The trailer of Imtiaz Ali’s August 4 release Jab Harry Met Sejal is packed with several familiar elements, including a lost Punjabi hero, a ditzy heroine in need of guidance and an appropriately liberating journey in Europe. These elements are wrapped together in familiar layer of obvious irony – the directionless Harry is actually meant to be a tour guide.
Protagonists in Hindi films don’t normally require tour guides like Harry, because they are mostly cool and adventurous travelers, not gawking tourists. The epiphanies they experience at the end of their journeys are justified by the many challenges these characters face while travelling. For instance, it is easy to trace how Rani emerges a stronger, more self-reliant woman because of her unguided and solo trip to Europe in Queen (2014).
But on the rare occasions that characters are tourists, like the titular woman from Jab Harry Met Sejal, their journey is saved from ordinariness by glib and charming tour guides who transform prosaic tours into life-changing experiences. But while easing, and sometimes facilitating the self-discovery of other characters, guides often succumb to existential crises themselves.
In Vijay Anand’s Guide (1965), Raju, a popular tour guide in Udaipur, encounters feisty but repressed dancer Rosie when her much-older archeologist husband Marco approaches him for assistance. Raju doesn’t take the couple on an ordinary sight-seeing tour, but connects each of them to their passions. While he leads Marco to a set of caves which help the older man make a grand archeological discovery, he takes Rosie to a place where she can finally shed her inhibitions and dance. Eventually, he helps Rosie find her feet by helping her stand up to her husband, and guiding her into a career as a dancer.
Rosie’s success as a dancer restores her self-image, but Raju’s growing insecurities lead him to commit a felony and get imprisoned. When he is released from jail, a directionless Raju prefers to lick his wounds around strangers rather than rejoin his family. A series of coincidences leads people to mistake travel-weary Raju for a learned saint –a delusion that is sustained by his gift of gab.
In Raja Hindustani (1996), the eponymous protagonist is a taxi driver who doubles up as a tour guide to rich and privileged Aarti. Unlike Raju, however, Raja’s influence on Aarti leads her into getting trapped in several situations involving attire and conduct.
When characters travel, they suspend concepts of time and conventional ethics, often letting their wild selves loose. The headiness of travel precipitates a kiss between Raju and Aarti, and leads to a hasty marriage. But after the romance of the travel passes, the divisions of class between them resurface and they are unable to sustain the relationship.
Tourists are generally considered outsiders, because they don’t live in the places they are visiting, bit consume it before moving on. The presence of a tour guide can have an interesting impact on the difference between an insider and an outsider.
In Fanaa (2006), when blind Zooni travels to Delhi for a dance show, she is hoping for the added bonus of finally meeting Prince Charming. Zooni is granted her wish in the form of tour guide Rehan, who is attracted to her at first sight. A great deal of sundry stalking, some harassment, and several mind-numbing couplets later, Zooni is persuaded into going sight-seeing with Rehan.
Although Rehan makes it clear that he is with Zooni to satiate his “zaroorat”, he is drawn to her despite himself. They spend a night together, and he guides her into discovering her own body. He even finds a way to get her eyesight restored. Before they can marry, however, Rehan is ostensibly killed in a bomb blast.
True to the Shakespearan adage, in each of these films, clothes make the man. Raju wears a distinctive costume when he is a tour guide, but swaps his coat for a suit when he becomes Rosie’s manager. Raja is forced out of his usual strange cap and flannel shirt when he has to meet his wife’s wealthy relatives. Rehan is clad in questionable shirts and sports an impressive compendium of finger rings while he is pretending to be a tour guide, but wears slick coats once he leaves Delhi. The effervescent personalities of tour guides in Hindi films bubble over into their marginally bohemian costumes, and a change in their clothing implies a conscious attempt to shed their uncomplicated worldviews.