Happy Salman Day! Suryavanshi, a Divisive Movie

Some people just can’t get past the Conan-look to it. But I loved it!!!  Despite the wigs and all.

A commentator recommended this to me as a underappreciated Salman movie, and I am so grateful, because I LOVED it!  It is the particularly Indian combination of subtle real emotional discussions and totally over the top visuals.

Starting on Wednesday, I’ll be doing a week of Sultan-themed posts, making guesses on what elements from previous Salman and/or Anushka and/or Ali Abbas Zafar movies might be relevant.  Just like I did for Dilwale and Fan, and will be doing for Aamir’s next movie, whenever that is (I think Dangal on December 23rd last I heard?).  But this is separate from that, because I don’t think this movie will fit with Sultan, or really with any other movie ever!  Because it is this fascinating combination of fantasy and reality.

The usual way to combine two storylines, a “modern day” and a “past” or “fantasy”, would be to have the modern day serve as bookends to the fantasy,  with some sort of rough explanation included like a blow to the head (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) or a magic time portal (Outlander).  And then sometimes you come back at the end, wiser for what you learned during your travel, and improve your modern life.  Less common would be to have just a sliver of narrative time allotted to the past, just a taste of the past life or the ghost story or whatever, like in The Mummy (love that movie), and the rest of it dealing with the modern result of the past actions.

In Indian film, most common is to be strictly chronological, show the past life in the beginning, followed by an introduction to the present life (Karz, Om Shanti Om, Hamesha, Karan-Arjun, etc.).  What makes this film so unusual is that, first, the present day is given even more time than the past, and second, the two are woven together through out the film, their actions and meanings informing each other.  The closest comparison I can think of is Magadheera, but even there, it wasn’t so much that the past life was having a conversation with the present as that it was just the same pattern repeating itself.  Suryavanshi is about two totally different patterns interacting.

Beyond the totally different patterns, there is a totally different style of filming.  At first, it appears to be similar to the classic horror films of Universal, or Dracula-the-novel (one of my all time favorite books!), where you have the clash between the modern and the horrors of the past.  Foreshadowing with the old man telling legends of the village, strange deaths, inexplicable happenings, and so on.  All contrasted with the youth and modernity of our main characters to make it even more unnatural feeling, cars and telephones and the other indicators of modern life.  This is a perfectly reasonable kind of movie to make, and fairly well done in translating the traditional horror film set up to the Hindi film genre, with the arranged marriage romance and song sequences and family background and so on mixed into the “creeping horror entering our happy modern life”.

But then we have the hour long section set in “the past” which switches to a completely different, and very Indian, style of filmmaking-the fantasy film.  The fantasy film in India has a history that goes all the way back to the beginning, with Shree Pundalik, the first “film” in India, being a filmed fantasy stage performance.  And Alam Ara, the first sound film in India, being a fully fantastical tale inspired by the Arabian Nights.  Rosie Thomas has done an amazing job trying to get these fantasy pictures recognized and returned to their rightful place in Indian film history, but they still tend to be discounted.  At the same time, they still are regularly released, to varying success.  Bahubaali was a huge success, Aladdin was a failure, Rajkumar was a moderate success.  Aan is an all time classic, but is usually discussed removed from its context as one of a series of fantasy films going all the way back to 1912 and all the way forward to 2015.

In the early years of Indian film, these fantasy films of the evil rulers and noble peasants, supported by witches and warlocks and magical weapons and animals, are fairly easy to explain as simply allegories for the fight against the British.  You couldn’t make a movie that was actually about British atrocities and Indian resistance, because the censors would stop it.  So instead you made a film about evil kings and noble warriors.

But later, after Independence, these films lingered.  Aan is still very much dealing with a colonial kind of allegory, but it came out just a few years after the British left, so it makes sense that this kind of story would still resonate with the audience.  But what Bahubaali or Rajkumar are allegories for, I have NO idea.  They must be allegories for something, because I refuse to believe they are popular based on their imagery alone (although that is breathtaking), there must be SOMETHING deeper that the audience is responding to.  If I think of it, I will let you know.  But for now, I am just going to put a pin in those and come back to Suryavanshi and the really cool thing it does with its allegory.

Suryavanshi is dealing with layers and layers of meaning, all proposing the same theory, but supported in like 5 different ways.  The basic theory is that a marriage is based more on simple love, friendship, and understanding than on pure bodily passion.  But to present this theory, the film not only has two separate women representing the two arguments (Sheeba and Amrita Singh), it also has 2 separate film styles (the florid fantastical images of the “past” and the more grounded imagery of the “present”), 2 separate time periods (the past with royalty and priests and castles and swords and the present with governments and reporters and cars), and, most intriguingly, 2 separate Salman Khans.

Which brings me to the wig.  I was warned that this is the feature the film is most known for, that most people never looked past it, and I can see why!  It is quite the wig.  Not just long, but also blondish-brown.  But, there is a reason it has to be so strikingly different from Salman’s normal look.  Because, for once, this is a reincarnation story that may not really be about reincarnation, at least not as it is normally used in films.

Most reincarnation films posit that the characters are reborn essentially the same.  Perhaps their different circumstances caused slight differences, but once they recall their past lives, all of that is erased.  What this film is arguing is that, through force of will, you can reject your past life and personality.  And, more over, you can resist the programming and influences of that past life.

(What if Om Kapoor had remembered his past, and then chosen to continue living his shallow present existence?)

Blonde Salman and regular Salman have a lot in common.  They are both fearless, they both resist being tied down to a woman, and when regular Salman is threatened, he is even able to pull on the fighting prowess of Blonde Salman.  But there are also differences.  Blonde Salman seems to be a bit of a loner, he had at least one friend, but otherwise there seems to be no family or loved ones in his life.  He is also shockingly heartless and unfeeling, in a casual way.  He follows the rules as he understands them, but he has locked uncertainty or emotions away from himself.

On the other hand, regular Salman is almost all uncertainty and emotions.  He can’t seem to bring himself to hurt others, and therefore finds himself caught between his fiancee/wife and his father, seeking their permission for his life plans, whether it is whether or not to get married or whether or not to risk his life crossing a river.  And that’s a good thing!  That’s progress!  Blonde Salman lived in a terrible time and place, where all you had was your honor and your rules.  Regular Salman lives in the present, where we can afford to consider feelings, permissions, our debts and dues to society as a whole.

This is where the rejection of reincarnation comes in.  Blonde Salman swore that he would never be reincarnated, thus cheating his enemies of their desires even in a future life.  And in the present, where in a usual film, regular Salman would embrace the skills and memories he gains from Blonde Salman, he also rejects them.  Insisting on being himself in his current life, on continuing to honor the connections he has in the present over those from his past life.

Salman-the-actor pulls off this difference really well.  The Blonde Salman role is pretty basic, because it is a pretty basic kind of character, as I said above, no emotions, just sticking to his aims and his rules for life.  He moves confidently in the fight scenes, which is the biggest requirement, and is also harder than it looks.  I noticed when I was writing about Karan-Arjun how you could tell that Salman had a lot more movie fighting experience than Shahrukh at this point, and that’s true already in this movie, a few years before Karan-Arjun.  Just the way he takes a fall, or leap, or swings a sword, feels real.

But the regular Salman role is where he really shines.  I was thinking about it, and I think part of it is that he manages to play a very young and unexperienced character who is trying to be an adult.  Not like he is play-acting, but like he is accepting responsibilities for the first time in his life and he is trying his best to grow into them, even though he isn’t quite comfortable with it yet.  And the beauty of the ending is when he manages to accept the responsibilities that Blonde Salman took on in the past, but in his own way, without rejecting all the things that make him regular Salman.

But the big theme is the contrast between the two women.  Which I guess is where I have to get into the SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER territory.  So, be warned!

We start with a discussion between the two fathers of their friendship and their children, and then we meet the heroine, she is pretty and sweet, and she likes cooking for her father’s friends.  And when she overhears a discussion of her potential marriage, she runs off and sings a sweet song with small children.  At the time, she just seems to be the usual sweet innocent heroine type.  But with the later contrast that is given between the two heroines, I think there might be slightly more going on, she is so clearly “average”.  Not in a bad way, just she isn’t given a super impressive introduction, she isn’t given a special talent, she is just a nice young woman who likes taking care of people and being happy.

Only after that do we meet Salman.  Remember how I said he was a young man trying to live up to the responsibilities of adulthood?  That’s how his introduction goes.  He is confidently driving down the road, then veers to avoid a cow and drives off the road.  And is immediately set upon by village women singing him a song (side-note: I love that the village women include both young girls older women), who he tries to escape.  He doesn’t run away in fear, or embarrassment, but he also doesn’t seem terribly confident in his flirtation with them.  He’s not really comfortable with his status as a grown man that women run after, but he is trying to do his best with it.

And then he arrives at Sheeba’s home, and is back to being comfortable and friendly and happy with everyone.  But not flirty.  It’s a fine line to follow, he is friendly and happy to see Sheeba, and compliments her on her beauty, but he brings her a gift just like he brought one for the children and the servants, he isn’t necessarily singling her out.  Until the scene when he tries to break their engagement, which also confirms his feelings for her.

They have been friendly, traveling around the village together, and now he has been told by his father that they are to be married.  Only, he says they can’t be married, because he is a “modern” boy, he wants to see the world and do everything, and she is a “homely” girl.  It’s a fascinating argument, because that is the couple that films always try to put together, the sweet simple girl and the big adventurous foreign-returned hero.  But it is also fascinating because this particular film is taking the argument of showing why the sweet “homely” girl might be the perfect match for our perfect hero types, why the “homely” girl might have more going on inside than the sophisticated glamorous types.

More importantly, in terms of their particular character relationship, this scene confirms that, no matter what he may think he feels, Salman is TOTALLY already in love.  Because it starts to rain (of course, as soon as he made his big pronouncement), and he immediately strips off his jacket and flings it around Sheeba’s shoulders.  Which, sure, shows off his very nice early 90s body, but also shows that even while he is talking about how they don’t suit, and won’t work, he is also automatically taking responsibility for her.

And then there’s the bit I was talking about with Salman’s not-quite-grown-up inability to talk to his father and simply tell him how he feels.  It’s the big difference between Blonde Salman and regular Salman, and also the biggest sign of improvement of the times they live in.  Blonde Salman was always fighting, never seemed to care that much about others.  Not that he was cruel (except to Amrita), he just didn’t let other people bother him.  But modern day Salman does care about others, he can’t help it, and he will let his concern for their feelings override every consideration for himself.

And then there is the big not-quite-logical decision, for them to be married anyway, for the sake of their fathers, but just as “friends”.  I mean really, it makes no sense!  If you are already married in the eyes of society, what difference does it make if you admit you love each other in private?  But then, it doesn’t have to make sense, because Salman is playing his character so young, and Sheeba is playing hers so in love.  So Salman is fooling himself that they can keep up this difference and that if he says they aren’t really married, it won’t count.  And Sheeba is going along with it because she is too in love to object.

More importantly, for the themes of the film, we need them to have this marriage of friendship, of sympathies, of time spent together and shared love of their families, so that it can be a more striking contrast with his other “marriage”, which is purely physical.

And this is where I am going to fast-forward basically to the end of the film, which is when this theme pays off.  The whole family travels to the haunted ruins, there are multiple warnings that Salman shouldn’t go there, they find a hidden scroll which tells a whole story of Blonde Salman seducing, marrying, and abandoning the evil princess Amrita as punishment for her killing his friend, and all along there have been these little signs that this battle is less between Salman and Amrita and more between Sheeba and Amrita.  Most notably, in a song sequence during which Amrita is using her ghost powers to call Salman, and Salman is resisting with the help of Sheeba’s earthly appeal.

But now we are at the end.  Salman and Sheeba are both trapped with ghost Amrita.  Amrita is calling Salman her husband, based on her marriage and one night spent with Blonde Salman a thousand years or more in the past.  She also calls Sheeba an “ordinary” girl.  And Salman denies it, listing all the ways she is more than ordinary, simply by being kind and sweet and faithful.  All the things Amrita is not, Amrita is all the things Sheeba is not, glamorous and sophisticated and powerful.   See, this is why it can’t be the standard reincarnation story.  In the standard story, both lovers would be reincarnated.  Or there would be some loophole in the past love, why it wasn’t “real” love.  Okay, so Karz comes close to this, with past-Rishi being married to Simi Garewal and present-Rishi falling in love with schoolgirl Tinu.  But this is a direct, past and present lovers face to face, kind of moment.  And Salman is showing how he has progressed in the thousands of years since his past life, how society has progressed, so that he is no longer a wild man fighter, but a kind and considerate person who can appreciate a sweet “ordinary” girl

After all of that discussion of how they won’t “suit”, and how he and Amrita had their super physical sexy time together, this is the moment that defines the relationships.  When Amrita suggests that Sheeba leave her mangalsutra behind and forget all her memories of Salman, since they weren’t “really” married after all, Sheeba explodes!  She argues that the marriage is about more than just the physical act, it is about how they care for each other and the power of their vows and promises, and to reduce it to simply the physical shows that Amrita never truly understood marriage and is not a married woman herself.

See, this is what the whole film has been building towards!  That fantasy versus the reality, the everyday versus the magical passion, the ghost princess woman versus the girl who was too “homely” for you to marry.  And the magical powerful passion versus the friendship that makes you want to take your jacket off and put it around her shoulders.  And that’s why I keep watching this movie over and over again, because of how perfectly balanced it is between these two points!

Oh, and also, ghost Amrita is destroyed by her mother, which is a fascinating female power message, that it was all about these two women all along and the man was just a distraction.

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