I think this might be the film where I first heard the “An Indian woman loves only once” truism. Which has now been unpacked and questioned and turned upside down and all sorts of interesting things done to in other films. Heck, interesting things were already done to it by the time this film came out! But not in this movie. Nope, in this movie, your lifetime singular devotion goes along with your virginity and whatever man gets one, gets the other.
This is not a good film. This is a pretty film, and a film with great music, but it is not a good film. The good news is, it’s fun-bad, not boring-bad. I would say that Subhash Ghai can never be boring-bad, but then I’ve tried to watch Kisna, so I know that isn’t true.
(Pretty, and yet boring. And a cheap ripoff of the plot of Junoon just like this one is a cheap ripoff of Chandni)
But this movie definitely falls in the bad Subhash Ghai sweetspot. The scene transitions are amusingly wonky, the acting is amusingly slightly over the top, but the storyline in general still holds together and it feels like he still has a firm grasp on the central idea he wants to explore. And the visuals are of course wonderful, but that’s always true of a Ghai film, even Kaanchi (I assume, I haven’t actually watched it, even though it is on Netflix now).
Technically this film is supposed to be about a love triangle, but that’s not the central idea that intrigued Ghai, or the reason that it was such a hit. What made it a hit was the songs. And the songs are also what the whole plot is about. This isn’t one of those movies like Pardes where our hero is a musician but that’s really just an excuse for a bunch of song numbers and an explanation for what he does all day. No, this film is really really really about the music industry. Specifically the Indian music industry and the conflicting forces at war within it.
(Did you know Akshay is going to be in a Gulshan Kumar biopic? I am fascinated! And very curious about it)
The first half of the film shows the “traditional” music of India. A composer/singer who is famous within circles that follow traditional music. And among the older generation. He had a lot of respect and an ancestral home and barely scrapes out a living teaching classes and occasionally giving semi-public performances.
(Just like the similarly “poor” and yet huge household in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam)
And then the second half shows the new version of the Indian music industry. Cassette tapes instead of public performances, MTV and music videos and pounding beats borrowed from the West. And resulting in fancy new apartments in the city, international acclaim, and young people throughout India going mad and mobbing your car.
What makes this movie so interesting is the way both AR Rahman as the composer and Subhash Ghai as director play around in these two genres of music and let them relate to each other. A lot of it is the soundtrack, one of Rahman’s greatest. But part of it is the visuals too, Ghai always has great songs, and in this one he goes really over the top varying between “simple village folk dancers” and “Massive Stadium Concert” kind of effects.
The casting is…..flawed. But not disastrous! And actually kind of amusing thanks to the flaws. Aish is perfect in the song pieces, but has a bit of “early in film career” awkwardness with the rest of it. Akshaye is just, I don’t even know! He has moments of lowkey perfection in his line delivery, and then there’s other moments where the script demanded Big Big Emotions and it ends up just looking funny from him. Anil, on the other hand, is a delight! I love his performance! But the character is crazy. Super amusing, but not actually like anything I would expect in real life. The few moments that worked best for me was when he was supposed to be performing, when he was giving an interview or a speech and you could see how he puts on all this splash and spectacle just for the public.
And then the real problem with the film: the plot. Oh my goodness! It was like some kind of crazy throwback to a 70s movie, but more regressive!!! It takes the same kind of love triangle that Yashji put together in Chandni, and turns it from a subtle statement on female choice to a blunt statement on how women have no choice.
Oh, and also, it was INCREDIBLY STUPID!!! In that swoony way that Subhash Ghai can be stupid. Where the plot and characters make NO SENSE, but the visuals are so beautiful you kind of don’t notice for a while. And then it all suddenly comes flooding over you and you realize “This movie is NONSENSE!!!!”
For me, it happened when we got a shot of the headline on the prop newspaper:
(“Billionaire’s Son in Fire: Love Story Suspected” is pretty great, but what puts it over the top for me is that they put it in the “International News” section.)
If everything I just said makes you go “oh boy, sign me up! This is the film for me!!!!” then stop reading. If it makes you go “oh yuch, I never ever want to watch or think about something so stupid ever again”, then stop reading. But if it makes you go “okay, I don’t actually want to watch this thing, but I have a kind of sick curiosity about just how stupid it is”, then keep going!
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We open in the village of Chamba. Which I cared enough to google for us all, and it is a small-ish hill town in Himachal Pradesh with a lot of temples and old stuff and pretty views. So essentially exactly as it is presented in this film.
Aishwarya is the beautiful daughter of Alok Nath. Alak Nath is a loving and indulgent father with a hidden streak of pride. Because when is he not?
Alak is that musician I mentioned back in the first section. He is respected and noble with an ancient house and position. But he is scrapping out a living with music students and occasional performances at local functions for his friends. And his daughters work too. Or his daughter and his two nieces? Either the subtitles were confused about this, or the dialogue was. And I understand the idea of him having “daughters of his house”, being the nieces he is responsible for, but it felt like more than that. Like Ghai just changed his mind half way through the script. Especially because we never clearly see Alak’s wife, or brother or sister, or really any relatives besides Aish and her cousin-sisters. Because Ghai lost interest after that and didn’t bother with any other family.
He also didn’t bother to really clarify what this “school” is that Alak is running. He teaches music, presumably, although we never see that. And Aish teaches yoga? And that’s it? So if I send my kid to this school, they will get a few minutes of half-hearted yoga classes while their teacher makes eyes at some cute boy, and then some wise words from Alak until he gets distracted by the problems of his daughter/nieces/invisible other relatives? Not worth it! No wonder they are “poor”.
But, movie poor. Simple clothes and minimal jewelry, and lots of dancing in the rain. But they still have their huge house and plenty of food! Alak doesn’t look like he is exactly starving.
And then Akshaye and his Dad Amrish Puri arrive, and they are movie rich. Helicopters to travel in, obviously. And yet still staying at the old mansion down the road from Alak. Oh, and evil, obviously, because money corrupts. Evil for no particular reason besides just being rich. Not Amrish, he is the self-made and noble and the head of the family type. Or Akshaye, our hero, the innocent untouched young man of the family. But everyone in between, EVIL!!! Evil and rich!
Naturally, innocent Akshaye sees innocent and beautiful Aish from a distance and falls in love. This bit goes on FOREVER!!!! It feels like Ghai had 3 different ideas for first meetings and couldn’t decide between them. So he hears her voice (like in Satyam Shivan Sundaram) and he follows her dancing in the rain. And he finds her image when he zooms in on a photo from his camera. And he falls of the side of a cliff and then Aish and her sisters throw him a rope that they conveniently happen to have with them.
This whole time I also kept wishing Akshaye was Rishi Kapoor. It really needs to be a Rishi performance, so charming and entertaining and delightful that you are interested in his romance. Because the girl certainly isn’t going to be enough to keep you interested! These village girls almost never are. All shy and silent and beautiful objects without much dialogue. Maybe Sridevi could have made this part sour. Or Madhuri.
But even there they would be struggling with the ridiculous writing. Akshaye, okay, he falls in love at first sight, we can understand this. But Aish, she goes from being all shy and not interested to being totally in love all at once! Just like these village girls tend to do.
Ghai manages to almost trick me into being invested in this romance thanks to the amazing visuals, the camera going back and forth between them at a function while Akshay mocks her expressions, Their eyes meeting and secret glances during “Ishq Bina”. It’s all very pretty. Oh, and of course her secret dawn yoga lesson with him.
But I completely lose it when they finally get together! She goes from being all “my life is my family, I never see anyone outside of the family circle, you are too far above me for us to ever be together”, and then in the next scene she is running to meet him in secret the day his family leaves town! How does she even know he is leaving???? And how does she know where to meet him? And, most importantly, WHEN DID SHE EMBROIDER HER NAME ON HIS SCARF?????? This is not an easy thing to do!
Oh, and then they have sex. Right? That’s what it means when they kiss and then the screen gets all blurry and we jump forward in time? They have sex?
Which is also why they are together forever and ever and ever. Because, as mentioned above, whatever random boy gets your virginity also gets your heart forever and ever and ever. Even if you have barely exchanged two words before then. Even if he just happens to be the first boy you are not related to that you have even met. Forever and ever and ever no matter what an Indian woman loves only once.
Especially if he gives you a hideous green necklace. Really, so ugly! Even uglier than the faux-mangalsutra in Kaho Na Pyar Hai, and that one was made of spiky shells! Oh, and Alak finds it and slaps her, because a “proper” daughter is so cut off from the outside world she shouldn’t even be able to buy or be given a cheap necklace, and therefore merely finding it in her room is enough to prove she has been indiscreet.
But it’s Alak Polekar, so after about five seconds he immediately regrets his actions and decides to pop over to the city to arrange her marriage to Akshaye. At which point we are introduced to the only reasonable person in this whole movie, divorced career woman Mita Vashisht (love her! the character and the actress). She is some form of relation to Alak and Aish and they stay with her in Bombay. And then go to meet Akshaye’s father and arrange the marriage, but his family is rude and horrible to them for no particular reason besides being evil rich people who hate poor people. And in the end, even Alak has had enough and calls Amrish’s evil sister-in-law a dog, and slaps his evil brother and storms out.
Only to randomly walk through the film shoot of a music video? Which, also randomly, is for a western remix of one of Alak’s classical compositions? Does this happen all the time in Bombay? If I go there and get lost in the city, will I wander into a crowd doing interpretive dance of my blog posts?
Anil is there, to insert some nutty energy into the proceedings, and provide our alternative limb of the love triangle. He is famous brilliant powerful music producer superstar who wants to sign Aish and Alak to a contract to work with him. And sensible Mita Vashisht convinces them to do it, because why not?
Love triangle!!!!! Anil is all “I just care about money and success!!!!” And Aish is all “I am a simple village girl obediently dancing because I signed a contract but without any emotions of my own”. But then over time they become “I have been touched by your amazing purity and reveal that at heart I do value some things over money!” and “My father and aunt have told me I should care about you, so now I do kind of!”
This whole romance has a lot of influence from her Dad and others telling her what she should be doing, but it still feels more “real” than her romance with Akshaye! At least she and Anil, like, talk and stuff. It’s not just stalking and then sex.
Akshaye’s is still stalking, by the way. Popping up on sets and at awards shows, and telling her that she must still love him, he can tell, while she looks all uncertain and silent. Romantic! And Anil comes off pretty well, letting Akshaye talk to her, but being around to get rid of him as needed.
Oh, and then everyone around Aish decides she is in love with Anil now and tells her to be in love with him, so she is. Until her little sister/cousins come visit and give her grief for forgetting Akshaye, because “an Indian woman loves only once” and clearly she is just fooling herself. And then they give her the paper with World’s Greatest Headline, so she can read the story of how the guesthouse Akshaye was staying in caught on fire and he ran inside to rescue their love scarf and burned himself. So now Aish is in love with Akshaye again! Or still? Whatever, Anil is out and Akshaye is in.
And it all comes to a head when they are waiting outside the registry office to be married and a huge crowd surrounds them, and Akshaye is there with his dog in a baby backpack and Anil sees Aish look at him, and finally tells Aish that she clearly loves Akshaye still, even if she says she doesn’t, because an Indian woman loves only once, so she might as well marry that first boy she ever talked to instead of him. And Happy Ending!
(Okay, the movie is incredibly stupid, but this song is so pretty!)