I am stunned that I am the only one who reacted to Rana’s tweet with the first look for the new Haathi Mere Saathi by going “oh no! My CHILDHOOD!” Especially because I didn’t even see the original as a child, only as an adult who was feeling childish. But there is something so magical about that original, the purity of it, I really don’t want it to be spoiled by any kind of new take. Although, on the other hand, the magical purity of the original is probably what will protect it, nothing new and dark and dangerous can ever break its power.
I said in my review that Bahubali gives you back your childhood. Which is true, it does. Haathi Mere Saathi does too, but a different kind of childhood. While Bahubali gives you the fantasies and magic and everything feeling possible, Haathi Mere Saathi gives you the simplicity. The feeling that everything can be explained by a few simple rules and everything always works out in the end.
(Also, hammocks are fun!)
I’ll give you an example. When I was in first grade, we learned about Patrick Henry and the American revolution. I went home and explained things to my parents, “This guy said ‘give me liberty or give me death’ and everyone listening thought ‘well, he’s a good speecher, we don’t want to lose him!’ so they gave him liberty.” This is not exactly how the American revolution happened. But it is what made sense to my little 6 year old brain, because I couldn’t conceive of greed, of violence, of complex reasons that people might or might not choose to rebel. Or of a group of people larger than 30.
This is the kind of logic where Haathi Mere Saathi lives! It feels like exactly the sort of story a little kid would tell you. And giving yourself over to it feels like returning to that time when the world made sense and everything was simple.
And it has the perfect stars for this story. Not the elephants (although they are good too), but Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja. They are like a fairy tale prince and princess. No depth to their acting, not here at least. Tanuja is smiley and pretty and bright. Rajesh is noble and cheerful and kind. They sing and smile and go through many problems, but they never show an emotion that you wouldn’t be able to understand at 6 years old. Or even younger! You know what it is? They never question themselves. There is never a moment of secondary thought, of considering their own emotions and actions and the emotions and actions of those around them. There is just the simple “I think this! I do this!” kind of attitude.
Since the story is simple and the characters are simple, what makes you keep watching it? How do they fill in 3 hours? There’s just SO MUCH story! It winds over here and over there with all sorts of occurrences that aren’t that closely related to each other. Which, again, feels a little childish. When a little kid is telling you a story, that’s often how it goes, they start in one place and then wind around and end up somewhere else. Or lose track of what they were saying and tell you a different story instead. It all gets very confusing.
This script had a bit of a bumpy road to creation. The producer, Tamil producer Marudur Marudachalamurthy Ayyavoo Chinnappa Devar, came up with the story idea. Inder Anand (father of Tippu Anand and grandfather of Siddharth Anand) wrote the dialogues. He was an old school dialogue writer, going all the way back to Prithviraj’s Prithvi theaters, an Urdu expert. And between these two, we have Salim-Javed. In their first ever collaboration! They were brought in to help out, to somehow turn this story idea into a script, which Inder Anand could then turn into a screenplay by adding dialogue.
I think if you look close, you can see the fingerprints of everyone. The producer gave us the initial somewhat crazy and ambitious idea. Salim-Javed gave us the plot twists and turns, but were a little hampered by it being their first script and being stuck with the broad outlines invented by someone else. And then Inder Anand came in to do dialogue, giving us the solid but not terribly memorable lines that moved the film forward in a pleasant manner. Perhaps if Salim-Javed had been allowed to do their own dialogue, and allowed to alter the outlines of the film more, it would have made a tad more sense. But on the other hand, it was always going to be a movie about the love between a man and his elephants, I don’t know if “sense” is necessarily what is good for it.
But it is such glorious nonsense! Let me get into plot details so you can fully appreciate it. Which of course means SPOILERS.
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Let me see if I can remember the whooooooooooooooooooooooole plot. There is just so much of it! And it all moves forward in little isolated chunks. A perfect movie to watch with/as a small child who has a short attention span. Anyway, I think it starts with a flashback. Wealthy Rajesh Khanna is a little boy who gets lost and is saved by elephants. His family decides that the elephants are special elephants, avatars of Ganesh, and he must always keep them with him. Flashforward, now he is a cool young man who still goes everywhere with his elephants. He sees a young woman, Tanuja, whose car is stalled and uses his elephants to give her a tow. SONG
He and the young woman fall in love (naturally) and everything is great for a half second. And then he loses all his money in some way I am not clear on. Being a noble soul, he immediately breaks off his relationship with Tanuja since he cannot take care of her in the manner she is accustomed to. And then he starts wandering the roads of India, with nothing but his herd of elephants. He and the elephants end up in the city living on the pavement (spatial relations are a bit confused here, not sure if there is space on a city pavement for a herd of elephants) and he and the elephants become street performers and somehow acquire a young orphan boy.
At which point Tanuja finds him again! And declares she loves him and wants to stay with him. He doesn’t send her away, but also refuses to marry her because he can’t take care of her. Confusing, because she is still sleeping on pavement and all that, just without being married to him. She joins the elephant street performer act.
At some point in here, Rajesh gets sick and the elephants go and get a doctor for him. Which I mostly remember for how the elephants wander around the city streets and no one really looks twice at them. Very disappointing for me when I finally got to India and discovered almost no stray elephants wandering around. Lots of dogs and cows, no elephants.
Finally, Rajesh decides he needs to make enough money to establish himself and therefore he must accomplish the famous trick of “setting yourself on fire and then jumping from a great height into a small pool of water”. But first he must track down the elderly man who knows the secret of how to “set yourself on fire and then jump from a great height into a small pool of water.” The elderly man refuses because it is too dangerous to “set yourself on fire and then jump from a great height into a small pool of water.” This is perhaps my favorite part of the movie. Not the actual trick, which he does eventually accomplish, but the constant repetition of this very long and exact phrase.
Anyway, after setting himself on fire and jumping from a great height into a small pool of water, Rajesh has loads of money! Which he uses to open a zoo, marry Tanuja, and have a baby. I guess that makes sense. A zoo certainly seems more reasonable than just sleeping on the streets with his elephants.
Everything seems wonderful, the elephants are happy, Rajesh is happy, Tanuja is happy, the randomly acquired small boy is happy. But then! Conflict! Tanuja overhears the wife of a mahuut (sp?) who says that the elephants were always part of their family, but then one of the elephants ran mad and stepped on her baby, killing it. Tanuja fears for her own child (despite having previously defended the safety of leaving it with elephants to her father). She asks Rajesh to chain up the chief elephant which he does, heartbroken.
But then a snake threatens the baby! The elephant breaks free of the chains to save the child, Tanuja misunderstands and takes the baby and leaves Rajesh! And then, worst of all, the elephant dies! I don’t remember why. Something evil.
There is technically a villain in this movie, Rajesh’s evil relative who stole his inheritance from him way at the beginning. And he pops up every once in a while, whenever there needs to be a reason for something bad happening. But mostly he fails, not because the good guys fight him off but because they just sort of luck into being okay after all. Like, Rajesh loses all his money, but becomes a super successful performer, so he is fine after all. But the death of the elephant, that is the real tragedy of the film. Slightly less tragic if you, like me, get distracted by how very very large a dead elephant corpse is.
And then Tanuja comes back to him, with their son, and it is a happy ending after all, Rajesh forgives her, and they build a huge shrine to the dead elephant in the middle of the zoo.
You see what I mean about childish logic? This is the kind of story a little kid would love to tell. Lots of “and then….and then….and then” bits. Plus, lots of fun scenes to describe and remember, elephants carrying things and doing tricks and adults being funny and colorful and silly.
But the beauty of it is that the film itself takes everything just as seriously as a child would. It’s not talking down to the audience, saying “ha-ha, we are making this for the children but obviously all the adults are too sophisticated for this”. No, Rajesh is heartbroken when his elephant dies! And scared of setting himself on fire and jumping from a great height into a small pool of water. It’s all very very serious. But very very shallow. It isn’t asking kids to try to wrestle with mortality or forgiveness or Big Big ideas like that.
And that’s what is so wonderful for the audience. We can retreat to that simple view of the world again. When everything was believable and serious and sincere. But also simple and black and white and straight forward. It makes you feel all safe and certain and like a little kid again.
(Question: how many people read the title of this post and immediately had “Chal Chal Chal Mere Saathi” going through their heads?)