Romantic comedies are not what comes to mind when one thinks of the USSR. The country of socialist art, socialist theatre, massive parades and not to forget, its famous circuses, did however have a thriving cinema and a population as obsessed with the yearning for love and for companionship, much like every other society that has been or will be. The ‘Irony of Fate’ (or Ironiya Sudby, for the Russian purists), a 1976 film, broadcast into Soviet homes on 1 January, 1976, is considered an enduring classic in Russia and the ex-Soviet countries. A comedy of errors, set around New Year’s eve, 1975, the Irony of Fate would make any fan of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema feel at home. The film draws its viewer in through its gentleness and incisively asks uncomfortable questions about love, loyalty and surprisingly, centralised town-planning.
The plot of the film is unique to the country of its origin. Four friends, living in Moscow, visit a public bath on 31 December every year. This ritual is a little more momentous this time because one of the friends, Zhenya, has decided to propose to his girlfriend at the stroke of midnight. The friends drink excessively on this momentous occasion and as evening approaches Zhenya and his friend, Pavlik, pass out. The other two friends, drunk as they are, recall that one of their friends is supposed to propose to his girlfriend that night and the other is to travel to Leningrad. After some confusion about the coats to be worn by them, they find the Leningrad ticket in Zhenya’s coat and gladly carry the comatose Zhenya to Moscow airport and onto the plane for Leningrad. Zhenya wakes up at Leningrad airport, unaware that he has left Moscow and takes a taxi. Unfortunately for him, his address in Moscow (Constructor’s Street, Apartment 12, fourth floor) also exists in Leningrad. Not only does it exist, but it is built in exactly the same manner as his Moscow apartment, including the fact that his key opens the lock to this apartment as well. The woman who lives in this apartment, Nadya, enters the apartment to find a man sleeping in her apartment. Man and woman exasperatedly try to convince each other that they are the trespasser in the apartment, complicated by the fact that Nadya’s jealous boyfriend, Ippolit, is also expected to reach the apartment for a romantic New year’s eve dinner. In short, hilarity ensues.
This description of the plot only covers one-third of this three hour long film. The characters who we follow through the night are by turns endearing and exasperating but are at all times believable. Zhenya falls for Nadya and she falls for him. Against the weight of responsibility (as exemplified by the character’s mothers in short but significant roles) that these characters feel, is also the desire for a certain je ne sais quoi, which their regimented, and undoubtedly safe, lives seems to lack. What is refreshing though is that none of the characters descend to the level of caricatures. The bully-ish boyfriend, Ippolit (who would undoubtedly have been played by old time baddy Shetty, if this had been a Hindi film), comes closest to a cliché but he reveals too much of himself and his insecurities for the viewer to judge him too harshly. Nadya, the woman who seems desperate to hold on to Ippolit, cannot seem to resist the newcomer from Moscow who seems incapable of finding a flight back to Moscow. It is not that Zhenya comes across as exceedingly charming. In fact, his behaviour sometimes borders on the boorish as his attempts to get back to Moscow, or to even speak with his fiancée-to-be, seem doomed. His charm, one suspects, lies mostly in the fact that his appearance is quite unexpected.
The film ends under the doubtful eyes of Zhenya’s mother, her wizened face seemingly perturbed, yet patient with the foibles of the young. Could there be a better metaphor for the changing of the times in the old Soviet Union? You could imagine the mothers participating in a worker’s rally chanting slogans with conviction. Their children, Zhenya and Nadya would find it embarrassing. To them, loyalties to their significant others and perhaps larger loyalties to country and to ideology, are lightly worn. What they seek is the actualization of the self. Could there be a more bourgeois turn of events? The credits feature long shots of massive Russian housing complexes. It seems to be an implicit criticism of an unimaginative strain of architecture
The appeal of the ‘Irony of Fate’ lies in its promise that romance may yet find the most mundane amongst us and that it is, as much a function of circumstance as a function of personality. The characters are charming but not exceedingly so. They are, however, unerringly endearing in their simplicity. A comedy of errors which is defined by its central conceit, the ‘Irony of Fate’ is more than anything an entertaining watch. There are no heroes and no villains. Turns out that people in the USSR, just like everywhere else pined for a gentle romance between likable people.
- Sarim Naved
Sarim is a litigating lawyer from NLSIU Bangalore with a passion for films.