This is one of those movies that I knew was really good, and I just haven’t gotten around to watching it. Well, haven’t gotten around to it, and it was kind of hard to find a copy of. But, thanks to the proliferation of international streaming services, I now longer had that excuse, so I finally watched it!
I’d heard about this movie as one of the prototypical love triangles, along with Sangam and Andaz, and it really is remarkable as a love triangle. That is, the love goes in all 6 directions. Sanjay loves Salman and Salman loves him, Madhuri loves Salman and Salman loves her, Madhuri loves Sanjay and Sanjay loves her. What makes it extra interesting is that the strongest line of this triangle is the one between Sanjay and Salman, NOT between Madhuri and one of the boys.
That makes it sound kind of slashfic-y, but the film neatly avoids any sense of romance between Sanjay and Salman, at the same time that it also avoids a strictly “Bhai-Bhai” kind of relationship. While Sanjay and Salman share parents, they are friends, not brothers. Closer than brothers in a lot of ways, because they choose to love each other and care for each other, there is no obligation in place (as in, for instance, the same love triangle in Yeh Dillagi).
(Although, tragically, there are the same mullets)
This goes all the way to the opening, which begins not with the romantic back story, but the friendship back story. Salman befriends orphan Sanjay, and brings him home with him, where Salman’s parents also fall in love with him and decide to adopt him. I don’t think we get to see Salman meet Sanjay, we just see Sanjay being teased for being an orphan and a cripple and sad, and then Salman suddenly leaping in to defend him and proudly bringing him home and introducing him as his “friend.”
What’s so great is that their relationship in the flashback is the same relationship they have through out the film. But not in a shallow way, not like the scriptwriter just left it at “and now they are friends forever!” and stopped. No, what we see all along is that Salman just loves Sanjay, completely and unembarrassed and unreservedly. He is always ready to leap into to defend him, and he honestly does not see Sanjay’s faults. That kind of love is rare, the kind that will make you baldly say “he is an orphan and he is my friend” as a child, or constantly invite your quiet shy friend along with you to nightclubs as an adult. Whatever spark was between them as children hasn’t died down, they just compliment each other.
And Sanjay, you can see, loves Salman for loving him. He doesn’t understand his flirtatious nature or outgoing personality, just as Salman doesn’t understand his introspection, but he does see and appreciate how those same qualities are part of what makes Salman so cheerful and accepting of Sanjay. And while Salman would never consider there being a give and take between them, that Sanjay owes him anything for his friendship, it is this very blindness obligation that makes Sanjay feel so grateful to him. I guess the difference is, Salman loves Sanjay for no reason at all, and Sanjay loves Salman because Salman loves him for no reason.
The whole family in this, Salman and Sanjay as the sons and Kader Khan and Reema Lagoo as the parents, is just filled with love, in a way that felt more filled with, I don’t know, acceptance maybe? When Salman and Sanjay are children, the family goes out for a meal, and young Sanjay is seriously and calmly eating, while young Salman sneaks a pick up a ladies skirt from under the table. Kader Khan catches Salman, and shares the joke with him, which is an unusually accepting response. But better than that, is that Reema Lagoo is only mildly amused, not angry at the behavior or either her son or husband, and best of all, neither Salman nor Kader try to interest Sanjay in their “naughtiness” or particularly mind that he wouldn’t be interested. Salman is a ladies man, Kader can enjoy the joke with his son, Sanjay isn’t interested at all, Reema doesn’t mind, and everyone is completely happy with the varying reactions of everyone else. This is one of the few short sequences we see of their family when the boys were young, and it immediately tells you what kind of family they are.
Once the boys are adults, it is even better. Kader shows them both their new offices in his company, and everyone laughs and agrees that Sanjay will work hard and do well, while Salman will probably just use his office to call his girlfriends. They manage to praise Sanjay for doing well, without criticizing Salman for being different. There is no sense of a “good son-bad son” dynamic, they love both their boys equally.
The focus on both sons being equally loved for what they are, is what really drives the Sanjay character. Or, makes sense of his drive. This movie is such an interesting picture of an adopted child! Sanjay is both very aware of what he has gained from his family, and also very aware of how it would hurt them if they ever felt he felt an obligation to them. That Reema and Kader clearly have an attitude of “we are the lucky ones to have gained a son like you!” and any sense that he didn’t believe that as well would break their hearts.
This is a strange comparison, but it kind of makes me think of Kannathil Muthamittal. The adopted child in that was raised in her adopted household. We see her when she is just beginning to process all the emotions that the discovery of her adoption brings up. Her reaction is very different than that of Sanjay’s in this, because they are different characters. But the attitude of the parents is the same. Both sets of parents in both movies look on their adopted child as a gift, and what would hurt them the most is to feel that their child is unhappy in their family, feels s/he doesn’t belong.
In Saajan, Sanjay is an old soul, who is aware from childhood of the pain it would cause his parents to receive any indication that he did not feel himself to be “theirs”. Which is why he has spent years perfecting a calm and happy demeanor, hiding his desires and sadness and dreams from those closest to him. The romantic complications arise naturally out of this practice, which started long long before he even met Madhuri.
Salman’s personality is, well, his personality! It’s what he would be like anyway, full-hearted and happy and outgoing. There is a strong sense that he would always have been like this, no matter his upbringing, just as Sanjay would always have been withdrawn and dreamy. But Salman’s ability to share his feelings with others, his openness about asking for what he wants, and his surety that it will all work out for the best, that is clearly a result of spending his life cushioned in the love of his parents. It hasn’t made him selfish or mean or bad, it has just made him a little more fearless in matters of the heart. And again, that was true long before he met Madhuri, and all the romantic complications arise naturally out of that.
And then there’s Madhuri. It’s not the greatest role for her, but it works because it is Madhuri. She is mostly a standard issue sweet young thing kind of character. Peppy and free-spirited, a singer, a lover of poetry, and a good daughter to her widowed mother. But put Madhuri in the role, and suddenly you can see why everyone falls in love with her at first sight. She just has so much personality, feels so outsize in comparison to all other woman, you can see why both Sanjay and Salman would fall for her immediately.
Of course, what makes the movie really stand out is what happens after that, and how it interacts back with the established personalities and backstory of Sanjay and Salman. So, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
For a movie that is billed as a love triangle, we spend an awfully long time waiting for the introduction of the heroine. The whole first half hour is just establishing the Salman-Sanjay relationship. The childhood bits I already talked about, and how as adults they are so different but equally loved by their parents. And then there is a really nice set of two sequences which show their different ways of loving each other. Sanjay and Salman are out to eat at a nice restaurant, when Salman notices a young woman and her mother at a nearby table. He tells Sanjay that he will get that young woman to leave with him under the eyes of her mother. Sanjay isn’t really into it, but he let’s Salman go on. And then Salman stumbles over to the table, pretends to be blind, and gets the woman to walk him out. And Sanjay asks the waiter to hurry the meal, because he knows from experience that Salman will be found out shortly and they will be thrown out of the restaurant. Which is what happens.
Sanjay’s attitude is not interest or pleasure in what Salman is doing, exactly, but it is a sort of quiet joy in Salman’s very Salman-i-ness. He doesn’t like making bets in restaurants, or having elaborate public acts happening in front of him. But he likes that Salman likes it, it makes him happy to see Salman happy. Sanjay doesn’t want Salman to be like him, he understands how different they are and he loves Salman for who he is.
Salman, on the other hand, wants to change Sanjay, not because he doesn’t love him for who he is, but because he knows that Sanjay doesn’t love himself for who he is. Salman can sense his unhappiness, his loneliness, his inability to feel deserving of love. That’s why he constantly tries to take him out in the world, to take him out of himself.
Which is where the second important scene comes in. Salman casually mentions to a female friend that he wishes Sanjay would come out with them. She goes to Sanjay’s office and tries to entice him to take her to lunch. Sanjay isn’t rude, but he also isn’t interested. She takes his refusal as an insult, and responds with cutting remarks about how ugly he is, how crippled, how she only wanted to do him a favor, he doesn’t deserve to spend time with her!
When Salman finds out about it, not from Sanjay but from someone else, his reaction is perfect. He isn’t worried about comforting Sanjay, or trying to change him, he is angry at the woman. It’s not that he wants Sanjay to change for the sake of the world, it’s that he expects that the world would naturally see how wonderful and delightful Sanjay is, and anybody who can’t see that, isn’t worthy of his time. Moreover, while he may not talk to Sanjay about it directly, he clearly does know about Sanjay’s self-esteem issues and worries about how damaging an interaction like this could be to him.
After we have this initial set-up, seeing how Salman and Sanjay interact, Sanjay is sent out of town to Ooty (I think? I was watching another movie set in Ooty around the same time, so I am a little worried that I have conflated the two). Sanjay is especially interested in going to Ooty, because it is where his secret penpal lives. He has been writing poetry under an assumed name, and his publisher passed on letters to him from a college student in Ooty who loved his work. This bit is a little weak, I wasn’t necessarily completely sold on what we heard of the letters being enough to set up a grand romance. But, on the other hand, it’s Madhuri! Even if her letters are kind of dull, her picture is included and she is just so sparkling!
Sanjay, however, has resisted sending her a photo of himself, because he thinks he is so “ugly”. Sanjay is brilliant casting for this part. Because he has a face that is somehow both ugly and beautiful at the same time. I can believe him in this film thinking of himself as hideous, and I can believe him in another movie playing the glamorous lady’s man.
(Although, the mullet in this film doesn’t really help him go towards the handsome side of things instead)
However, while he may be shy about sending her a photo, he has no shyness about meeting her in person. I can understand that, if he believes in his mind, he would be comfortable presenting himself to her in a way where she can see his face and his personality at the same time, not just a cold photo with no context.
I really enjoy their meeting, it sells me on there being an immediate spark between them. He goes to her bookstore and lets her sell him a book of his own poetry and mentions that he knows the poet from the city. That is enough for Madhuri to start to like him, but as they travel around and spend time together, I think it is more than that. For one thing, they just met and there is no particular reason they have to hang out, and yet she keeps agreeing to spend the day with him, and coming over to see him at his house, and so on and so on. It’s not just that she is being nice so he will introduce her to his hero, she feels naturally happy and comfortable with him. It sells me both on the idea that they have a natural connection, and that the letters they exchanged really did lay a groundwork of a relationship so that, even though Madhuri doesn’t know who Sanjay is, she feels familiar and comfortable with him, and Sanjay knows just what to say to her and what she will like.
And then Salman shows up and messes everything up! I’ve really got to re-watch Chal Mere Bhai, to see the same story told the other way round. With the outgoing one helping the withdrawn one. Which kind of makes more sense, doesn’t it? The charmer helping the sensitive one? I think that’s sort of the point here. As soon as Salman expresses interest, Sanjay thinks “well, that makes much more sense than her ending up with a shy ugly fellow like me! I’ll make sure she gets the handsome charmer instead.”
I love how this part is handled. I knew the basic outline of the story going in, and I was dreading the moment when Salman would turn selfish, and Sanjay would be betrayed. But no! It is Sanjay who makes the decision to betray himself, helping Salman win Madhuri by pretending to be Sanjay, the poet she loves. Salman even protests against the plan and is a little shocked, but Sanjay argues that the poet could never marry her, so she might as well be happy with Salman, who truly loves her.
There is even a slight shading to it, it’s not like in Race when Saif decides to give up Bips so Akshaye can be happy, it’s that Sanjay is making this sacrifice for both Salman AND Madhuri! It goes back to his feelings of inferiority that we saw all along, he sincerely thinks she would be better off with Salman than with him. It’s not that he is choosing his love for Salman over his love for Madhuri, it’s that he loves them both so much, and worships them both so much, he thinks they are both more worthy than he is.
Madhuri and Saman of course fall in love and even get a love song. But while Sanjay and Madhuri came together naturally and enjoyed spending time together just doing ordinary things, Salman and Madhuri are both primed to be in love. Their first date is stressful and exciting, Salman is adorably nervous drinking many glasses of water in the restaurant waiting for her and Madhuri is so nervous her friends have to literally push her forward. They are in love because Salman fell for her beauty and charm (again, any other actress it wouldn’t work, but it’s Madhuri!), but Madhuri had no interest in him until she thought he was the one who had been writing her letters. And while when she met Sanjay, the one to whom she was actually writing, she was happy and confident and comfortable, with Salman it is all nerves and anticipation.
And then it all comes to a head in a series of scenes that are both like and unlike Sangam! First, Salman discovers Sanjay’s love by finding hidden love letters in a cupboard, just like Raj finding Vyjantimala’s letters. Only, while Raj’s reaction was jealousy and anger that they were keeping it from him all this time, Salman’s is anger that it was kept from him in the first place, and he is never jealous, only miserably self-doubting. He understands immediately that it was a sacrifice on behalf of Sanjay for his happiness, and he sets about trying to fix it.
I like this bit, because it retroactively changes his whole “playboy” image from the beginning. He is playing the playboy again, trying to make Madhuri fall out of love with him, but while they could have had him seduce new young women, instead he is seen with a woman that had greeted him before as an old friend. And, most importantly, they have a few conversations where she is clearly in on his plan, and is worried about him and why he thinks he needs to act this way. I kind of hope that at some point after the movie was over, Salman and this nice young lady end up together!
Of course, this can’t go on, finally Salman and Sanjay have a confrontation over the whole thing and the whole thing comes out. And Salman is furious! For a lot of really good reasons. That Sanjay felt he had the right to make these decisions for him, that Sanjay set him up to fail by pretending to be something he’s not, and most of all, that Sanjay felt he didn’t have the right to take happiness for himself. The underlying issues of their relationship, the ones that were in place long before Madhuri entered the picture, that is what is causing their problems. That’s what makes it such an interesting love triangle.
Of course, that’s also why Madhuri is, justifiably, FURIOUS! Their whole funky messed up thing has ruined her life! She is just a side-effect of much older relationship between Sanjay and Salman! The two of them have shoved her back and forth between them with no regard to what she might want!
What I love is that, once she knows the truth, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what she really does want. She storms out of the room, and Sanjay takes a half-step after her and looks at where she has gone, while Salman just looks at Sanjay, and does a great job of showing on his face how he has realized that Sanjay loves her so much, is clearly her true love. And then Salman is the one to run after her, because he knows Sanjay doesn’t have the ability to speak for himself, so he has to speak for him.
But that’s not the end. It could have been, Salman bringing Madhuri back just then, but that wouldn’t have resolved everything. It’s not just about Sanjay and Madhuri coming back together, it’s about Salman resolving his emotions. So he has to go home first, and talk to his parents. I love the way he plays this scene! He is clearly upset, and when his father asks what is wrong, he says that he is so happy, it is coming out as tears. His father thinks this is a lot of guff, and that’s how it looks at first, but Salman actually sells that kind of emotion as the scene goes on! He tells his parents that they should prepare for a wedding, Sanjay’s wedding, not his, and it will be magnificent! And as he says this and his smile kind of flashes on and off, it really does feel like he is so happy over this, and wants it so much, that it almost hurts him! I mean, yes, he has his own broken heart, but he is also kind of filled with joyful sacrifice over Sanjay’s happiness. And it clarifies that Salman really did love Madhuri, it wasn’t just a shallow crush, but he also knows that he has no right to her if she truly loves someone else.
And then there is the sort of abrupt ending with Salman bringing Madhuri to meet Sanjay. I like that Salman brings her, and I like that we went from his quick confrontation to her showing up without anything in between. It added to the suspense, and it also added to the sense that Madhuri and Sanjay were predestined, so there didn’t need to be a lot of work getting her to agree. But it does feel abrupt, to go straight to them being together without a stop in the middle to show a real love scene between them.
But that is my only small complaint! Which is pretty good for a 3 hour movie, to only find about 5 minutes way at the end not quite right.