Beware: lots of major spoilers in this review, and very, very, very ranting.
Fashion was just this exercise in annoyance. I really liked the film at first. It wasn't perfect, it was predictable, but it was fun to watch, fashion escapism with a bit of a real edge to it, and a cast of characters I wasn't emotionally attached to but didn't mind watching, either. Then the plot took some turns and I was still watching it keenly, just noticing that I preferred the storylines of Janet (Mugdha Godse) and Shonali (Kangana Raut) to that of Meghna (Priyanka Chopra), our main character with the dream of becoming a super model.
As Meghna makes her dream into reality, the predictable thing happens: her success goes to her head in a massive way, she becomes a relentless bitch, an annoying diva, who snaps at everybody, is mean to everybody, and doesn't even notice how her behavior affects those around her. Eventually she gets on the path of substance abuse, just like her predecessor super-model Shonali, and hits rock bottom.
This is where the film really goes off the rails. If Meghna is an unlikable character for me but the film has more to offer than her storyline, as it at first seemed to, I'm game, but eventually the film becomes all about Meghna and I'm expected to care about her, when she essentially ruined her life with her own choices and poor consideration. Add to that the blatant racism of the scene where she realizes she hit rock bottom after sleeping with a black guy. Because the fact your boss essentially gave you the boot, your friends more or less all deserted you, your alcoholism, and then taking drugs, that's not enough to make you realize you may have deeply messed up your life. No, it's a one night stand with a black guy. Oh the horror! (Not to mention the implication that she wouldn't have had sex with him if it hadn't been for the drugs. Gah, just typing this makes me angry.)
Then the film fuses the storylines of Shonali and Meghna and this is where I tune in again, but of course, Shonali's messed up life is disposed of to make way for Meghna's self-actualization, so that she can shine again or whatever the hell.
Beth had a lot of good points in her Fashion rant, and one of them was regarding that we never find out why Meghna wants to become a super-model. I'd add to that a flaw that makes Fashion a weird one; it can be seen as a shockingly realistic expose on the drugs, the sex, the casting couch, the corruption of the fashion world, but at the same time, Meghna's "salvation" can only come from her getting back on the runway, the one thing that essentially destroyed her. It also annoys me that everybody encourages her to do so - the world that she first desired, then burned herself in, is the one she needs to become complete in some kind of twisted way. Stardom as a model is what we see her accomplish, even though the whole point of the film was to hammer in the message that this world is cruel and Meghna didn't know how to handle it, and neither did Shonali. Except now, at the end of the film, she's fierce and she can handle it? But what did she learn, in the end? Don't do drugs? Don't sleep with black guys? God, the writing is supposedly thought-through but has all these glaring mistakes.
I know this genre Madhur Bhandarkar enjoys delving in - the genre that takes an idealist person who wants to achieve something big in a world most of us find interesting and glamorous and read about, and then shoves that person into that world, as they climb the social ladder that gets them there. The person goes through a transformation, and that transformation alienates them from their friends, family, their old comfortable ordinary life, essentially. But as glamorous and amazing as their new life is, they quickly see how shallow and awful and cruel and corrupt and full of bad people it is. It might also be stressful and all these other things that lead them to having an utter breakdown, and that breakdown makes them go back to their roots; where they began and then they discover that partner that dumped them, and those friends, and that family, and that knitting club and a big mug of tea every morning; the ordinary, comfortable life. Eventually the person goes onto do something else; something that makes them whole but keeps them away from the world they visited and now know to be bad. "Many cakes are pretty on the outside", goes a Finnish proverb, reminding us that appearances are indeed deceiving.
It's an age-old tale. And you know what? It's one I can enjoy. One of my favourite chicklit novels is Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger, which has a plotline essentially what I just described. Predictable, unoriginal? Yes. Satisfying read on a rainy day? Absolutely.
The problem with Fashion is that it doesn't do the twist where the breakdown is followed by self-actualization in the comfortable middle-class life Meghna used to have, with friends and whatnot. Meghna just freezes while time continues around her. She can't live if she's on that catwalk. But geez, that catwalk wasn't very good to her! And I never understood why she needed the catwalk for her self-actualization anyway.
The journey to a glamorous but rotten world can result in a fairly life-affirming story (in the sense that the viewer feels their own ordinary lives may be drab and they don't do Jimmy Choo photoshoots, but at the same time they've got a nice family, their job is less high pressure, they can eat big meals etc) while still being realistic and tackling some real issues, like casting couch, drug abuse etc. But Fashion is predictable without following the trope to its satisfying ending, and it also focuses on its least interesting character (I vastly preferred storylines of Shonali and Janet).
There was some good stuff in there, too; I seriously wasn't very annoyed until the coke-snorting and black-dude-morning-after scenes, but overall, the movie sort of undoes itself by the end. I just couldn't enjoy the ride anymore.
But about Madhur Bhandarkar some more. I've only seen Page 3 and now Fashion, and both of those stories had some similarities, in that they're exposés that reveal the underbellies of celebrity and fashion industry. These sort of stories are pretty old in American/European entertainment, I feel. We all grew up watching them, and learning that celebrity is a double-edged sword and all is not as great as it seems and people in places that focus on appearance are superficial up to a fault and all this sort of stuff. So it feels kind of dull to watch these stories in an Indian context. I don't follow gossip much. I don't want to rub elbows with celebrities. I mean, I wouldn't mind meeting a few stars, but I'm not focusing all my energy on such a goal because I know it probably wouldn't be worth it, struggling to get into that world.
It's tough to evaluate these stories, because of how old they feel to me, but how new they might be in an Indian context, to the audiences who might mostly have seen the dream factory stuff. Are these stories worth telling? It's not really up to me to decide, certainly, but I still feel like Bhandarkar could draw something new out of this formula. A lot of the disappointment just comes from the hype surrounding these movies, especially Page 3. I mean, it was okay. It didn't make any favourite lists for me, though.
Something I told Beth in chat, while processing my thoughts on P3 and Fashion, was that essentially I saw an old Hollywood story formula in Rock On, too. And yet, I loved that movie to bits and enjoyed its simplicity and purity. It felt like a new story was being told in the Indian context where rockbands do not reign supreme, and I could appreciate it, and felt it would be good if it were to increase awareness of the country's underground rock scene. Perhaps the difference between this formula and that of the exposé films was that Rock On brought on the positive vibes and celebrated a world while showing its rough edges (the dicky record label guy, the pressure to sell out). These exposés rarely do. So I guess in the end what makes me so unenthusiastic about them is not the "what", it's the "how".
I also keep thinking about how I'd written Meghna's ending. I might've kept the fashion world as a terms of self-actualization but changed the setting. Perhaps she writes an exposé on the world, and finds her true calling as an investigative journalist. Perhaps she goes into fashion design herself. Perhaps she begins coaching new models to put her posing skills and her experience into good use to make sure other models don't mess up like she did. One thing the film completely ignored about the world of modelling is the short career models have. You start at sixteen, you retire at 27. What then? You do what Meghna did and spend two of your work years messing up your life and then building it back up, your career's going to be over in a few years. Of course, there were plenty of other realism mess-ups but you know, if this film actually inspired some people to go into modeling, they're gonna learn about some actual realities of that world pretty soon. And that learning's going to be more harsh than Meghna's downfall.