it goes all wrong instead. But, in reading an interview Abhay Deol did at the time of the film's release, I discovered that this scene is actually the very first one they filmed for the movie -- so I can be very generous with that performance as a result. And honestly, as Viren must take responsibility and face up to what he must do, so does Deol's performance improve and mature as well.
What saves the film, I think, is Imtiaz Ali's ability to give us some very good moments. Not all the writing is wonderful, but there are some moments where the dialogues and the overall sensibility are just so spot on that they make me willing to overlook the rest. Viren's relationship with his sister-in-law (Ayesha Jhulka) is just lovely. She is his confidente, and she's also the one person who can help him navigate what he wants (or thinks he wants) with what his family requires of him.
And the best moments of the film are the ones between Viren and Aditi: their first meeting, when they immediately connect and open up to each other. Their continued friendship. And especially, the film's final scenes, when Aditi has run away from her engagement to another man, realizing she finally has to reach out and grab what she wants in life. She confronts Viren at work, and they argue, and in the course of that argument -- where, on the surface, Viren tells her this just cannot be happening -- they get into a cab and elope. The situations are well-written, and Deol and Takia are just charming together in them.
If there is an irony in Socha Na Tha, it is this: Viren and Aditi believe they want to be with someone they love, someone of their choosing, rather than with someone chosen by their families. But in the end, they end up in love with the very person they rejected as part of a family arrangement. If Socha Na Tha wants to show us anything, it's that tradition always wins, and that sometimes love happens, as the title suggests, without our even thinking about it.