Some of the most awkward moments of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo come when it tries to be progressive and modern while still hewing to its regressive Rajshri roots. When our hero Prem (Salman Khan, of course) learns that the princess Maithili (Sonam Kapoor) has slept with her royal fiancé before the marriage was solemnized, he tries to look shocked, then tries to shrug his shoulders in acceptance. The whole scene falls flat; it's not cute or hip, it's just uncomfortable for both Khan and audience. Later, when Maithili makes it clear to Prem that she wants to have sex with him (he's a doppelganger stand-in for the real fiancé-prince, incapacitated by an assassination attempt), Prem just looks stern and pained. Is he wrestling with his own desire for Maithili, a temptation to take advantage of his resemblance to the prince, and of her? Is he a little repulsed that the woman he idealizes and adores is so ready to succumb to an immoral desire? The scene doesn't make it clear, and that inscrutability may be a bit of sleight of hand by director Sooraj Barjatya - you, dear viewer, may supply whatever interpretation best suits your worldview.
Points to Barjatya, anyway, for daring to acknowledge (under the Rajshri banner no less) that an adult woman in 2015 might have sexual desires and be bold and aggressive about acting on them. And then some points docked, at the end, for having the royal family - including the recovered prince - offer Maithili to Prem as their gift to him. What could better underscore that women are mere property to be negotiated for and transferred as their families see fit? Maithili gets her happy ending, but only because her fiancé and her grandmother are willing to hand her over to another man.
Admittedly, life is different for royal scions, even in the 21st century when their regality is only a matter of tradition, not a matter of power and military allegiance. Maithili has been raised to value such traditions and know her role in them, and promised to Prince Vijay under that same set of values. But Maithili's submission to them, as cinematic message-delivery, is really no different from a spirited village girl submitting to her family's expectations in a movie of 30 years ago. Though Barjatya's worlds are always scaled by enormous sprawling mansions and populated with the most extreme members of the leisure classes, the people they portray are stand-ins for an aam aadmi audience. Viewers are meant to identify with them, as a means of escape - imagine yourself, for three hours, a part of this world where everyone is beautiful, where people gift exotic sports cars to one another on whim, where even the crummy substandard home occupied by cast-off royal bastards is twice as big as anything you've ever lived in. And if you want to be like them, you also of course must also act like them. So the packaging and sale of Maithili is not just a matter of royal obligation; it's a model for young women, even sexually forward young women, to follow. Kings and princesses, as Shakespeare had Henry V point out, are the makers of fashion.
And what about that Barjatya world - is it still entertaining, 20 years after Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, to be whisked away into a sparkling kind of Maine-Pyar-Kiya-meets-Mughal-e-Azam fairy tale world where princes ride in horse-drawn carriages while taking calls on their iPhone 6es and kings build crystal palaces on the precipices of waterfalls? Well, yes - most of the time, it is. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is pretty to look at and loaded with good-enough songs and picturizations, and even a few excellent ones - a picturization that is a battle-of-the-sexes football match is especially fun, as is a song that breaks out when Prem and his buddy are left to cool their heels on top of a desert fort, and somehow find a set of giant drums to bang on. Indeed, except for some melodramatic indulgence in the last third - including interminable fight scenes cleverly staged in a mirrored maze - its nearly-three-hour running time doesn't really feel that long. It's a very simple story, with its mixture of Prince-and-Pauper tropes with classic Barjatya themes that elevate family above all other concerns. But the grand visuals are appealing, and throwbacky melodrama can be unchallenging fun on its own terms.
Salman Khan is not quite in his finest form; this incarnation of Prem doesn't match the sweet innocence of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. He is too beatific, almost sanctimonious in his confidence that love can fix all that is wrong in the royal family. He takes on a smarminess that Barjatya's Prems of 20 or 25 years ago never had. That means that if you already don't like Sallu, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is not the film that will change your mind. The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to good enough to elevate the material they have to work with. Sonam Kapoor gives a mostly adequate performance; I am not convinced she has rajkumari-level gravitas in her, but she is not distractingly bad. The show stealers are the same folks who almost ran off with Tanu Weds Manu - Deepak Dobriyal as goofy Prem's manic sidekick, and Swara Bhaskar as the prince's estranged, illegitimate half-sister. The latter so capably shoulders her melodramatic role and so expertly carries its heightened emotions that perhaps Barjatya should make her his lucky charm from now on, and finally put Prem out to pasture.
Lorie starts off looking like many a gentle middle-cinema film of its era. A married couple (Naseeruddin Shah and Swaroop Sampat) are shown in intimately domestic scenes, engaging in playful (if weirdly hostile) teasing; the film opens on their roof, with Suman giving Micky a generous massage. Then we meet Geeta (Shabana Azmi), a young, earnest teacher who, when criticized by her chauvinistic father for working at all, replies that she loves her work, but she's not opposed to marriage either. (Shabana, as expected in films of this era, looks completely gorgeous in a deeply colored range of sarees and kurtis.) And then comes Bhupi, Farooq Sheikh as the sort of cuddly sweetheart he plays so well. The understated, middle-class ordinariness of this foursome sets a very familiar tone, in the vein of Sai Paranjpe, Basu Chatterjee, and the like.
Bhupi and Geeta meet when Bhupi snatches one of Geeta's little students out of the path of an oncoming car, and both are instantly smitten. In a touching pair of scenes the next morning, Geeta confesses to her mother (Rohini Hattangadi), and Bhupi to Micky and Suman (Shah and Sampat), that they've met someone they like, but failed to exchange addresses or other identifying information. Bhupi, remembering the color of Geeta's students' uniforms, hires a cab and zips around to every school in Bombay to track her down. This gambit might cross the line into stalking in real life, but in Bhupi's almost preternaturally innocent hands it remains idealized and sweet. (And since we know Geeta likes him too, no harm, no foul.) Geeta and Bhupi's romance proceeds apace; while getting married requires defying Geeta's stern father, who has another son-in-law in mind, the couple are soon enjoying domestic bliss; with a child on the way, a song montage has them cutting pictures of cute babies from magazines to decorate the nursery.
Cutie-patootie all windswept and bearded; milady smitten and pretty.
Then tragedy strikes, and Lorie starts getting weird.
Geeta miscarries and learns that she cannot ever bear children. All Geeta has ever dreamed of is to be a mother. As a teacher she is shown to be more of a nurturer than an instructor, frolicking with her students, singing to them, cuddling them. Indeed, she states pretty explicitly that teaching is a way to tide herself over until her overweening craving for children of her own can be satisfied. With the sudden loss of this dream, Geeta is (understandably) despondent and even inconsolable. When she finds a little boy, Laddu, left on a bus by his gaggle of siblings and their distracted and overwhelmed parents (Madan Puri and Shaukat Kaifi), she takes him home and claims him as her own son. Geeta has come unhinged; there is a manic and almost willful delusion to her insistence that the child is hers, and at times even a clear consciousness of guilt behind her dreamy claims of motherhood.
For example, Geeta becomes alarmed in an elevator with a stranger and hides Laddu behind her, afraid to be sussed out as an imposter-mother.
It's one thing for Geeta to disconnect from reality in the face of such a grave loss. It's not my favorite storyline; while I can understand some grief at losing one's ability to be a mother, the leap from grief to either criminality or delusion sends a message that I can't get behind about the significance of motherhood as a goal in itself, so centrally important that even a smart, capable woman can completely lose her moorings when it is taken away from her. But even with that story to tell, Lorie would be a better movie if it were only Geeta who lost her mind. Instead, everyone around her loses touch with rationality as well. Bhupi can't bear to see her suffering, so he plays along with her altered reality, only weakly challenging her delusion before backing off at the slightest hint of tears. Even Micky and Suman look the other way while Bhupi helps Geeta evade the police.
But the film's ending is where things get truly strange. I will spoil it here (it's a 30-year-old film, after all): Apprehended and tried, Geeta is found guilty of kidnapping, but the judge sets aside the verdict and frees her. Reasonable enough; perhaps he really is convinced that Geeta is sufficiently remorseful and not in danger of recidivism. But then, stepping out of the courthouse, she is greeted by throngs of chanting supporters. This is very odd - what could they possibly support about what she did? One might be sympathetic toward her but it's a long way from that to hailing her as a hero.
Then, finally, in the coup-de-grace of weirdness, Laddu's parents push through the crowd and press the boy into Geeta's arms, saying that she has become his true mother and should take him from now on.
Laddu's family is shown to be quite direly poor; there are more children than the indolent, prideful father can provide for. If Lorie were portraying a desperate family taking an opportunity to reduce the household burden while offering one of their children a more prosperous life, that might make sense as a tragic but understandable storyline. But that's not the thrust of this ending at all. Earlier in the film, Bhupi and Geeta investigate adoption options, and make an offer to a poor family who seemed to have children to spare; that mother gives an angry and dignified dressing-down that you might think they would not soon forget. Thus Lorie emphatically rejects the notion that poor people are ready to part with their children out of financial necessity. So what the heck is going on with Laddu's parents? It's a bizarre and nonsensical outcome.
But maybe it's not that much weirder than Madan Puri and Shaukat Kaifi as a couple, or a very young Paresh Rawal as an eloquent prosecutor.
This turn into bizarro-land where women can permanently usurp the children of others without incurring jail time (or at the very least, court-ordered psychiatric care) undermines all of Lorie's gentle domesticity and tender relationships. The movie has stuck with me after watching, but mostly because I can't figure out what it is actually trying to do. It's a muddle, and just doesn't make very much sense as a narrative.
But how pretty is Shabana Azmi! How furry is Naseeruddin Shah. And Swaroop Sampat? HOT.
Watching this movie made me think about the not-so-fine line between courtship and stalking. Hindi films have, frustratingly, blurred that line for decades. Occasionally, a film comes along that attempts to explore it artfully. Raanjhanaa is one such; it utterly failed for me, but it arguably did attempt to do say something about the boundary where courtship ends and stalking begins.
Darr doesn't explore this boundary. It doesn't even acknowledge that it resides in a vast industry of films that sometimes have trouble telling the difference. Instead it blows right through the boundary, leaving it so far behind in the dust that there is never any question whether anything it portrays should be interpreted as romantic.
Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) occupies a deeply creepy, dangerous, and psychopathic territory. He is not a superficially or initially charming man shown to turn dangerous upon rejection. Rather, it is clear from the film's earliest scenes, in which he carries on spirited telephone conversations with his dead mother, that he operates at a disconnect from reality. Not a shred of subtlety in Rahul's conduct disturbs Darr's smooth sheen of bombast. There is no gaslighting, no insidiousness. The crazy is obvious. Kiran (Juhi Chawla) is its blameless, helpless victim.
I can see why fans of Shah Rukh Khan might enjoy Darr. In it, he dials his hamming to a different frequency, in which the famous quivering lip produces the name "K-K-K-Kiran" rather than a hero's declaration of romance. In that way Rahul is more interesting than Khan's villainous character in Anjaam, who, until he actually turns murderer, is almost indistinguishable from other SRK heroes of that era - arrogant, smarmy, entitled. Rahul is broken, has been broken for years by the premature loss of his mother; it's not clear whether his status as college weirdo is a cause or an effect of the pathology that makes him stalk Kiran.
But other than this interesting, if stereotyped, portrayal of a man on the fringes of sane society, Darr veers off in odd directions - one especially clunky sequence is the the "just say no" speech that Rahul's drug-addicted classmate remorsefully delivers just before Rahul offs him and plants evidence that he (the classmate) is Kiran's stalker. But Darr is still a Yash Chopra film, and it does offer some of the grandly satisfying filmi elements that one expects from Chopra. The apex of these is, of course, the Holi song "Ang se ang lagana," in which Juhi Chawla looks purely radiant while a mad-eyed, snarlingly sinister Shah Rukh Khan lurks threateningly among the musicians.
Darr lacks the thematic layers that make the second half of Anjaam so interesting and satisfying. Here, instead of the demi-divine power of womanhood ignited by injustice, revenge for Kiran comes in the form of Sunil (Sunny Deol), a one-man naval commando unit. Sunil has a barrel chest and big strong arms and presses both into service to protect his young fiancée. This is, of course, Sunny Deol's wheelhouse; whether in service of India herself or India's most vulnerable young women, Deol is ready to set his jaw and throw a lot of punches. It is always good fun to get a taste of Deol's jingoistic military-hero persona on full display.
Sunil's competence as a protector doesn't leave much for Juhi Chawla to do, though. She is wasted here, doing little more than swooning into Deol's arms and flash dimples in the larger-than-life snapshots that Rahul projects on his bedroom wall.* I think she lands a few blows in the climactic scene in which Rahul traps Kiran on a boat, before Sunil swims in (navy commando, remember?) to save the day. Chawla is lovely, for sure, and the little drag performance she gives for Deol is rather delicious. But it would be nice to see a woman who is perhaps a little less helpless in the face of male entitlement gone psycho. What would have happened to Kiran if she had no strapping Sunil eager to protect his investment? At least the people around Kiran - Sunil and Kiran's brother and sister-in-law (Anupam Kher and Tanvi Azmi) - take seriously the threat posed by her stalker, which is more support than Madhuri Dixit's character gets in Anjaam. But still, what's a woman to do who doesn't have a Sunny Deol hovering protectively just around the corner?
* I seem to recall this device used in another movie as well - did Salman Khan project an image of Preity Zinta in his wall in Jaan-e-mann? As I recall it wasn't intended as a symbol of psychopathy there, but perhaps it should have been.
Text (c) 2006-2016, Carla Miriam Levy.
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