Not just the Yash Chopra romance, but the whole history of Indian film romance. There’s a little bit of Sargam, there’s a little bit of Johnny Mere Naam, a little bit of Andaaz. Only it’s all slightly twisted, slightly off and evil.
I think the opening of Darr is right up there with the all time great first few minutes of a film, along with Speed (that elevator sequence!), Sholay (the train!), and Zamaana Deewana (the spoof!). Oh! And Andaz Apna Apna!
The key to a good opening is to set the tone for the rest of the film, but also be able to lift right out as needed. Most directors kind of whiff it, even Karan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, there was the opening monologue at the pyre, which works to set a tone on a second or third watch, but doesn’t really make sense on its own, or pull you into the rest of the film.
But Darr is brilliant! We see Juhi in a meadow in Shimla, in a bright yellow peasant dress, reading a love letter as the music goes plinka plinka behind her. She stands and spins in a circle as the camera pulls back to show her as a bright spot in the meadow. It’s all very innocent and romantic and traditionally Yash Chopra. And then it starts to rain, and she runs for shelter, but not in a scared way, just in a happy girlish way. And the audience gets a glimpse of the heroine with a damp dress and wet hair, again very traditional and sweet and innocent.
And then the camera is watching her through the half-open door of the shack where she took shelter. It’s a nicely framed shot, it feels a little voyeuristic, but not really since it is still clearly framed for our pleasure. It’s also distinctly reminiscent of the “Pal Bhar Ki Liye”song from Johny Mere Naam.
And then as she starts to undo the top of her dress to let it dry, suddenly we are watching through a slit in the side of the shack, and the camera is focusing on her body parts, a shoulder, a lip, her neck. It isn’t professionally and beautifully framed any more, it is just cutting her into pieces like meat. And then she turns and looks at the camera, eyes wide with fear.
In one sequence, we go from the usually happy fantasy of love, relating to the heroine in her happiness, to some harmless enjoyment of a heroine in a wet dress, to suddenly being complicit in harassment of the heroine we were identifying with. On a deeper level, Yashji is unpacking what is hidden within all those romances we usually enjoy. Why do we move so quickly from accepting an innocent heroine in a meadow, to objectifying that same heroine when she is caught in the rain? Why do we accept so easily when a hero is following her around, in her private moments? We do we demand that same access for ourselves in the audience? Why don’t we find this song from Taal romantic instead of terrifying?
The opening sets the tone of the whole film, because the whole film is going to be making us question these assumptions. About the “hero” the “heroine” the “villain” and, most importantly, “romance”.
But before I talk about that, can we talk about how strange it is that “Jaadu Tere Nazar” is one of the all-time hit Shahrukh songs? The “all-time hit” part isn’t the strange bit, the strange bit is the “Shahrukh” part! It’s on every Shahrukh songs DVD, or tape, or CD (and I know, because I have them all), but he never appears onscreen during the song video! Which, fine, it’s a song, so we are hearing his voice. Only, wait, it’s not “his” voice! It’s Udit Narayan’s voice! The only reason this song is associated with Shahrukh at all is that, within the film, we are told that the character he is playing is the one who is singing it.
I don’t understand why it has become a “Shahrukh” song, but I do understand the motivation behind filming it like this. Juhi thinks it is her “hero” who is singing, and so she is happy. Later, she finds out it was her stalker and is scared instead of happy. The only thing that has changed is her knowledge, and suddenly it goes from romantic to fear inducing. Again, the audience is being asked why we accept these kinds of “romantic” gestures from heroes, simply because they are the heroes. And, again, we are being made complicit in the stalking, seeing her from Shahrukh’s perspective, seemingly happy and charmed by the serenade. Shahrukh assumes his romantic actions and the power of his love HAVE to make her love him, that it doesn’t matter which particular man is slotted in as her love interest, that what matters is that he is the “lover” and so she must love him.
The traditional “lover” figure is being deconstructed, but what about the man she actually loves, the real “hero”? Sunny Deol famously stopped working with Yash Raj after this film was released, because he was so angry about how his character was portrayed. At first, I thought this was just sour grapes, because Shahrukh acted him off the screen. But having seen the movie, it’s not that at all! Sunny was right, his character was destroyed by the script and the direction, it had nothing to do with who was playing opposite him.
Sunny is the ultimate macho hero. Okay, I could just leave the sentence like that, because Sunny really is the ultimate macho hero! But his character in this in particular is super macho. He is a navy commando, introduced striding around and rescuing kidnapped youngsters. He is big and loud and strong and macho. He is the perfect action hero. He was even in a movie called Hero: Love Story of a Spy!
And he is an idiot! Completely useless. Yes, he is strong and brave and good in a fight, and the girl is in love with him. All the things that usually make up the action hero. But, he is constantly out thought and out braved and out everything by not just the “villain”, but his own love interest! Until the very end, Juhi is the only one with her head on straight.
I just watched this with friends, and we kept screaming at the screen “Don’t leave her alone!” just like you would in a horror movie. Because of course, as soon as they left her alone, Shahrukh would show up and be all terrorizing again. But at a certain point, it wasn’t just that it was the trope of all horror movies that they always left the heroine alone, it was a sign of Sunny’s stupidity and over-confidence. He would always rather attack, play the big hero, take out the enemy, then defend, stay home, be with his wife. He sees this not as an effort to protect Juhi, but as an effort to defeat Shahrukh.
And the attacks always failed! Sunny would drive forward with all his muscles and determination, in all of these amazing action set-pieces, chasing him in and out of traffic and through the crowded streets, and then Shahrukh would win, but just being lucky. That’s all it takes to defeat this big strong man, a little bit of luck.
And now I want to get into plot specifics, so SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Juhi comes home from school and is a little shaken to learn that it wasn’t big blustery Sunny who was singing to her at school. And she is even more shaken when she starts getting scary phone calls, and dark figures waiting for her when she comes home. But, of course, her family doesn’t believe her. Her brother brushes it off, and her boyfriend makes fun of her! Sunny enjoys scaring her by jumping out of a closet or attacking her in the swimming pool. It’s a brilliant display of stalker behavior, how at first only the direct victim takes it seriously, because it all seems so harmless unless you know in your gut that something is really wrong.
But as it gets worse and worse, finally even Sunny has to take it seriously. But his way of taking it seriously is to decide he has to solve it all himself, no need to call the police or anyone else. He decides to use Juhi to bait a trap for the stalker, very explicitly putting his need to find and defeat the stalker over her personal safety. It isn’t until Shahrukh breaks into the house on Juhi’s birthday that Sunny and her brother are finally ready to take it seriously and bring in the police.
But then they still have a Holi party! With dozens of guests wandering in and out! And this is another brilliant breaking down of romantic film standards! Shahrukh even sings a bit of “Rang Barse” from Yashji’s Silsila. The Holi song is so common (I did a whole post on them!), and it is always a time for the boy to do a little “harmless” flirtation at the girl. Only, this version asks, what makes it “harmless”? We see Sunny dancing with Juhi, and we see Anupum dancing at his wife, and we see Shahrukh sneaking in and beating the drums. And, in the end, Shahrukh takes the chance to get Juhi alone (because Sunny has left her AGAIN), and smears color on her face. It’s terrifying, she screams and screams, but how different is this really from what Sunny was just doing? Why do we accept and find romantic the whole Holi song tradition?
After the Holi party, the fear escalates when Shahrukh cuts the breaks in Sunny’s car. In response to his accident, Juhi decides to leave town, and Sunny follows her to the train for a romantic platform confrontation, just like in every other movie, and then a run away wedding. Just like in every other movie. Except, unlike every other film, these all have a tinge of fear and danger to them. Juhi is running away because she doesn’t want him to be hurt any more. The temple marriage is so Shahrukh can no longer threaten their union. And all the wedding celebrations have this aura of fear over them. Culminating in a return to their marital home where the two police officers die when Shahrukh cuts the elevator cord, and Juhi is left alone by Sunny (again!) to discover that Shahrukh has covered the walls of their home with red paint in which is written “I Love You Kiran”!
And then Sunny decides to “fix” this by locking Juhi in the same bedroom on which this was written, leaving her entirely alone, until she goes mad, constantly thinking she hears the phone ringing. At which point my friend and I simultaneously say “Yellow Wallpaper”!!! And then high five each other. But really, that’s what it feels like. By “protecting” her and locking her away, they have driven her mad.
Sunny never apologizes or takes responsibility for this, but he does come up with a new plan, and decide they should just leave the country until it all blows over. He resigns his commission and leaves the navy (which was much easier than I thought it would be! Just a conversation with his commanding officer) and they go to the airport. And Sunny is, finally, willing to take defensive measures and leaves a false trail showing that they are going to Goa instead of Switzerland.
In Switzerland, everything is awesome! Especially when they get word from India that her stalker has killed himself and it is all safe. Juhi has a very inappropriate smile on her face when getting this news. No sense of “the loss of life is always a tragedy.”
And here’s where I need to pause and look at this from Shahrukh’s perspective. We first see Shahrukh, for real, not just his hand, when he is walking along the edge of a roof plucking flower petals and reciting “she loves me; she loves me not.” It’s a perfect metaphor! He is a lover, but he is also on the edge of death.
Looked at it one way, Shahrukh is the perfect lover. He is sweet and devoted, he has pictures of Juhi all over his room, just like Rishi in Chandni. He dreams about her but is too shy to talk with her at first, just like Rishi in Bobby. And he is young and sweet and charming, we see him meet Sunny and be all loveable and innocent and smiling. And he has a sad backstory, a lonely little rich boy who’s mother is dead and who’s father leaves him alone in his huge bedroom.
Only, all this sweet love is directed at a girl who is already in love with someone else. Which makes it wrong. Really? That’s what makes it wrong? Photos and slide shows in his bedroom, dreaming about a girl he’s never spoken to, all of that is perfectly normal in Indian film? I mean, it is normal in the films, but Yash Chopra is making us question that. How can the behavior of a psychopathic stalker be so close to the behavior of all our romantic heroes?
And the ending is where it gets really fascinating. The whole Switzerland idol has strong elements of Sangam, the Raj Kapoor classic love triangle. In which Vyjantimala was in love with Rajendra Kumar before her wedding to Raj Kapoor, but put away her past love and managed to fall in love with Raj on their honeymoon, and returned home to see her old lover again and be all awkward around him. And then other stuff happens that I won’t spoil. But the point is, the film showed the difference between the young innocent love of Vyjantimala before marriage, and the mature happy love post-marriage. And how hard it is when the reminder of that innocent love is still around, part of their life. And how hard it is for the husband, Raj Kapoor, to make his peace with that.
Same thing here! Beyond the spot on Sangam homage where Juhi does a striptease just like Vyjantimala did, Shahrukh has arrived and acts as though he is that past lover. He watches Juhi with love in his eyes, ingratiates himself with her husband, and even tells them his love story, of wanting a girl who he never got. Again, it raises the question, why do we always accept the story of the past lover? Why do we think it is okay when they keep hanging around post-marriage? Why do we assume that just because someone was in love with her in the past, she was in love with him? Which, okay, is a question that was asked decades earlier in another Raj Kapoor movie, Andaz. Only in that movie, the answer was that it was because of something the woman did, she was at least a little culpable.
And it ends with Shahrukh being both a lover and a danger, all at once. Sunny gets him drunk and gets him talking about love, treating him like a spurned lover, not a killer. And that’s his problem all along, even now, even when he knows Shahrukh has followed them around the world, and has already seen him fighting with insane strength when he felt Juhi’s honor was threatened. Instead of calling the police, or simply beating him up, he gets him drunk and talking. And then let’s him sleep it off while Juhi leaves. And finally confronts him, fighting him with his bare hands. And backing off when Shahrukh begs for mercy at his feet. Which is why Shahrukh is able to stab him with a hidden knife and run off, leaving him to die.
Juhi is the one who can see through this “lover” facade. Or rather, see that the simple innocent “lover” can be just as dangerous as the scary villain type. She deals with him with a combination of humoring him, and passive resistance, locking him out, trying to delay, hiding the keys to the boat, stopping him from getting what he wants without directly confronting him. It’s how women always deal with unwanted advances, whether it is that creepy guy on the train, or Hrithik Roshan in Bang Bang.
And maybe it is because she could always see through Shahrukh, that she is able to be so happy in the end. It’s kind of disturbing really, that she and Sunny are just laughing through the airport back in India at the end. But on the other hand, we in the audience are mourning Shahrukh, because we can’t help but see him as that sweet little boy lover like in every other movie. But Juhi, the character, had to deal with him as a person who was threatening her and putting his needs above her safety. So maybe we can forgive her for being a little callous at his death. I mean, it kind of makes more sense than Kajol sobbing over the man who murdered her sister at the end of Baazigar!