I was putting together all the Aamir reviews yesterday, and suddenly realized, I never reviewed Dil Chahta Hai! How is this possible? It is SUCH an important movie!
In the late 90s, changes were afoot in Hindi film. And in Bombay/Indian society as a whole. A new globalized elite was forming, still distinctly Indian, but not entirely Indian. Yoga, linen clothing, sandals, casual Hindi slang, mixed with cocktails and salon hair styling and Italian restaurants. This was the new young India, at least the very tip-top part of it. And even if you weren’t part of that crowd, you saw them around, you knew this is what “rich” looked like now. And this was also what the film industry looked like. At least, everything except what you saw on film.
On film, Aamir was a sweet young lover devoted to his first girlfriend. In real life, his marriage was falling apart through a natural change of interests and he was moving on to new relationships. On film, he wore baggy suits that never seemed to quite fit him and lived in either huge western style houses, or tiny dingy apartments. In real life, he wore designer jeans and t-shirts and lived in a comfortable large flat made over into modern luxury. One more example, on film, Dimple Kapadia was a mature sexy confident woman looking for romance. In real life, she was a complicated mature woman with a broken heart and a bad past who lived alone and liked it.
I pick out Aamir and Dimple because they belonged to an older generation, a transition generation. When they started out (Aamir at 8 and Dimple at 14), much of what the films from the Bombay industry showed was the lived experience for the people working on them. Dimple played a teenage girl who fell in love and eloped, and she was married before the film released. Aamir played the son of an artist who had a small home but no great wealth, he was the son of an artist with a small home and no great wealth. But then years passed and India and the Hindi film industry changed. The behind the scenes of the industry started to have money pouring into it in the 90s, Aamir’s semi-successful producer father would be stunned to see how Aamir lives now. Or even how Aamir’s producers live now. And Dimple’s daughters experienced their career launch and romances very differently from their mother.
But the films lagged behind. Just two years before Dil Chahta Hai, Aamir’s last big hit film was Mann. A cheesy remake of An Affair to Remember, Aamir played an “international playboy” who romantically became a painter after he gave up all his wealth for love. Manisha Koirala, his heroine, was an orphan/dance teacher/beauty contest winner who lived in an idyllic orphanage by a lake. This was not a life anyone could relate to, at least anyone who really lived anything close to that life of cruise ships and wealth. A fun escapist film, yes, but not one that showed the way the wealthy in India lived now, including the wealthy people currently working on that film.
That is why Dil Chahta Hai was revolutionary! It showed on film, finally, the changes that had been happening in real life and real India for years. The new elite who weren’t simply “imitating” westerners, but also weren’t running from the West, who embraced both aspects, who drank and joked and also expected an arranged marriage. Who loved going to movies, and also art galleries. And whose biggest problem in life was figuring out how to deal with a broken heart.
(There was also some experimenting with film styles, this song is the worst of it, but the rest is great!)
But it wasn’t just this new style. You could put that on any film and it wouldn’t have had the effect that DCH did. It was the big beating Indian heart of it. The heroes may have been new-fashioned in their clothes and their careers and their houses, but they were old-fashioned in their friendship, and in their love stories. There was no attempt to shock the audience by putting in some kind of needless sex scene or drug moment or an overdoing of English dialogue. Instead, it was all handled lightly, there and not there at the same time, not particularly excluded (we assume Saif had sex with his girlfriend, Aamir spoke English in Australia, and so on), but that was not the point of the film. The point was the same old 3 hero love story as we have seen in Hindi film time and time again. Just, with fancier hair styles and new clothes. Just as Shahrukh in DDLJ showed how the NRI could still be “Hindustani”, the boys of Dil Chahta Hai showed how the new rich global elite could still be just as romantic and traditional and true to their friends as any other hero.
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We start in a hospital. A woman has been brought in, dying of alcoholism, and there to support her is a young man, Akshaye Khanna. He talks to the doctor and then calls someone, and his good friend Saif shows up. They talk in the way you talk when you are waiting in a hospital, not about anything serious, just talking for the sake of being together. Clearly they haven’t seen each other in a while, but they still care about each other and know each other well enough to joke. Saif is engaged, Akshaye asks about their other friend Aamir, Saif says he is engaged too, and in love, despite all his previous statements. And then they have a moment of sadness when Saif says he called him, and he is sure he will show up too, and Akshaye doesn’t think so. So we know something went terribly wrong in their friendship.
And flashback! And this is such a traditional structure! Hospital drama, friends reunion, and flashback, I can picture it in any move from 1945 on. Only, this one is done differently. There’s no melodrama in the performances, or in the background music, or anything else. It’s all done in a very straightforward fashion, even if it is still telling the story of friends-who-are-closer-than-brothers who are brought together dramatically over a dying woman.
The flashback starts with Aamir and Saif running to Akshaye’s house because he called them over. Just like in the present day. Only this time the “emergency” turns out to be that he finished a painting and wants them to look at it. They are casual and joking, natural dialogue and natural manners, but we also get exposition here and learn who they are and who they are to each other. They are best friends at least through college, maybe even earlier. They are all about to finish school. Akshaye is an artist, it is clear he will keep painting. But the other two, their future is uncertain. Akshaye is the wise sensitive one, Saif is the naive funny one, and Aamir is the clever older bad boy type.
Again, this is a familiar structure, with just a little twist. The youngest brother (Saif) is always the naive romantic, Rishi in Amar Akbar Anthony. The middle brother, Akshaye, is the naughty one, the wild one, Amitabh as Anthony. And the oldest is the thoughtful serious one. Only, Akshaye isn’t a cop, he is an artist. And he doesn’t have the official authority of being “oldest brother”, they are all friends. And so a conflict is brewing right from the start, the middle one, the wild charismatic one, has always taken the lead in things. Without realizing that Akshaye is secretly wiser than he, more mature.
The film moves forward in little slightly connected scenes, another thing that feels new. sequences and moments moving the plot along without being clearly connected to each other, but also without being totally disconnected as in older masala style films. We see the graduation party and get a sense of who each of the 3 were in college. Saif is in love with his latest girlfriend, does whatever she asks, and Aamir makes fun of him, while Akshaye sits back and watches. Aamir is the ladies man, he confidently picks out a girl at the party and approaches her and gives a big ridiculous speech about how he has been in love with her since the moment he saw her, will she dance with him?
It also shows that Aamir is, well, kind of a jerk. He is so caught up in his own awesomeness, he is doing this so everyone else (including his three friends) will see and acknowledge how cool and brave and everything else he is. Without thinking that it might make the woman he picked out unhappy or uncomfortable. It doesn’t make him a big jerk, it’s not impossible that a woman would enjoy this approach, like being the center of attention as much as he does, he isn’t purposefully trying to embarrass someone. He just lacks that added layer of willingness to admit other perspectives from his own might be possible. And so it’s not the worst thing when he is punched by the woman’s fiance.
And then they go to Goa. It’s the Goa sequence that really sets this film apart. It captures that feeling of a time so magical it will forever bond you together. And it is Aamir who takes them there. He’s kind of a jerk, aggressive, dominating, but ultimately he does understand his friends and care for them. Saif’s girlfriend has broken up with him, Aamir knows he doesn’t need sympathy and wallowing in misery because he really wasn’t that in love. So Aamir refuses to give him sympathy and instead insists on a Goa trip. A trip which will help Saif get out of his funk and back to being “real”, remembering that he has so much closeness with his friends that he never had with a woman. Which will get Akshaye out of his studio and out of his shell. And which will give Aamir a last moment of closeness with these friends that he can’t admit he needs.
It’s after Goa that things start to change. Akshaye meets the woman next door, Dimple Kapadia. She is older and connected to the art scene, and artistic herself. And she is Dimple, beautiful and glamorous without even trying. Akshaye falls in love with her, we see it in his performance even though he doesn’t say anything to her. He shows her his paintings, and asks to paint her himself. And then one day she is upset, and drinking. Not drinking in a filmi extreme Devdas way, but in a way you almost don’t notice, and then you do. Her gestures are just slightly too much, her glass is refilled a few too many times in one scene. She tells Akshaye that her ex-husband won’t let her daughter come be with her on her birthday. And Akshaye knows just what to do. He calls Saif and Aamir and they take her out to dinner.
This is a wonderful sequence, because it shows the best of their friendship right before showing the worst. Akshaye needs something, it is his plan. But it is Aamir who makes it work. Aamir with his sparkling wit and need to take the lead. He charms Dimple in a completely appropriate way, even gets her to dance with him. And Saif is there as well, being supportive and present and helpful, while letting his “big brothers” have the limelight.
Until it all goes wrong. After taking Dimple home, Akshaye tells Aamir and Saif that he is in love with her. Saif doesn’t know how to respond exactly, but doesn’t say anything wrong. But Aamir can’t handle it. He tries to take control, to turn it into something he can understand, implies that Akshaye just wants to have sex with Dimple, she will turn him into a man, and Akshaye walks away and the friendship is over.
This is, again, the moment from the classic 3 hero movies. The moment when the sensitive serious hero and the naughty hero separate. But it is done in a way that feels so natural, so true to real relationships. It’s not that they are mad at each other, it’s that they have broken the friendship, revealed something that they don’t know how to come back from. Akshaye is disgusted with Aamir, sees a crudeness and shallowness in him suddenly, and doesn’t want anything to do with him any more. And Aamir can’t handle the idea of not being in control, of Akshaye being disgusted with him, the relationship has changed from what it once was in a way he doesn’t want. The fight didn’t break the friendship, it is what the fight revealed that broke it.
And so our heroes go their separate ways. It’s a separated brothers movie, just like all the others. And they each find their own stories once they are apart. One thing this film is arguing which is a little bit different from, for instance, Yaadon Ki Baarat, is that separating the brothers can be a good thing. At least for a little while. Their friendship was a wonderful thing, it got them through a lot. But now it is time to grow up and find out who they are on their own.
Akshaye tells Dimple how he feels. And she, very gently, rejects him. Reminds him that she is much older and divorced with a child. And Akshaye accepts that, he didn’t necessarily want anything from her, just wanted to tell her. And then he goes away, leaves his mother too, in order to go on an artists retreat and improve his skills.
Aamir leaves too, his father is tired of him wandering around doing nothing, he sends him to Australia to run a branch of their company there. Aamir may have been the leader and the bad boy and the adult among his friends, but this is a reminder that to his parents and the outside world, he is just a boy who has never had a job or done anything. And, like a little boy, he is being ordered off to go do his chores as punishment. Off to a place where being cool and clever and all the rest won’t really get him anywhere.
And so Saif is left alone. And lonely. As he says when they both leave him. And that is when Saif, finally, is able to grow up too. He didn’t have to go anywhere, secretly he was the most mature of the friends, he just wasn’t able to be that mature person while they were around because they needed him to be the cute baby brother that held them all together.
Saif is already working for his father’s company, already a good son, already responsible. He just needed a push to realize it, and that push was falling in love one more time. With the girl his parents arranged for him to meet. Only, it turns out she is already dating someone else. But while before Saif might have been joked into forgetting her by Aamir, or used Akshaye as a sounding board to complain to instead of doing something, this time he does something. He doesn’t just forget her, he patiently becomes her friend, goes on dates with her and her boyfriend, gets to know them both, waits and sees what happens. And eventually, she does turn to him. Not because he swept her off her feet, or because she picked him out and forced him to fall in love with her (as seemed to have happened in his previous relationships), but because he was just patiently there.
This is also a great sequence for showing how dating works among that class in India today. It’s not quite the same as “dating” that I am used to from the west. There is no pressure to have sex, or even kiss necessarily (although you might) and the assumption is at any point dating might/should turn into marriage. I am used to the steady progression, dating and then sex and then moving in together and then marriage. Each step following the other in turn and no variance. But we see in Saif’s girl’s relationship, something different. A nice boring boy who gives her gifts and takes her to dinners, but there is no passion there. He will propose someday very romantically but equally without passion. The arranged marriage proposal, with Saif, would ultimately be more romantic and passionate than this dating experience. And from what I have heard in real life and seen in many other movies since then, this is not uncommon. It’s exciting to “have a boyfriend” or “have a girlfriend”, but it is sometimes just a label, an experience that you think it would be neat to have, without any real agonizing messy emotions involved.
Saif’s story is the simplest, because he had the least growing up to do. Akshaye’s is also fairly simple, he was already on his way to growing up, falling in love with this inappropriate woman, but still acknowledging that he was in love, and not being afraid to say it. It is Aamir’s story that is the most complex. As it always is with the “naughty” middle brother.
This is just an amazing performance from Aamir. He embraces all the ugliness of this character, while still keeping the charm in place. We can see why his friends and others are drawn to him, but we can also see his faults and why his friends would abandon him. And so he goes to Australia, and on the plane he meets Preity, the girl he embarrassed at the graduation party. And he charms her, as he can charm anyone, but with a little bit of sincerity too. He really does, for once, just want a friend. She is the only person in Australia that he has ever met before in his life.
What makes this part really special to me is that we learn eventually that Preity really did need a friend too. She doesn’t exist just to “save” bad boy Aamir, she needs something from him and she can sense it. Just as Saif’s girl knew on some level that she wanted/needed to get out of that very dull dating relationship and so allowed Saif to be her friend. The film doesn’t show us right away, at first Preity seems very together and happy, but slowly we see that she has her own problems and Aamir is the perfect fit to solve them.
Preity’s backstory is very traditional too, but done in a way that doesn’t feel trite but real. Her parents died, her only living relative was her young uncle who couldn’t raise her. She was raised by her father’s business partner, they love her and took her into their home. And now they want her to marry their son, and she can’t tell them “no”. It would feel ungrateful, disloyal, and there is a fear that they will stop loving her if she does and she will have no one. She needs to be selfish, to be fearless, to be everything that Aamir is. His “flaws”, for her, are strengths.
And that is why she is drawn to him. Someone who makes her laugh at the world instead of fearing it, who reminds her that it is okay to be wild and young sometimes, and someone who really cares for her, just her, not her adoptive family or anyone else. But once she has gotten all that strength from their friendship, it makes her realize that what she really wants is him. And Aamir just isn’t quite ready to admit it yet.
There are two scenes here that are just perfect and very different. First, they are out late in Australia and running for a train. Aamir leaps on, but Preity just misses it and suddenly she is alone in a train station in the middle of the night. A homeless man starts coming towards her, it is alarming and unpleasant, and then Aamir appears. Out of breath, he has clearly run all the way back to her. And his response isn’t to embrace her and tell her it will all be okay, or to threaten and beat up the homeless man, it is to embrace the homeless man. Jolly him and joke him until the threat seems small and Preity can laugh at her fears. It’s exactly what she needed in that moment, and it is completely unselfish on the part of Aamir, it’s not a rescue that makes him look heroic or gains him “points” in their relationship, it’s just what she needed to feel better.
And the second scene is at the end. Preity’s fiance has returned, it is obvious that her uncle does not like him and Preity doesn’t really either, but Aamir tries to make nice and do the right thing and be mature. And Preity confronts him. When he is leaving, she tells him she knows he is in love with her. Aamir has been trying to be undramatic, mature, and she is asking him to give that up, to go back to being who he used to be, that is who she needs. In a way Preity is speaking for all the heroines in all the movies at this point. The hero is always told to be mature and reasonable and so on by everyone in his life. But lost in that is that the heroine actually needs him to be “immature”, to do the socially unacceptable and embarrassing thing, just like he did at their first meeting at the party, if it will rescue her.
And then we get our double finale. First, Aamir returning to India and asking for help from Saif, saying he needs his support. Acknowledging the value of their friendship, Saif as a mature man, and that he, Aamir, is not the untouchable perfect person he pretended to be, he does need help sometimes. And of course Saif is there for him. And so Aamir goes to Preity’s engagement party and confesses his love in the same words he used at their first meeting. Only this time it isn’t to make himself look cool in front of his friends, it is deeply sincere and risking everything and very uncool.
It’s the same scene we have over and over again, but there is a difference. This isn’t a simple “how dare you romance my daughter” reaction. First, Preity’s uncle quietly gets up to stand behind Aamir while he is talking. As the only person there who is really on Preity’s side, her only living relative, he is reminding her that she isn’t alone any more. If she wants to walk out on her adoptive family to be with Aamir, here is there. And second, the response of Preity’s adoptive parents is to be as upset as she is, once they realize that she thought they would stop loving her if she didn’t marry their son. This isn’t people feeling their prescribed social roles, this is from the heart, how you actually feel in that moment. Her uncle’s guilt and regret over not being able to take care of her then so he is taking care of her now. Her families sincere shock at discovering that she carried with her that sense of not being good enough, not being “really” their daughter. It’s not just about Aamir, really it’s almost not about Aamir at all, it’s about Preity. As it should be but almost never is in these moments. It’s her engagement that he is breaking up, she is the one with the big decision to make, not the hero.
And then we have our second finale. Back in the present day in the hospital, Aamir got the phone call and said he didn’t think he should/could come. He wasn’t angry any more, but he didn’t think he should. And then he sees 3 college friends goofing around on the street and suddenly remembers, and shows up after all. He’s right, he and Akshaye never really came to understand each other, never had that moment of forgiveness, so it wouldn’t be right. But on the other hand, what they had together was so real and so strong, do they need to forgive each other? And the answer is, they don’t. Aamir can just show up and be there in this difficult time and the caring they had for each other under everything else will carry it through.
And then we have our epilogue. Back in Goa again, this time with their wives. This isn’t a friendship that will keep them locked to that college time, it can grow and change as they do. And there is a final reminder of that with a return of a forgotten character from college. At least, I think it’s her return, the film isn’t really clear, but it just makes sense! Back in college, there was a girl with a crush on Aamir, she followed him everywhere and he couldn’t stand her. Akshaye went to talk to her while they were on the Goa trip, and she sincerely explained to him that she knows Aamir hates her, but she can’t stop loving him. And now, years later, here she is again, on that same beach, after Akshaye has gone through his own journey of falling in love with someone who couldn’t love him back. She has changed, Akshaye has changed, and he invites her to join their group, the circle comes together.
(or else she is just a mysterious beach woman in Goa, but that would be so much less elegant than having her be the returning character, that I vote for it being the returning character)