Happy Friday! Somehow I am just in an SRK-Madhuri mood after Anjaam. And it’s Valentine’s week, and this is a really really Valentine’s heavy film. So, why not?
Before I found Indian film, I watched essentially every musical made in Hollywood between 1929 and 1964. Well, everyone that is still available. No really, in high school I went through the public library index and special requested every single film in the entire state library system with the word “musical” in the description. And one thing that, eventually, started to seem really odd to me is that they were all about putting on a show. A stage show. All these people working in the film industry making movies, but nostalgic for the experience of being on stage.
A large part of that, I think, was how the American film musical developed and what the American stage musical was like at the time. In the early 30s when the movie musical began in Hollywood, the stage musicals were not what we think of as “Broadway” today. They were more like reviews. Which is the stage version of a song video, original songs presented with a little mini-story and interesting images, and then on to the next song. Stuff like the infamous first performance of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” with Mary Martin in a fur coat surrounded by eskimos. If there was a plot, it was just the loosest series of comic turns from set characters and a few lines of romantic dialogue to set up a love song.
This would not fly in Hollywood films. For one thing, films were a lot shorter than stage shows. For another, the ability of a film to convey the excitement of a stage show was limited, Hollywood director’s weren’t as skilled as Indian ones in making the song performances really pop off the screen. At least, not at first. So as I see it the plots that were barely there in the stage version got twisted and turned and pulled and molded into something useful for a movie. And the very best most popular songs were plucked out to be used. And often, in order to give some sort of vague connection to it all, the plot that was invented was that they were actually putting on a show, an excuse for all these songs, and a stage show, because that’s what most of these writers and performers were used to thinking like. And the audience too, many of the audience members for these early musicals would have grown up seeing traveling shows and vaudeville and could relate to that more easily than this new world of film.
Over the years these tendencies lessened. New Hollywood directors came up who knew how to work with film, the audience got more used to these new kind of musical, and plots started broadening out, not just backstage plots, but traveling band stories (Orchestra Wives, Romance on the High Seas), or behind the scenes movie stories (Something to Sing About), but overall it was still the backstage musical that was triumphant (Broadway Melody of Whatever Year). What didn’t become common until much later was the idea of songs for no reason at all. Not because you are singing with the band, or on stage, or anything, but just for the beauty and emotion of a dance on film. It wasn’t unheard of, but something like a Fred and Ginger love duet would be thrown in the middle of plenty of stage performances, and even explained by them being at a nightclub and getting swept away by the music.
(Orchestra Wives is so amazing, I don’t know why people don’t talk about it more. Check out the moment at 3:47 when Ann Rutherford is caught in the music and visually caught in the frame)
Okay, moving on, India! In India, the Parsi theater and the religious plays and various other artistic traditions relied on complex narratives partially expressed through song. The idea of a song being explained as a performance, as a moment removed from the narrative emotionally, that was rare. Songs were woven into the narrative.
Until Dil To Pagal Hai. Yash Chopra wanted to try something different, something fresh and youthful. Not the same old love songs dancing around trees. But something that was “real” while still fun. And so he wrote a “musical”, the songs were explained by the script, they were rehearsed and choreographed and part of a stage show. And the love was expressed through song not because of some emotional high fantasy experience, but because it was felt between two musical artists.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The plot, in it’s bare bones, just doesn’t have much to it. And is also terrible unoriginal. Shahrukh’s best friend Karisma is in love with him, and a little fragile and emotional. Madhuri’s foster brother Akshay is in love with her, and she feels she owes it to him and his family to love him back. Then Shahrukh and Madhuri meet and, in spite of themselves, fall in love. There’s a moment of guilty avoidance, but then Karisma and Akshay give their blessing, and it all works out. All of these elements had been done to death before. And there weren’t any interesting twists or complications added to it. The only change was in the presentation.
First, there was the decision to keep the hero and heroine separated for the first hour of the film. As they both struggle and wonder if there is true love out there or if they should settle for what makes sense, we the audience know that there is someone right there waiting for them! Shahrukh claims to be a cynic, but describes a beautiful perfect woman when explaining his concept for the heroine of his next show. Madhuri is the romantic, sure that she will find her true love if she just waits for it. And it is fate and true love and all of that, we see how they almost meet over and over again.
Sidenote: I wonder if this was partly influenced by Yashji’s romance with Pam Aunty? I didn’t think about it until just now, but they had a similar series of near miss meetings. Meetings that Pam Aunty remembered because Yash was semi-famous and powerful, but which Yash remembered just because that particular pretty young woman at the Cricket ground stuck in his head until he recognized her again years later and remembered that one particular moment when she smiled at him.
The other thing that made it a little different was the way their love story was a mixture of fighting and working together and moments of magic. That’s what made it feel really “backstage”. That sense of everyone passionately pulling together to make magic happen onscreen. Shahrukh might yell at Madhuri and she might complain about him, but he also dropped her back home every night because he was her boss and responsible for her, and she respected him in her own way, and when they danced together, it was magic.
Something else that felt distinctly “backstage” about this plot is the isolated little world that built up around the show. Madhuri and Shahrukh were able to make a connection very quickly and without her family or his friend Karisma realizing it. Because of the unique bubble of rehearsals. They were in love, fully totally in love, before anyone outside of the bubble even knew they liked each other.
And so it is right that everything comes to a head on the final night, the opening night. This is the moment that their bubble bursts, their private world is presented to the public. And this is when their private love affair becomes public as well. Through another theme of the film, the new connections and possibilities that technology brings.
Madhuri is able to take a one day flight with Akshay in the middle of her regular life. Shahrukh and Madhuri are able to speak on Valentine’s Day thanks to an accidental crossed wire on the telephone. And finally, Madhuri’s cassette tape that she recorded and never sent to Akshay is able to speak from the past and tell her and Shahrukh how much she loved him.
This film is an odd combination of old-fashioned and modern. The concept of dance, and music, the spiritual practice that it can be, is very old-fashioned. Madhuri’s relationship to her dance teacher is the Guru-student kind of relationship that calls back to an ancient tradition. But at the same time, Shahrukh is talking about massive stage shows with lighting effects and spandex and on and on.
In the same way, we have young people of 90s India, buying candy on Valentine’s Day, going to night clubs, interacting without chaperones, joking and working and laughing, but combined with this very old-fashioned love triangle, the dutiful foster daughter planning to marry her brother, the young man feeling responsible for the girl who fell in love with him, and so on. And on top of that a backstage plot that is both old-fashioned and new-fashioned, a plot that is old in America but new to India, the star (Karisma) hurts her ankle and the young unknown (Madhuri) is brought in to take her place, falling in love with the producer in the meantime.
But the biggest conflict between old-fashioned and modern are in our hero and heroine. Both in their characters, Madhuri established as this sweet old-fashioned girl and Shahrukh as this modern cool dude type, but also in their performance styles. Madhuri is a kind of old-fashioned type of performer. Not an old-fashioned person, or even playing old-fashioned characters, but her style relies on sparkle and smile and posturing and set movements. Whereas Shahrukh is raw and rough. It’s not a good fit. And, feel free to disagree with me, but I think it makes the love scenes between them hard to take and a little unbelievable. Yes, even “Aur Paas”.
But the stage performances! That is where the film shines. Any time the film stops for us to enjoy the pure spectacle of the dance, it all comes alive.