Happy Jab Harry Met Sejal calendar week! Only 5 more days (or 4, please please please release a day early in the US! It will make my life SO MUCH EASIER!). I did a very comprehensive discussion of Imtiaz’s filmography yesterday, so today an easy small post, on Chaahat and Shahrukh as the hired lover type.
Shahrukh has always had a unique kind of filmography in that he is willing to take the more “feminine” roles. His first two movies were him playing support to the heroine’s journey (Dil Aashna Hai and Deewana). And he went on to play with gender definitions in a variety of ways in his films since then. Whether it was being the desperate unwanted lover dreaming over photos in Darr, or the devoted parent in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, or the possibly queer character in Kal Ho Na Ho. But Chaahat is maybe my favorite for the gender-bending in how fully he commits to playing the young innocent forced to sell his body.
What makes this film great is how fully it commits to the gender flip of the plot, without losing the ways in which it is a unique kind of tragedy for a man. Shahrukh is a young performer spotted by a wealthy woman as he dances in the streets. She offers him money to sleep with her, and her brother follows it up with threats of physical violence. Shahrukh, a virtuous young man who is in love with a good doctor, does not want to give him and give her his body. But he needs the money to pay for his father’s treatment, and so agrees. Until at the last minute he escapes, and goes on the run with his virtuous true love, and in a final battle, they defeat the bad people.
This is the plot of all kinds of movies from Pakeezah to English Babu Desi Mem. Only, it’s always the heroine, not the hero. She is the one who has to perform in the streets to raise money, she is the one who is offered unholy amounts of money to sell her body, along with a physical threat if she refuses or is unfaithful. She is the one torn between the money her family needs and the love she has for the good poor man. And she is the one who is ultimately rescued at the last minute and rewarded with a happy life.
That gender switch in Chaahat is brilliant, and not just because we get the future-Queen-Mother-of-Mahishmati being all turned on by baby faced Shahrukh, but because it commits to the gender switch without fully losing track that Shahrukh is still a man. His inner conflict over giving in to Ramya’s demands is mixed in with his male pride in wanting to take care of his father, in the loss of pride that makes him feel no longer able to be with Pooja Bhatt, in all these complicated emotions.
Plus, and here’s where I think it might start to line up a little more with Jab Harry Met Sejal, there is a very slight indication that he had come close to crossing the line into prostitution earlier. Some jokes between him and Anupam about new young female guests at the hotel, how he might be able to pick up some more money. It’s all very light-hearted, but there is an implication that he isn’t about a light flirtation for tips. And this doesn’t harm him, as a man he is able to have these light romances without feeling dirty and wrong and so on the way a woman would. Well, the way a woman would in traditional Indian film.
But a line is crossed with what Ramya is offering him. It is no longer his choice, no longer just a small thing for fun, now it becomes work, something that damages him. He no longer feels “clean”, no longer feels like he can offer himself to the good pure woman that is Pooja Bhatt.
Which brings me to Jab Harry Met Sejal! I suspect that Shahrukh’s character will be shown to have jumped all over that line. Sometimes he flirts with tourist women or women he meets in clubs because he wants to. Sometimes he does it because he feels it is expected of him, or because he thinks they might buy him a drink, or he wants something else from them and thinks using his body is the best way to get it.
Whatever that line is between “as a single man, naturally I will have spent some time flirting with some women” and “I feel cheap and dirty and no good”, he has crossed it. We know that from the trailers, he explicitly tells Anushka that he is no good for her, she shouldn’t spend time with him. This is different from all the other Shahrukh movies in which he is a flirt who has played around, but still feels like he has something to offer a “good woman” when she appears before him. Somehow somewhere he feels like he did something that makes him unworthy now.
What I will be fascinated to see is if the movie decides he can be redeemed. Will he be Chandramukhi? True love makes him a better person, but he is too sullied to be able to have a happy relationship in this lifetime? Or will he be Meena Kumari in Pakeezah? Feeling himself unworthy but finally convinced by his lover that he is not?
(this kind of feels like “Hawayein“, right? Love hidden in her heart which is bringing happiness to her life for the first time in a long time?)