Happy Wednesday Shahrukh Review day! Aw, only one left after this. That’s sad. But, it has given me a chance to crank through some of his films that I hadn’t gotten around to addressing before.
This is not my favorite Shahrukh film. Its not my least favorite, but it’s somewhere towards the bottom. However, there is still plenty to talk about. Not so much about it as a “Shahrukh” film, but about it as a Yash Chopra film.
Let’s think about triangles! They are supposed to be 3 equal points, but they aren’t really. We don’t look at the triangle and think about the line along the bottom, we focus on the point at the top and two lines coming off of it. It’s about one point that is resting firmly on two supporting points, and those two supporting points being slightly more stable by being connected to each other. But the focus is always the top, that’s what matters.
And that’s how the typical film triangle works as well, it’s not about 3 people being equally connected, it’s about one person being equally connected to two other people. And those two having some kind of vague less important connection between the two of them. It’s a narrative tool that lets you explore one central character, not a tool that lets you explore 3 characters equally. Usually in the pattern of one central character and two romantic options representing two aspects of their personality.
There are some interesting variations on this pattern available. Gunday, for instance, was more about Ranveer being torn between love (Priyanka) and friendship (Arjun) than it was between Priyanka being torn between two lovers. Muqadder Ka Sikander was about Amitabh being the center of two triangles, love (Raakhee) and friendship (Vinod) and also idealized love (Raakhee) and human flawed love (Rekha). Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam split the film neatly in half, instead of the heroine being equally supported by both lovers straight through, one was the lead of one half and the other the lead of the other half.
But of all the triangles in Hindi film, Yash Chopra is the King so far as I am concerned. He has one standard triangle and he played with it for 40 years in all it’s variations: Love Versus Duty. But what is meant by “duty” isn’t always simple. Anil Kapoor in Lamhe sees it as his “Duty” to remain in love with Sridevi 1, to honor the promise he made himself to always be faithful. Sridevi in Chandni sees it her “Duty” to marry Vinod Khanna because he was kind to her and generous. Or Silsila where it is the simple question of marriage versus romance.
In Yashji’s greatest films, he resolves the conflict by showing that it is no conflict at all. You can find love within your duty, or you can find duty within your love. Our protagonist feels both emotions so strongly and thinks they must choose between one or the other, but the real resolution is to find a way to be at peace with all parts of yourself instead of trying to tear yourself in half.
In this film, Yashji wanted to do another different reflection on love and duty. He took The End of the Affair as the basis, which is a strong important interesting consideration of that question. And he took Shahrukh as his lead, an actor capable of playing two completely different characters, one totally dedicated to love and the other totally dedicated to duty.
And he picked two heroines, one almost ethereal and untouchable in her beauty, and the other tremendously alive and human. The idea was to set the “Duty” heroine opposite the most “Love” version of the hero, and the “Love” heroine opposite the most “Duty” version of the hero. And to make it a reflection on time and how it changes us, how a couple has to come together in their own time and place, when it is right.
But Yashji was very old. And the script was perhaps a bit hurried (in an effort to finish the movie while he still could). And his favorite actor (Shahruikh) was a bit old for this particular role. And the end result is a film that is almost, but not quite, what it was meant to be. A love triangle that is less Love Versus Duty and more Real Living Characters versus Romantic Ideals. And the end result is something that just doesn’t work, but still lingers in your mind as you think of all the ways it could have resolved.
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Let’s start with Chandni, because that is the film that feels most similar in themes to me to this film. Sridevi is an innocent inexperienced happy young woman who falls passionately in love for the first time with someone who is passionately in love with her. This is not an impossible love, but it is a difficult one, their backgrounds are very different but so long as they are both strong in their feelings and decisions, they can make it happen. And then there is an accident, and Sridevi’s lover decides for her that the romance should end. She goes away, heartbroken and incomplete, and then grows stronger and finds a new way to be in a new city. She meets a new love who falls in love with this new version of herself. Her relationship with him is not passionate or perfect, but it is stable and happy and matches who she is now. But then there is a return of the love from the first half, she thinks it is too late, time has gone on, and how can she forgive him for trying to kill their love? But in the end, she realizes that is pointless, why turn away your own happiness just because it feels like it is too late? And there is also the particular heartache of the two lovers who each in turn sacrifice their own love for her happiness.
The key to why Chandni works better than this film is that it isn’t stupid. Rishi loses the use of his legs in a tragic flower petal accident (okay, it’s a little stupid). But his sacrifice of Sridevi’s love after that is logical, the audience can see why he does it. His family already doesn’t like her, he already had to use all his strength and independence to get them to agree to the engagement. Now they are openly abusive to her when she comes to visit him, and he cannot stop them because he can’t even get out of his own room. Yes, if he learns to walk again, regains his independence, they could someday escape his family and be happy. But that is “if/when” he learns to walk again, in the meantime she will give herself over to abuse day after day and he cannot stop it. And if the therapy doesn’t work, she will have committed herself to a lifetime of such abuse. Looked at that way, it makes sense for him to cut her out of his life, save her from himself. The best part is that his sacrifice was not false. He succeeded in getting Sridevi to think beyond him, to consider a life outside of him. If he had never learned to walk again, she would have been happier without him than with him. That is what makes the final conflict so complex. Sridevi loves Rishi more than Vinod, but that does not mean she has no love for Vinod. He is viable option for her. She is willing to sacrifice her greater love for Rishi for her greater duty towards Vinod. Which also makes Vinod’s sacrifice real, he knows that Sridevi will marry him and find a way to be happy. But she would be slightly happier with Rishi, her real love. And so he gives up the happiness he could have, the real marriage they could have built, and lets her have the better choice.
Now, let’s look at this movie! Katrina is a devout rich girl in London who falls in love with a street musician and odd job man Shahrukh. But then he is hit by a car and she promises God not to see him any more if God will save his life. Shahrukh lives, but is furious with Katrina when she explains her promise and decides to start risking his life by joining the Indian army and becoming a bomb defusor in Kashmir. Ten years later, young reporter Anushka meets him and starts following him around and falls in love with him. He returns to London to meet her again, is hit by a car, and gets amnesia, thinking it is ten years ago and he is still with Kat. In order to protect his brain, Anushka tracks down Kat and convinces her to pretend to still love Shahrukh. It all works until Shahrukh gets his memory back, yells at Kat for abandoning him all those years ago, and goes back to Kashmir. Kat, finally, decides it has been long enough and goes to Kashmir to surprise him, they reunite and that is the end of the film.
The biggest problem with this film is that it is stupid. Katrina does not sacrifice Shahrukh for any logical reason, but merely because she decided to make a promise to God not to see him any more. God doesn’t work that way in the first place, and second it was a stupid promise to make. And third, there is no way to take it back. The crippling in Chandni was simple, it could be removed and then Rishi could seek out Sridevi and everything could be happy. But God doesn’t do take-backs, that promise should have been for all time. Yashji wrote himself into a narrative corner.
In addition, Shahrukh does not follow her wishes to move on. What created the real bite in Chandni was that Sridevi truly did move on, become a different person, the sacrifice worked. Just as in Kabhi Kabhi Raakhee truly moved on and felt sorry for Amitabh who had not, and all of Silsila was about Amitabh and Rekha learning the lesson that they should move on. In this film, Shahrukh is not falling in love with anyone else or in any other way moving on from Kat. Her sacrifice created no additional growth or complications in the narrative.
And then there’s Anushka. She should have been the matching sacrifice, the new love who steps back in honor of the old. But, because Shahrukh’s character was locked in place, there never really was a “new” love. Anushka had nothing to sacrifice, because the narrative never gave her any hope of winning Shahrukh away from Kat.
The bones of the film though, those are good. I can see the story Yashji wanted to tell. Katrina is a saintly young woman whose world view has never really been challenged. Her life is full of duty, duty to her father, duty to God. Yashji even wrote in the reason why, her mother abandoned her when she was young, she sees that as a failure of duty, and has sworn never to do the same. Shahrukh comes into her life like a thunderbolt, she fights him off, trying to remain pure and dutiful. But she can’t, he is too full of life and love and overwhelms her. She “sins”, as she sees it, for the first time. And so when he is hurt, she sees that as punishment for her sin. She swears never to step wrong again, to thrust love out of her life, and begs God to forgive her and keep Shahrukh safe rather than letting her sin touch him.
And then Shahrukh grows from a young man full of life, to an older man with all that purity and dedication that Katrina had as a young woman. Katrina stays in place, because she was always right, the one who understood sacrifice and duty. Shahrukh has to grow to her. That is the time they are waiting for, when Shahrukh will understand why she did what she did.
Anushka is there to help Shahrukh see how he has grown. He tried to throw Katrina off-balance when he was young, convince her to take risks and live life. Anushka is doing the same to him now, and he is seeing how far he has come, how he can no longer be that young crazy boy. And in the end it is Anushka who is shut out, seeing that she has her own work to do on herself, to live and earn through sacrifice instead of selfish personal goals.
Isn’t that a nice movie? That’s the movie Yashji wanted to make. And, in some ways, that is still the movie he made. But there was too much that was missed, too many gaps left to be filled in by performances that became beyond his control, and the story was lost.
The first biggest problem is that Katrina’s sacrifice. It just doesn’t make sense. Yes, you can wave it away with a “well, that’s the plot of the movie” excuse, but it nibbles away at your brain and makes it harder to give over to the film. Part of it is purely dialogue, Katrina never says explicitly “I know I was doing something wrong and God punished me by hurting you, so I am giving you up in order to stop God from hurting you any more in order to punish me”, instead she dances around it. But it is also a bigger narrative problem that the film skates away from saying Katrina is doing anything wrong. We learn she is engaged to someone else, but then maybe that engagement is broken? Or not? It’s unclear. And right before Shahrukh is injured, they are planning to introduce him to Kat’s father, so I guess she isn’t ashamed of their relationship at that point? It would be a tricky thing, to have a perfect pure heroine and still make it clear that in her own mind she is “sinning” somehow. It requires a delicacy and subtlety I think Yashji just couldn’t handle, he needed to make Kat actually engaged to someone else, or even married, in order for us to see why she was so resistant to Shahrukh and so sure she was doing something wrong.
The next big problem is Shahrukh’s logic in moving to Kashmir. There is something about him risking his life everyday to test Katrina’s vow, but that doesn’t quite work. Yashji wants it to be his own version of sacrifice and duty, something he is doing for love. But instead of comes off as just sort of petty, and selfish even, putting himself and his crew in danger just to spite Katrina. Again, it just needs a little more refinement, make it his way of honoring her vow and believing in it, that he truly thinks her love is protecting him.
And then there’s Anushka. This wasn’t completely predictable, but Anushka and Shahrukh just have way way too much chemistry together. As written, her character is supposed to be spoiled and selfish. The first time she meets him, she is risking her life just to win a dare. Over the course of the film, we see her mature, go from flirting and bothering Shahrukh despite his lack of interest to tracking down Kat and sacrificing her own burgeoning love because she knows it is better for Shahrukh to be with Kat. The problem is that Anushka has such a strong screen presence, she doesn’t “feel” like a selfish shallow woman, she feels like a strong woman with hidden depths. A really strong director could have beaten that out of her, forced her to play something totally outside of her usual persona. But Yashji was not that director. And so Anushka ended up taking over the character, she went from a shallow selfish too young woman, to feeling like a viable romantic option for Shahrukh.
And finally, perhaps the biggest problem, Yashji just could not figure out how to end it. It goes back to the original issue of Kat’s sacrifice being open ended. If he had simply made her married, then the end of it all would have been the death of her husband. Or if he had given her a human intermediary between her and God who could have given her solace. For instance, made it a promise to Anupam that he released her from on his deathbed. With no clear road ahead, he fell back on Amnesia. This is a brilliant solution for Shahrukh’s character, letting him return to his youthful happiness and then feel the crushing weight as his maturity hits him again. But it does not really resolve the issues with Katrina’s character. If she is meant to be “right” all along, knowing that sacrifice is important and love must wait, then there needs to be one more beat to her story. We need to see and feel her continued sacrifice here, the years of deprivation and the struggle to remain strong in the face of temptation. And most importantly, we need to see Shahrukh come around to realizing he was wrong after all. He confronts her with her own foolishness and she has no response, that is where it is left. He needs one more moment, a confrontation and then his own realization of the importance of duty and an understanding of why she did what she did.
Let’s go back to the idea of duty and love. This is Yashji’s final consideration of that. And what he lands on is something really deep. Love is duty. It becomes duty. Love will wait, love will sacrifice, love will be patient, that is the duty you owe to it. It is not about big moments and happy gestures, it is about the small moments and the sadness. He is famous for his love stories, for the mountains and the rose petals and all the rest of it. But every Yashji film, eventually, rejects those symbols of love. The love is in the sacrifice, in the pain and drudgery and every day of it all. This is a love story not because of Shahrukh and Katrina in London, but because Shahrukh and Katrina gave up London, gave up wild happiness, and proved their love through long slow painful years.
I think that’s why this film has stuck with me. Watching it, I was frustrated by the film it wanted to become and the film it was intended to be and how they conflicted. If Yashji had let the story and the actors and the characters take control, this would have been the story of Shahrukh and Anushka finding a spark of love and life in each other that was not there in Katrina, of Shahrukh picking Anushka over Katrina, picking love over duty. That is what came out in the dialogue, the songs, the performances, that this was the couple made for each other. But Yashji intended a different story, a story of Shahrukh growing to meet Katrina, of Katrina being the high mark of all that was good and noble, of her being the reward of long faithful love. He couldn’t give up that meaning just for the sake of actor chemistry, no matter how much I want him to. That was his own duty, to his love for film as a medium with a message and a depth, instead of mere entertainment.