Not my favorite Salman film (that would be Bajrangi Bhaijaan), or my favorite film that has Salman in it (that would be Jaan-E-Mann), but my favorite time that he actually ACTS. Instead of just playing Salman Khan-SUPERSTAR. Which is appropriate, because it looks like in Sultan he will be playing an actual character. And a character that changes and develops over the film, just like in Tere Naam.
(UPDATE (SPOILERS): There’s been a complaint that this post makes no sense to someone who hasn’t already seen Tere Naam. I just assumed everyone in the world but me watched it ages ago! But just in case you missed it, here are the plot highlights:
Salman is a recent college grad who keeps hanging around campus with his gang, ragging new students. Bhoomika Chawla is a shy young daughter of a Priest, engaged to another Priest, very religious, who takes classes at college on the behest of her fiance, possible one of the few times she has left her home. Salman is charmed by her scared reaction to his ragging, and starts following her around, finally bringing himself to confess his feelings. Bhoomika is scared by his passion and force (she’s seen him beat up people and terrorize the campus). She finally brings herself to turn him down, and he sinks into despair and confusion, finally kidnapping her and tying her up, so she will listen to him. He completely falls apart in front of her, moaning in misery and beating himself against the wall, which finally gets through to her and she falls in love with him.
But! Before the engagement can be finalized and the families fully informed, Salman gets caught up in a fight with the criminal gang he has been trying to keep off campus. He gets a blow to the head and goes into a catatonic state. The doctor suggests that his family send him to a remote religious retreat to be prayed over, since medicine can do nothing for him. Over the objection of EVERYONE SANE, his family sends him away. They visit regularly, as do his friends, and Bhoomika prays for him. Just as Salman is finally coming back to himself, he injures himself in an attempt to escape, so when Bhoomika is brought to visit him, she is shocked at his condition and thinks he is getting worse, not better. Therefore, she stops fighting and accedes to her father’s wishes for her to marry her original fiance. On the day of her wedding, Salman finally breaks out of the temple sanctuary and manages to find his way back to town. Just in time to see her body, since she couldn’t bring herself to fight back, and couldn’t bring herself to marry anyone else. In the end, Salman voluntarily returns himself to the sanctuary, to live out the rest of his life among madmen. Oh, and the whole thing is supposedly based on the true story of one of the director’s friends from college!)
I’d heard about Tere Naam for years, it came out around when I was in college and everyone was just blown away by it. But I’d always avoided it, because of the hair. And the super depressing plot. But a few months back a friend saw it and told me that she was just blown away by Salman actually ACTING, so I thought I had to see it.
I’ve seen Salman act before, he acts in a lot of scenes in Jaan-E-Mann (one of the many many things I like about it). And he acts every once in a while in his Rajshri films. And even in Dabangg and his recent ridiculous action movies, there’s a moment here and there when he actually comes across as sincere onscreen. But I’d never seen him actually act for an entire movie straight through. And oh my gosh, it is so good! Not just Salman (and also Bhoomika, who I already liked from Run) but the script, the directing, the acting of everyone else, it was all just really beautiful. Wow, there was so much!
(Also, I had this song on one of the first songs DVDs I bought and I must have watched it a couple hundred times)
First, the hair! I’d seen stills, and even songs and stuff, because it was just everywhere back when I was in college, and I always thought the hair was just super stupid. But seeing it in the film, it didn’t bother me as much. The friend who recommended the film to me told me that the hair wouldn’t bother me, because it was a perfect young man stupid haircut. Even the way Salman kept playing with his bangs, was such a young man thing to do. It also helped me look at him as the character and not as ‘Salman Khan’. I bet it helped him too, reminded him to actually act when his wig was on.
The character would be about 20, right? As a recent college graduate? So still college age in America. I feel like part of the message, a big part of it, is that kids that age are better than their elders give them credit for, and should be allowed to make their own decisions. Salman may have been disrespected at home, but he was actually a good guy who everyone at the college respected and appreciated. And when he got sick, his friends and his girlfriend may have been able to make better decisions about what he would want than his family did. Remember, Aslam was ready to take him in and care for him at home. And all he wanted in the creepy asylum was to be able to see Bhoomika, if she had been encouraged to visit, he might have been better sooner.
The college setting, I think, was really important, because it is the one neutral territory in Indian society where young people are allowed to really be themselves. So boys and girls can interact, and Brahmins and Kshastriyas, and poor and rich, and all the other taboos. Although in this movie, I think the college setting was more a curse than a blessing. They shouldn’t have ever met, she should have stayed within the confines of the temple and never pursued worldly knowledge, because when a Brahmin comes in contact with a Kshastriya as equals, terrible things happen!
(Also, when men fall in love with widows)
I think, there are two messages going on at the same time in the film. First, the doomed cross-caste relationships, and secondly, the flaws in blind allegiance to faith. Which are oddly contradictory, since being against cross-caste relationships is part of a blind allegiance to faith.
With the cross-caste stuff, I think it is that Salman is the essential Kshastriya figure and Bhoomika is the essential Brahmin and that society relies on them to stay within their particular, contradictory, places. The Brahmin must be passive, enduring, wise, removed from worldly concerns. The Kshastriya must be active, responsive, tied to his people and the world he protects. It is only when they work in concert that society functions correctly, the Kshastriya protecting the Brahmin’s freedom to worship and study in peace, the Brahmin providing unbiased opinions and perspective to the Kshastriya.
It is understandable that a Brahmin boy might want to be a king, or that a priest may fall in love with a Kshastriya princess, and so on and so on. But the lesson is, no matter how difficult it is, they must not break the rules! To do so, is to endanger the very fabric of society.
Anyway, I think that is what was happening in Tere Naam. It’s a Brahmin-Kshastriya love story, not because those are the castes they are born into, but because their natural beings fall within those two, contradictory, castes. He sees things only in terms of protecting the people, violence when necessary, seeing a problem and solving it. She sees things only as passive endurance, patient prayers, thoughtfulness. Thus, their love story is doomed.
I think, but am not sure, that maybe that is what they were going for with the really difficult part of the film, when he gives up on romantic gestures and just straight up kidnaps her and ties her up. That he is so frustrated with trying to get through to a Brahmin girl, he goes full Kshastriya, and uses violence to capture her. And in the end, she finally understands him, when she sees his inner pain and despair, communicated through his hitting the walls and so on.
I think the initial kidnapping is supposed to be bad, tragic, but not his fault. Just the tragedy that is inevitable when you fall in love above your caste. And her final capitulation in that scene is because he is finally able to reach her, almost miraculously, because his love and pain is so great it is able to cross their barriers. I think that is why it had to go so far, to show how she was really driving him insane, to the point of kidnapping, and for her to be shaken by it when she sees his final breakdown. But still, it’s pretty hard to watch, and to make sense of with the rest of the film.
The end, though, is I think a really nice and clear showing of why a Kshastriya and a Brahmin should never get together. If she had tried harder to see him, earlier, or fought more against the marriage, or really done anything active, they would have gotten together. And if he had stopped fighting and just waited at the temple, he wouldn’t have been injured and could have quietly recovered. It was only that he was fighting while she was passive, which lead to their doom. Not that I actually believe in the caste system or anything, but I do think they way they showed their individual personalities, it was believable that their relationship was never going to be easy.
Oh, and I think that is also why the fiance steps back, and suggests she goes to college in the first place, and generally is sort of wise and helpful instead of personally involved. He is what a true Brahmin is supposed to be, seeing the big picture, and making the right choices without regard to his personal feelings. But at the same time, he can only deal with emotions and souls, not the real world, which is why we also need Kshastriya’s like Salman around. And why he is so scared of Salman the first time he meets him.
Oh, the other thing, the weird insane asylum place, and what it said about traditional Hinduism, I just don’t know what to think! Most of the time, it looked like we were supposed to think it was terrible, but it did actually work, right? So it was almost like a mystical, accept your fate, kind of message. Yes, it is horrible, but this is what God has decided for you.
Which is why his one Muslim friend objected so strongly. I think he was supposed to express the more rational and less fatalistic Muslim perspective, instead of the Hindu “your destiny is fated, give in” kind of perspective. And the fact that the movie includes him, makes me not sure exactly what side the director himself falls on. Does he think that the doctor was really just trying to get rid of a difficult patient and sending him off to hell on earth? Or does he think that the Hindus (including the priest who runs the asylum) really are just trying to help, and are helping? I’m really not sure.
All of that is the big themes, I haven’t even gotten into the little style things that were so amazing! The acting, of course. Salman was just perfect as a sweet-but-lost young man. He was so nice and kind with his niece and his sister-in-law. But when his brother starts yelling at him, he immediately gets defensive and awkward. He enjoys making his little jokes and being the big man with his friends at college, but he doesn’t know how to talk to a girl he really really likes.
And when he falls in love, it is just like a little boy with a crush. A combination of confidence and shyness, nervous to talk to her but sure that once he does, she will love him. And of course the ending, heartbreaking! Going from confusion to fear to determination to despair to, I don’t even know what to call it, numbness?
Bhoomika was great too. While Salman was playing a little boy in love, she was playing, I don’t know, someone beyond age? Sweet and naive like a little girl, but also calm and restrained like an wise old woman. Her gestures are so delicate and soft, but also sure. And her face somehow manages to reveal all her feelings and none of them. The two performances are so different in every way, it just adds to the power when they finally meet in the middle. And the tragedy when they are torn apart again. I can recognize from one frame that it is one of their performances in this film, that’s how distinctive they are! And it’s not just the hair.
But I can also recognize the film just from the look of it. The colors have a certain tone to them in every shot, they are less saturated but at the same time bright. I have no idea how the director did that, but somehow it is a look that feels familiar to me from southern movies. Not Mani Ratnam, his films always have a sort of warm overtone to them, but kind of related to that. Varsham looked like this too.
But if the colors have a sort of southern look to them, what is onscreen has a very Hindi look to it. Stars, families, big dances, big love songs. Combined with the Southern flavor to the lighting, the spectacular performances, and the really kind of deep plot, it just makes a movie like nothing I have ever seen before or since!