Happy Shahrukh Day! Shahrukh, the Avant Garde Artist

I have no idea how to spell “avant garde”, let’s hope I got a little close.  Anyway, this is Shahrukh as the stage actor, the Brechtian artistic type.  A very odd film.

I finally saw Oh Darling Yeh Hai India!  Now I just need to watch Guddu and Devdas, and I will have seen every Shahrukh movie ever.

I gotta say, this was not my favorite movie in the world.  I could do with a little less OBVIOUS METAPHORs hitting me over the head, and with a little more humor and lightness.  But, if we are talking about OBVIOUS METAPHOR movies, I still would take this over Fitoor.  Fitoor had a bunch of “do you get it?  do you do you?” moments, but it was also really really pretty; Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! had a bunch of “look at how cool and cynical we are!” moments, but it also had a great cast.  And in this case, the great cast trumps the pretty images as a saving grace.

I can’t believe they got Amrish Puri, Anupam Kehr, and even Paresh Rawal in this!  Oh!  And Tina Anand!  To play these parodies of standard Hindi film types, they got the actual actors who usually play those types!  Magombo to play Magombo!  How did they DO that?!?!?

(If they’d gotten Bob Christo to play Bob Christo, then they really would have had something)

Having the actual actors play those roles added to the Brechtian-ness of it, but more importantly, while being paradies, they were also wildly entertaining!  I mean, you could have thrown any random character actor in a bald wig and a fake uniform and made him into a Mogambo-type.  But he wouldn’t have had the sneer and the gravel in his voice and everything else that makes Amrish Puri so awesomely evil.  The same goes for Anupam Kehr, you could have grabbed any older looking actor and told him to play peaceful and gentle and charming, but he wouldn’t have been able to be nearly as peaceful and gentle and charming as Anupam is!

I can see why they agreed to the roles too, because the script gave them so many fun notes to play.  It’s not like these were deep characters, but they were characters who got to play scared and then angry and then sneaky, all in rapid succession.  Anupam alone, his intro was this great scene where 5 identical Anupams have to “audition” by reading off the same lines.  And we got to see Anupam deliver the same lines 5 times over in 5 totally different ways.  Such fun!  Both for the audience and for him.

Amrish Puri gets to re-imagine his Mogambo character (who must have been super fun to play even the first time around), as an even evil-er villain, with a secret crisis of self-esteem.  Paresh Rawal and Tinu Anand both show up for tiny roles, right in their usual wheel house, but even more over the top than usual.  I especially liked Tinu as an almost supernaturally evil pimp/father.

And then there’s Shahrukh!  I feel like, I finally got to see Shahrukh as a stage actor.  I mean, I’ve actually seen him on stage, but he was playing himself (the SLAM tour), not a character.  In this movie, he was acting like you act on stage, not in film.

In some review, I’m trying to remember which (found it!  Student of the Year, of all things), I talked about how film started, and how it took a while for directors to realize that they needed a different kind of acting from their performers.  Film is so intimate, the smallest gestures and expressions have great power.  So actors have to learn to be restrained and subtle in their movements.  And at the same time, to be very controlled of their face, in order to avoid conveying the wrong message to an audience that is seeing every little lift of the eyebrow and twist of the list magnified a hundred times.

But in this film, stage acting is what is required.  We want to be aware at all times that they are “ACTING!”  It’s Brechtian, the point is to confront us with the artifice.  But at the same time, to entertain us.  And boy, does Shahrukh entertain!  He is so over the top all the time, huge gestures, huge leaps, big speeches with lots of tonal modulations, it’s the kind of thing you can only learn through lots and lots of practice in front of a live audience.

He never gets to let loose and act like this in movies, because he has to be all dignified and starlike.  Well, unless he is playing silly in character, goofing off to entertain Juhi in “Main Koi Aisa Geet Gaoon” or something.  He is kind of goofing off as part of his character in this, but I think that is just part of it, I think even the moment when his character switches into “entertainment!” is more a fourth wall breaking kind of move than an honest character moment.

(I love Juhi’s dress in this song.  I know that’s not a very deep comment, but it’s all I can think of every time I watch this)

I kind of can’t believe this movie was made the same year as DDLJ.  That Shahrukh was willing to do it, and had the time and energy for it, right at the peak of his early fame.  And that he was willing to risk all that fame by flipping his persona over and showing us the underpinnings.  And that he already had such extreme awareness of his persona, he knew just how to deconstruct it.

This whole movie, really, is about deconstructing the Hindi 90s romance, with the meet cute, the sudden tonal shifts, the over the top villainy, and the happy ending against all odds.  And, okay, it is a little blunt!  Feels just a tad like some undergrad who’s just discovered Tom Stoppard’s idea of “clever”. “What if the simple heroine is a prostitute!”  “What if the “hero” has no name and is just listed as “Hero” in the credits?”  And so on and so on.

Making it more confusing, in the middle of these super blunt statements about the superficiality of filmdom, there are some really blunt references to actual historical events!  Like, Anupam Kehr’s “evil” Prime Minister character is named “Nathuram”, which has got to be a reference to Gandhi’s assassin, right?  And the “evil” plan of throwing the country into uproar through riots and outside arms and bombs, is shockingly close to Dawood Ibrahim’s rumored plan with the 1993 bomb blasts.  And I am sure there are all sorts of other references I missed.

So, are these blunt references to historic type stuff a meta commentary on how Indian films tend to pull in really obvious political metaphors?  Like, bad guys being killed by the Indian flag which this film totally stole from 1942: A Love Story?  Or did the writers/directors actually think they were making a sincere political point with these things, but then at other times they were being carefully insincere?  I don’t know!

My real question is, was the basic message pro- or anti- film?  I think pro.  It could go either way, in the anti-camp you have the idea that it is showing the superficiality and stupidity of the typical movie.  But in the pro-camp, you have the reason this whole thing starts.

And, I guess, SPOILERS?  This is such an odd movie, it barely even had a “plot”, but still, I’m about to SPOILER what little plot there is.

It opens with the typical carefree heroine introduction song, only this time instead of village girls going to a fair or whatever, it is a bunch of prostitutes (and at least a few hijras I think) riding a horse cart down Marine Drive looking for costumers.  Deepa Sahi, our heroine, jumps off and declares she is taking a night off to have fun.  Meanwhile, Shahrukh, our hero, is being moved off the sidewalk by some cops because a politician is about to come through.  He explains to the cops that he has no money, because he came to Bombay to chase his dream of being an actor.

Deepa Sahi saves him from the cops and offers to buy him dinner, in return for him “entertaining” her, since he is an entertainer.  Now, here’s the thing, immediately after that request, Shahrukh sings her a silly song, and then she buys him dinner.  But, on a deeper level, this is the moment when the film starts to let loose and get silly.  Because Deepa (standing in for all the downtrodden and forgotten people of India) is looking for an escape from her life and Shahrukh (standing in for all the silly entertainers) is providing her the adventure she wants.

(This isn’t the very first song he sings her, there are so many quick little songs in these, but it is the first big song sequence)

And so we get the perfect filmi adventure, not one grounded in natural emotions, or in beautiful images (this movie is definitely made on the cheap with a bigger focus on actors than on epic), but one that hits all the standard emotional marks.  Shahrukh is in love, he gives a love speech.  Deepa needs to be saved from a villain.  Two villains, her father and the evil Don’s son who is in love with her (Jaaved Jaffrey who plays “evil” here almost exactly the same as he does in Bang Bang 20 years later).  Shahrukh is dying (sad scene!).  Deepa is captured!  Oh no!  The villain is defeated by the rising up of the people, yay! (also, nice little Pyaasa homage shot here).  And the hero and heroine embrace.  The End

(this shot, the single light source coming from the door at the back of a slightly angled audience seating area)

There’s even several make over moments, which are acknowledged each time as “you think just changing my dress will change everything?”  Oh, and songs!  Always introduced very abruptly, so we notice just how odd it is to have a song in a film, instead of the usual seamless integration where they flow natural out of the emotions of the moment.

But, even with this nice sort of meta commentary going on, all with (I think) the underlying theme that the value of these stories is their ability to provide solace to the downtrodden, this movie still is just kind of a clunker for me.  It’s the heaviness to it, that’s what bugs me.  And the unrelentingness.  I couldn’t help compare it with, for instance, MF Hussain’s Gaja Gamini, where Shahrukh played a similar sort of character who just pops in to make you happy for a moment.  Only that time, I felt like the filmmakers weren’t taking their message quite so seriously.

(Also, the song is better.  Both in how it sounds and how it looks)

Or, even something like Yes Boss, which had these little moments acknowledging the fantasy, that our hero is just filling the role of “Hero” to entertain us.  Or Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, which had Johnny Lever’s crazed gangster to make a statement on the usual film gangster, and Shahrukh and Juhi provided a typical film song to distract from his machinations.  It’s just easier to swallow these things when they are in the middle of a whole real movie with more going on, than when they are just coming one after the other after the other.  Heck, even the Welcome movies (terrible terrible films) have some clever gags about the typical gangster film and action hero.  But they don’t make a whole movie of it.

(It’s played for laughs, but it is also a slight moving of the curtain to reveal the tropes of filmdom.  And again, a better song than any of them in Oh Darling)

I mean, by the time the hero and heroine are saving themselves from falling by using the Indian flag as a parachute and the villain is dying by being stabbed by a million global flags (representing his global ambitions), the line between “we are being over the top to make fun of how over the top other movies are” and “we are just being over the top” got kind of blurred.

(Also, I just now, after writing this whole thing, found a clip of this old interview with Sharhukh, where, I think, he totally agrees with my interpretation!  Woo!  Nailed it!)

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4 thoughts on “Happy Shahrukh Day! Shahrukh, the Avant Garde Artist

  1. This film is one of my personal favs. I know it isn’t the best movie ever, but the performances are so perfect, and even without getting the political references I understood the point of the movie. It instantly reminded me of Dr. Strangelove.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This flick has some of my favorite Shah Rukh moments. And he and Deepa have nice chemistry together, despite the fact that she. cannot. act. 🙂

    I love the scene in the jail cell. It reminds me of the ensemble pieces in Rocky Horror Picture Show for some reason. Maybe it’s that 70’s-like excess and energy, and that strikingly, somewhat effeminate (in this role at least), beautiful man at the center of it all.

    Like

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