Aisha, 2010 Hindi adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, is an unsparing observation of its arrogant, entitled and class-conscious heroine.
Last Updated: 03.08 AM, Jan 13, 2022
Emma, Jane Austen’s 1815 novel surrounding an entitled, arrogant heroine, was a departure from the author’s earlier works. Unlike Austen’s earlier heroines struggling with societal and financial troubles — be it Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice or Fanny Price from Mansfield Park — Emma belongs to a wealthy family who does not need to secure monetary stability through marriage. Neither does the novel primarily deal with Emma’s impetus to marry — her union results from her social interactions driven by the desire to unite others in courtship.
What makes Emma different from most of Austen’s other women characters is how the author foregrounds Emma’s spoilt and entitled nature and a sense of social superiority. She is described as “handsome, clever and rich” — and so she is — but she is also a headstrong, somewhat unlikeable woman. Throughout the novel, Austen shied away from giving in to the desire of wanting to make the character less superficial in her disposition.
Aisha, released in 2010, adapted Austen’s novel for a Hindi milieu. In director Rajshree Ojha’s version of Emma, Aisha (Sonam Kapoor) hails from a wealthy, South Delhi neighbourhood whose father is a retired colonel and lives in a palatial mansion in the heart of the city. She drives a sunshine yellow Volkswagen beetle carelessly around the city, shops at elite boutiques and designer stores, and spends her evenings at select nightclubs.
At the time of the film’s release, many critics dismissed it for its apparent superficiality. Aisha — that had its characters parading in impeccable outfits in branded showrooms, organising river rafting trips in Rishikesh and fashion makeovers — was considered as an inferior, shallow attempt at recreating Emma’s universe. Curiously though, Aisha is anything but.
Aisha’s unsparing’s lens captures a world replete with visits to animal shelters as a token gesture, breakfasts at Delhi Gymkhana and attending polo matches. It drives home Aisha’s privileged life. Her father is appalled at his daughter’s spending habits and reads aloud a credit card bill his daughter has drawn up in a month. He tells her in mock anger that if she continues to squander away her father’s earnings, there will be no money left for her marriage, to which she begrudgingly responds that she does not intend to marry.
Aisha’s superficiality is not celebrated. She keeps on changing hobbies — from matchmaking to painting and baking — until the film’s hero scathingly remarks that she should “get a job” and harness her talent in “meaningful activities”. That all her hobbies are just half-hearted attempts at keeping herself preoccupied is not glossed over. Casting Sonam Kapoor in the role was a brilliant masterstroke in itself — the actor’s real-life fashion icon persona was expertly weaved into the narrative — making Aisha’s superficiality even more apparent. She is the apple of the eye of everyone around her — so when she is mocked by the hero as “Aisha Baby”, it is evident that she is a sheltered woman who has never had to face any real-world troubles.
Aisha’s best friend Pinky (played expertly by Ira Dubey), accompanies her in her many escapades, but that she might not come from staggering wealth is insinuated several times. She is also directionless — wanting to be a weather anchor one day and a fashion magazine editor the next. But unlike Aisha, when she is unable to secure either jobs, she is devastated.
Through the course of the film, Pinky becomes increasingly disapproving of Aisha’s habit of meddling into others’ lives without provocation. What starts out as a transformation project of the Bahadurganj girl, quickly spirals out of hand. When the same girl, Shefali (Amrita Puri), confides in Aisha of developing romantic feelings for a middle-class man, she is scorned for not caring enough about her “future”. That Aisha is inconsiderate, obstinate and elitist is not equivocated, it is spelt out in bold letters.
Ojha’s film — showcasing the cream of Delhi’s upper-class milieu — is as much an escapist fare as it is a parody. From Randhir (Cyrus Sahukar) squealing that it is “dangerous” to be stranded at midnight to Shefali complaining about having to walk in uncomfortable heels and being attacked on her bare legs by mosquitoes, hilarity is mined from the most unlikely circumstances.
Aisha is like a big party, where the camera swirls around every nook and corner, picking up strands of inane conversations between haughty, privileged folks. It has sweeping gestures of romance — Arjun climbing up the ladder to enter Aisha’s room — to moments of genuine affection — when Aisha reluctantly makes a sandwich for him in the middle of the night or sits with Pinky at a park to acknowledge her shortcomings.
Aisha is also one of the few (and arguably the first) mainstream Bollywood movies to showcase female friendships with unparalleled tenderness. The world of Aisha is comforting and aspirational, but also keenly observant. If watching the film is a guilty pleasure, it is crime worth committing.
Watch Aisha here