Happy Friday! I thought of all these cool movies I wanted to review, and then I thought “No! I should save them for a Friday when I plan in advance so people can watch them!” So this Friday, instead, a very un-cool movie.
My rule with Bhansali is that the more power and money and control he has, the worst the movie. Khamoshi=brilliant. Devdas=overwrought. And everything since Devdas, in my opinion (which you don’t have to agree with), well-nigh unwatchable. But slipped in the middle there, between brilliant and overwrought, we have this movie. Which is bad, but in a “so bad it’s good” way, not in a “so bad people think its good” way.
Ajay Devgan saves this movie. Without him, it becomes so emotional and sentimental that there is nothing to hold on to, the usual Bhansali emptiness. But Ajay grounds it, makes us feel something, makes us believe there are real people onscreen, not just pretty paper dolls that Bhansali is moving around.
Ajay is good straight through, Salman is uneven. But Salman has one moment of pure brilliance that almost equals in one bound everything Ajay does. Giving us two living breathing people in the film, 200% more than there usually are in Bhansali films. Oh, and then there’s Aish. She’s there too. Her hair extensions do a wonderful job with the role.
This is a movie back before Bhansali decided he had to make “great” pictures, back when he was still just making entertaining ones. So the patented Bhansali inaccuracies (or “lies”) don’t bother me. Who cares if Budapest stands in for Italy, or Bhansali makes up his own version of folk singing? It’s not like he is rewriting Indian history.
I shouldn’t shortchange the things Bhansali does well. Bhansali, as always, really knocks it out of the park with the song sequences. Over the top and sentimental and gorgeous. There’s one in particular where Aish and Salman dance only with their eyes. But the title song is the one you remember, the one with no spectacle at all, only Ajay’s face.
(This is the eyes dance. It really is amazing)
Really, if you want to fall in love with Ajay Devgan, this is the movie to watch. That’s why I (and some of you in the comments) are thinking about it with Manmarziyaan coming out. Because this is the role Abhishek took in Manmarziyaan. And, come to think of it, the one Raj Kapoor picked for himself in Sangaam. And Shashi triumphed in in Kabhi Kabhi. The lover is predictable, it is the husband you always want to watch.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
It’s a pretty simple plot. Aish and Salman fall in love, but her father marries her off to Ajay. Ajay learns the truth and decides to take Aish back to Salman. But along the way, she learns to appreciate her husband and falls in love with him, choosing him over Salman in the end. Indian social customs and marriage practices are upheld, hooray hooray.
But like I said, what makes it work is Ajay. He plays the husband as just such a rock solid to the core decent man. He doesn’t think he deserves Aish’s love, he humbly accepts it when she angrily rejects him. He stands up to his father and all of society to take her to Italy/Budapest and deliver her to Salman. We the audience are so in love with him that Aish feeling the same way seems inevitable. This isn’t the magical mythical bond of marriage forcing her to fall in love with him, this is the inevitable result of any woman spending so much time with such a very decent man.
The rest of the film though, that’s INSANE. Aish’s family lives in an enormous mansion in the middle of a Rajasthan desert. Because her father is a folksinger and, as well all know, they are all fabulously wealthy mansion dwellers. There is the same expanding and contracting number of people around depending on the requirements of the scene, I am never clear of Aish is an only child or has a dozen sisters or what exactly is happening.
Salman is a half-Italian son of an Indian man (his mother is played by his real life stepmother Helen, who is not Italian). He walks across the desert (huh? how? why?) to visit Aish’s father and beg to be trained by him. Her father agrees and asks no payment, only a guru gift at the end. Aish and Salman, of course, start up a teasing battle of “wits” (Aish is the usual half-psychotic and half-retarded Bhansali heroine). And then they fall in love and he kisses her, causing her to cry and ask if she is now pregnant. Oh Aish!
But, their romance is discovered and Salman is thrown out, Aish’s father requests his Guru gift, that Salman leave immediately. Because he is half-Italian and stuff and therefore no good. Aish is set to marry a respectable nice lawyer, brother of one of her friends, who saw her and liked her at a dance performance. Ajay.
Aish tries to kill herself (Bhansali has a real thing for suicide, doesn’t he? This, Ram-Leela, Guzaarish, Bajirao, and Padmavaat), but her family patches her up and forces through the marriage.
(OH THE DRAMA!!!! OH THE CHANDELIERS!!!!)
Ajay doesn’t force anything on her, doesn’t even touch her, and then after marriage she receives letters Salman wrote her, begging her to come to him in Italy. She is miserable, Ajay finds the letters, big confrontation, and Ajay (Most Decent Man in The World) decides the only thing to do is take her to Italy and hand her over to Salman. Because he was wrong to marry her and this is the best way to make it right. Aish’s family, of course, is uninvolved in this decision. They forced her into this marriage and then forgot about her, the way you do with daughters (also Paro’s family, Mastani’s family, Padmavati’s family, and so on and so on. Ah Indian culture! So beautiful!).
And then the film finally gets good. We are away from the romanticized version of the Indian countryside and filming on location in Europe. And Ajay is there, setting the tone of sort of weary anti-romance. Ajay Devgan is not an actor who can ever really buy into filmi fantasy, he is too real for that, his very presence feels solid and actual. Aish is lost in her romance, dreaming of Salman, sobbing and having hysterics and all that, and Ajay just stands there like a rock and accepts it. He doesn’t protest, he doesn’t try to persuade her, he just accepts it. And that’s all she needs, someone treating her like an adult, it forces her to grow up. And forces the movie to grow up.
A man and woman falling in love in elaborate silks in a mansion in Rajasthan, that’s a childish fairy tale. A man and a woman falling in love while reading maps and taking trains in Budapest, that’s real. Salman is a child, Ajay is a Man. And the child version of Aish in the first half, she wanted Salman. But the time she meets him again, she is a grown woman and she wants a grown man.
(Ajay is just so much better)
And that’s why Salman’s speech is so magnificent. In many ways. After many mistaken identities and mishaps, Aish is taken to meet Salman before his big concert at the Opera house (another Bhansali fantasy, Indian just graduated unknown folk singers don’t get concerts at European Opera houses). And she just stands there while he reads her mind for her, has an epic monologue talking about how he can tell she is standing there in front of him but she isn’t “his” any more, she has changed, and he is standing her on stage about to give his first concert and have all his dreams come true, and his heart is breaking.
This is, firstly, a brilliant way to handle Aish’s acting limitations. She doesn’t have to say a word, just stand there and look pretty while Salman does the acting for the two of them. Second, it’s a brilliant resolution to the plot. There is no regretful sacrifice from Aish, or from Salman, everything has already been done. All they need to do is acknowledge the truth of it. And then of course it was filmed perfectly. On stage at the opera house, Aish dressed magnificently and formally as a married woman, her very costuming proclaiming that she has made her choice, and Salman hoping all over the place in his one magnificent speech while she just stands there, still, no longer in tune with him.
The outlines of the love triangle are not really unique. Indian film MUST give the message that marriage trumps all, that love will fade and you will learn to love your husband. But the best films find a way to give that message in a way that is true to and says something about the characters. In Sangam, Vyjantimala marries Raj Kapoor in a spirit of sacrifice, but as the months went by, she truly did love him, in a different way but a sincere way. It was Raj who had no faith in the marriage bond, reflecting his deep insecurities and class position, and just a touch of PTSD. Raakhee in Kabhi Kabhi, she had learned to see her romance with Amitabh as a peaceful memory of youth, no more, and her husband saw it the same way, reflecting his innate confidence and purity of heart and general self-confidence. In this film, Aish and Salman have a romance that feels authentically like a first romance. They flirt, they kiss, it all feels very real and important because it is the first time. But when it is over, Aish tries to kill herself while Salman writes letters and comes up with a plan. Aish is still caught in the romance of it, while Salman is trying to plan a way to make it real. Ajay goes on to make the plans for her again. To find a way to make the romance real. And it’s only as she learns to live in the real world that she discovers how false that first romance was.
It’s the men who make it work. Ajay, in his solid Ajay-ness. And also Salman, in his few coincidental meetings with Ajay in Europe, who sells us on himself as a romantic cheerful soul, but one who is also competent and serious about finding and marrying Aish. We care about them, we want Aish to pick the better man (Ajay, duh), but we hurt when Salman hurts in the end.
This is a very silly movie, a silly romantic movie. But it feels more important, and I care far more about what happens to the characters, than in any of those big war epics Bhansali has been selling us. It’s one of the best lover-husband-wife love triangles in years, and Manmarziyaan has a lot to live up to if it wants to beat it.