A movie that I had almost forgotten, written off as a lot of style and no substance. And then the second half happened and surprised me!
What a good movie! I hadn’t watched it in ages, and this time around I noticed all kinds of themes hidden under the surface that I hadn’t appreciated last time. “Pardes” versus “Des” is just the tip of the iceberg.
This movie came out in 1997, for the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence. And I kind of think it might have been a better film if it was released a year earlier or a year later. Because as it is, this is a bad movie about how awesome India is, that is hiding a much better and more interesting movie about class and gender.
(Also, a bad patriotic song that is hiding a bunch of great love songs)
Subhash Ghai is all about class and gender. And insane visuals. But mostly class and gender. He is a throwback, to the films of the 1960s, especially Raj Kapoor. When a poor girl falling for a rich boy (or vice versa) wasn’t just about fun mansions and crazy costumes, but was also about how society measured worth, and how social structures could be over-turned.
Ghai also shows a very old-fashioned and refreshing sense of female strength. He is a firm believer in “a woman’s love is forever” kind of concepts. But he is also big on women being allowed to pick who they love, and their choice being respected no matter what. In Khalnayak, we all kind of wanted Madhuri to end up with the more charismatic and exciting choice, but she knew what she wanted and was steadfast to her choice. In Hero, Jackie is a terrible terrible choice for Meenakshi, but he is what she wants. More than that, she is so determined in what she wants that he ends up changing for her, becoming a better person so she can have the man she deserves.
The reason these women always have to fall in love with the wrong person, and the wrong person has to fall in love with them, is not just for “DRAMA!”, but because Ghai wants to upset social norms, and love is a great narrative device to do that. Criminal and police officer, poor boy and rich girl, rebel and British officer’s daughter, etc. etc. It’s not always romantic love either, Ghai is big on brotherly love in the same way, a police officer and a criminal have to interact and try to understand each other because they are brothers, or a frivolous young man and a responsible older one, and so on and so on.
Ghai is a great visual director, epic sunsets and sunrises, and dance numbers featuring thousands of dancers. Amazing use of color to give a sense to the story, things like the change from reds to blues for Aishwarya’s character as Taal progresses and she loses her sense of passionate first love. And the settings look amazing too, monuments and mountains and skyscrapers all gorgeous and relevant to the story.
But, as his career after Pardes has shown, all of that beauty is kind of pointless if there is no story behind it. Ghai’s films (like Raj Kapoor’s before) aren’t classics and box office hits because they are so pretty. It is because they are so pretty AND that prettiness is used to make us think about some things. Yaadein, Kisna, even Taal, those have all kind of faded away, because there wasn’t as much to think about there. But his early films, those have stood the test of time.
(Not a good movie, very pretty song sequence)
Wrenching this back to Pardes, definitely a lot to think about there! The first time I saw this movie, I just saw the surface parts of it. Shahrukh is charming, and Indians raised/living abroad have lost touch with their humanity. “I Love My India”, blah blah blah. That doesn’t give you much too think about, it is exactly the kind of thoughtless bombastic message delivery system that Hindi film is always accused of.
But, in a larger sense, that bombastic message delivery system is there to hide the noise of the “real” message underneath. No one is going to see a movie in which a woman cheats on her fiance and a son defies his father AND his older brother. And a wife and mother and daughter all turn on their husband/son/father and tell him he is wrong. Or a movie in which the entire process of arranged engagements is questioned. Or a movie in which a woman shows that she does not need a man to protect her. Or, most of all, a movie which shows that the problem with NRIs is not that they live overseas, but that they are too rich. Who would want to offend rich NRIs in order to woo struggling poor ones? I guess the poor NRIs. That’s the audience this film was made for, poor NRIs resenting the power the rich have over them, women looking for a film that empowers them and shows the flaws in the patriarchy, even children who wish that adults would spend more time with them! The one person it was not made for was Alok Nath and Amrish Puri. “Des” and “Pardes” alike, the powerful upper class male gets epicly destroyed in this film.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
There isn’t a whole heck of a lot to this “plot”. It’s one where what actually “happens” can be summarized in a few sentences, but it’s all about the way it happens. I think I am going to get the “what happens” part out of the way up front, so I can focus on the interesting bits about how it happens.
Mahima Chowdry is the daughter of Alok Nath and lives in an idyllic combined family situation in rural Punjab. Alok’s old friend Amrish Puri, fabulously wealthy NRI from Hollywood, comes to visit and decides Mahima would be the perfect daughter-in-law. Amrish sends his distant relative/foster son/servant Shahrukh to come to India after him and prep Mahima for her first meeting with cool NRI guy Random Actor. With Shahrukh’s help, Random Actor and Mahima fall in love. But, in the second half, Mahima goes to America to visit her in-laws before marriage, and finds herself increasingly drawn to Shahrukh and his whole humble garage worker crowd, and turned off by the wealthy people her in-laws and fiance spend time with. It comes to a head when Random Actor attacks Mahima while they are alone in a hotel room. She easily fights him off, and then hitchhikes her way to a train station, where Shahrukh finds her, and agrees to take her home to India. In India, her family initially is on her side, but after her father talks to Amrish Puri, he has a change of heart and blames Mahima, against the objections of his wife, sister, and mother. In the end, Shahrukh stands up for Mahima, and her grandmother chastises her father for his mistakes and tells her to leave with Shahrukh and not come back to her family. Amrish Puri also admits his faults.
Like I said, on the first watch, this looked like just a patriotic tale with Shahrukh being charming. Kind of a DDLJ redux, only this time instead of Shahrukh showing how you can still be “Hindustani” even when raised abroad, he is showing how you can’t. Because it’s 1997, and everything is patriotic.
But, let’s go a little deeper. First, we don’t start with Shahrukh. We start with Amrish Puri. And then Alok Nath. And then Mahima. And then the other women and children of Mahima’s family. Only after all of that do we meet Shahrukh. And we meet him through Mahima’s experience through Amrish’s eyes. Mahima has found a note in Amrish’s picket reminding him to take his pills and asks who gave it to him, Amrish describes Shahrukh to her, and that is his intro.
The movie is about Shahrukh, absolutely, but it is about how Shahrukh is affected by Amrish, and how he is related to Mahima. Not just himself in isolation. Amrish molds him, but Mahima inspires him to something different.
Again, the simple “desi” versus “pardesi” interpretation rears it’s head. Mahima is named “Ganga”, over and over again she is used to represent India. While Amrish is used to represent the NRI community. Shahrukh, our innocent Indian boy is taken in by the generosity of the wealthy NRI, the promise of American money. Not that he is greedy, no, just that the amount of money spent on him seems to give him an obligation, to trap him in America from now on. And then Mahima comes along. And, slowly, he manages to break free of the traps of money and obligation to America, and make his own choices, and return to India having chosen to value his own desires and instincts and happiness over American demands.
But, you can also look at this through a class and gender lens. And it is much richer that way. Let’s start with Amrish, as the film does. Amrish is not representing all of the NRI population, like he did in DDLJ, he is specifically introduced as the only truly fabulously wealthy NRI in America. His identity is “Immigrant” AND “Wealthy”. And as we go on, we see that Shahrukh, and his humble happy friends, fall into the Venn diagram of “Immigrant” and “Struggling”. And not necessarily Indian immigrants either, his group of garage workers include Jamaican-Americans as well, very visibly. Late in the film, when Mahima is on the run, she is helped by someone who isn’t an immigrant at all (at least not visibly), a white truck driver. If you watch the film as a whole, the overwhelming impression is Rich=Bad, Poor=Good.
It’s not just Amrish and his son that are “bad” either. His whole confusingly related family (at what point did Ghai stop figuring out family relationships and just throw in ‘bad woman’ characters without explanation? Clearly sometime between Ram-Lakhan and this film) is also “bad”, the one exception being his mother. Who would also be the only family member to have lived most of her life in poverty. And most of Amrish’s son’s friends are “bad” too, “bad” and not bad because they are Indians overseas. Or “bad” because they are Americans (Shahrukh’s friends, and random truck driver, and other people who are kind are American too). Just bad because they are rich.
And Shahrukh has turned “bad” too, thanks to the small amount of money and power he has been granted by Amrish. He is willing to do anything out of gratitude, even play with the truth a little to trick Mahima into a marriage that will make her miserable. Give up on his own plans to do good in the world and pursue his art. He is already heading towards an internal break before Mahima enters his life. We first see him when Amrish calls, demanding help, during an interview in which Shahrukh is talking about his new music career and how much it means to him. But he leaves the interview, and his music, behind because Amrish demands it. The pull of money is taking him away from the purer path. Either he will have to leave the money behind, or his dreams. More than his dreams, his internal sense of right and wrong, that he should be focusing on his art and teaching others, not running errands for a rich man.
That’s one battleground, over the soul of the man who has received a small amount of money and power and has to learn to reject it. The other battleground of the film is over the woman, the woman who has all of this handed to her, but it turns out to be chains of gold. Ooo, such a pretty metaphor!
(Well, a pretty metaphor that I got from a Breakthrough video)
Mahima is the heart and soul of this film. When we first met her, I have to admit, even on watch 3, I was rolling my eyes pretty hard. She is just such a perfect village girl! Rushes over to touch Amrish’s feet, happily babbles at him, insists on giving him his pills and feeding him. Not just there to blindly serve men, but to be happy about it.
Only, that is just because we are seeing her as Amrish is seeing her, as her own father sees her. This happy spirit that nothing will ever touch or make unhappy, that is just there to spread happiness to others. It is only when Shahrukh arrives, an equal, that we the viewer start to really get to know her.
Mahima is kind and respectful to Amrish and Alok, because they are her elders and she loves them. That is human, and admirable. But Shahrukh is a stranger her own age, who approaches her with criticism and doesn’t much make her like him. And so she has no reason to be kind and respectful, that is also human. Which means we the viewer get to see the snappy strong confident Mahima, and so does Shahrukh.
Now, we get into the really interesting gender politics. Pretend Shahrukh isn’t Shahrukh, he is some old uncle or auntie marriage broker type. Now, Mahima is being made over and taught how to appeal to this strange guy. And the guy is being gently guided in how to act, placed in an unfamiliar situation where he will be naturally different than usual, and some direct questions about him from Mahima (another sign of how she is not the girl we thought she was at the beginning, she is smart enough to see that she doesn’t really know this guy, and brave enough to ask the blunt questions before moving forward) are straight up lied about from the marriage broker.
This is not a “filmi” situation any more, this is a common situation. Arranged marriages take place in this artificial way. You can’t get to know someone sitting in your parents’ living room, all dressed up and on your best behavior. Especially not if there is a marriage broker there who has a vested interest in making this relationship succeed and is feeding little white lies to both of you about the other. Sometimes it works out, of course. Sometimes there is that moment of spark between you, the marriage broker’s lies are just to get the parents to agree and the couple is on the same page, or the couple really does get to know each other over the course of a long engagement and still wants to be together. But other times, it is like this. A woman is tricked into agreeing to an engagement, and then trapped in it after it is too late to change her mind, once she learns more.
What this film does is hold the marriage broker accountable. Not the woman’s father who gave his word without her full agreement, not the man who is eager to marry a girl and then keep her locked up and miserable, or the man’s father who is eager for a daughter-in-law he wants, not a wife his son wants. No, it is the marriage broker who is to blame, that small unnoticed person who got to know the bride, who helped her dress right and talk right and woo this great “catch”. They are the ones who should also be forced to get the bride out of it, because they got her into it.
Shahrukh and Mahima have a unique relationship in this film, I can’t really think of a similar one anywhere else. As the “fixer” for the family, Shahrukh is at the same power level as their daughter-in-law. He has more freedom as a man, but less respect as a servant. And so Mahima and he form a natural alliance, an unspoken alliance, going all the way back to courtship days. Shahrukh helps her dress right and talk right and everything else, he takes off her jewelry and changes her hair, more like a female friend, or mother, or maidservant, than a man. And she talks to him as her friend, asking him directly about whether her fiance smokes, drinks, dates, is a man she can trust.
This is an unspoken connection, that is finally spoken at the interval, and feels so natural there that it isn’t even really a “twist”. When Mahima is saying good-bye at the airport, she suddenly realizes that Shahrukh won’t be coming with her on her first trip to America, and is openly shocked and disappointed. More than that, her world is rocked. She blurts out “but I will be all alone there!” And Shahrukh looks sincerely apologetic about it, he knows that she will be all alone, that the two of them have a special kind of bond of equals and familiars that she doesn’t have with her fairy tale romance kind of fiance, or her new father-in-law and other in-laws who just want a happy perfect daughter-in-law.
The rest of the film is about Mahima and Shahrukh resisting this connection, which feels so natural, in favor of the unnatural artificial ones that are supposed to be more valuable. Mahima and her perfect fiance and loving father-in-law, both of whom turn out to be not that perfect and not that loving. Shahrukh with his foster father and brother who give him monetary support but no true respect. When they finally run away together, it is partly about a couple in love fleeing, partly about Shahrukh assuaging his guilt as the man who tricked her into this situation, partly Mahima getting out of a place where she never felt happy, but also partly about two people who were trapped in the same cage breaking free of it.
And then we get to the ending. The ending where Shahrukh and Mahima are separated because the genders are separated, and that is a good thing. A good thing for the narrative, I mean. We already saw that Mahima rescued herself. Her fiance started attacking her in a hotel room (with some bluntly inserted dialogue in which it is an insult to India which makes her finally slap him, that’s another moment that felt more about 1997 than these actual characters), and Mahima struggled, was almost trapped, but then faught back hard and got away all on her own. She hitchhiked all on her own, got the train all on her own, and probably could have made it back to India on her own too. But Shahrukh showed up to help, his little penance for what he had done and his own moment of breaking free, and they arrived back at Alok Nath’s house together.
And this is where the gender lines go down HARD. Right away, Alok thinks about reaching out to Amrish Puri, and his wife stops him, tells him that family is dead to them. Clearly, she is on her daughter’s side more than anything else. But Alok feels the ties of gender stronger than family love. He can’t help but secretly talk to Amrish. And believe Amrish’s version (fed to him by another man, his son) that Mahima is the one at fault, that she has run off with Shahrukh. Heck, the very fact that this makes her “at fault” instead of simply having changed her mind tells you a lot about Alok’s mindset.
And from then on, it is Alok versus Mahima and the other women in his family. His wife stops him from attacking Shahrukh, and Shahrukh leaves the house (after issuing one dramatic promise of protection to Mahima, which makes him not a coward to leave her, but still allows for him to take off so Mahima can find her own strength). Alok tries to attack Mahima, and his wife stops him. He locks her up, and her grandmother (Alok’s mother) frees her. The family is divided and the weight of power is more and more against Alok and for Mahima.
Finally, there are two finales. Mahima goes in search of Shahrukh, he tries to turn her away (allowing the film to, again, make it clear that Mahima is choosing him, not the other way around), but then they are interrupted by Evil Fiance. Shahrukh fights his foster brother and, when Amrish shows up, his foster father as well. Shahrukh, as the poor low class relative, finally stands up and overturns the power dynamic, declaring that he is freeing himself and doesn’t care what they do to him, or how they feel, or anything else. He doesn’t need them any more.
This is followed by a second separate scene for Mahima. In which she declares the same thing to Alok, confronts him with his hypocrisy in which he would rather “protect” his daughter by marrying her off to a man of his choice, even if that man is vicious and brutal, than let her choose her own path. And then it is not Mahima herself, but her grandmother, representing all the female power of the family, who issues the killing blow, reminding her son that he has chosen wrong all along, trying to force his daughter on an unnatural life, sending her overseas when she was raised in India. And it is her grandmother who frees her, no “Babuji, please” ending here as in DDLJ, she just needs the female permission and she will leave the family behind to seek her happiness.