DISCLAIMER: This was written after my first watch. It took my second watch to understand some of the film, and it took my 3rd watch to really see it for what it was, and it took my 4th watch and my scene by scene to fully appreciate it. Anyway, an interesting time capsule of a first response!
No Spoilers review is already up, time for SPOILERS! And then, sometime next week, I start the slow crawl through the scene by scene. Because yes, this movie is good enough to deserve it. Oh, and also good enough that you shouldn’t SPOIL yourself if you are planning to watch it. Not super super good, I don’t want to oversell it, but good enough that it is worth avoiding spoilers.
Really truly not a lot happens. It’s all about character growth and stuff. So, Whole Plot in Two Paragraphs!
Shahrukh is a tour guide who just finished a tour with Anushka’s family group. Anushka stops him as he is leaving the airport because she lost her ring, and threatens to complain to his boss unless he helps her find it. Shahrukh doesn’t want to travel with her alone because he is worried about another complaint from another woman since he is such a womanizer. That night, he tries telling her the truth, that he doesn’t want to be her personal guide because he has a problem not misbehaving with women, and she laughs it off and promises she can control herself. And then immediately gets fascinated when she sees him fighting with a girl outside her window and follows him to a club. Where he finds her and declares he would never be attracted to her because she is a sister type. She gets mad, he takes her home. And then the same thing happens in reverse at their next stop, Anushka goes out alone to a club, Shahrukh follows her because it’s a bad area, saves her at the club, they are chased by scary people and hide out for the night. Anushka wakes up in the middle of the night and goes to sleep next to him. Next morning, they sing Radha together. And Anushka realizes that Shahrukh’s problem is he is lonely, so she offers to pretend to be his girlfriend for the rest of the time they travel together. Shahrukh starts to fall in love with her, but Anushka says he shouldn’t worry, she will never fall for him. INTERVAL
They travel throughout Europe, getting closer and happier, and then get a clue to the ring that takes them to Portugal. In Portugal, there is a misunderstanding and they are kidnapped. Shahrukh is hit but manages to talk their way out of it. While Anushka is looking for something to clean his wound in her purse, she finds the ring, it was there all along. But she doesn’t say anything. That night, they almost have sex, but Shahrukh stops at the last minute and says it shouldn’t be like this, she deserves better. The next day, Anushka declares they have to go back to Frankfurt and help organize his friend’s wedding. They do, acting more and more like a married couple all the time. And finally at the end of the evening, his friend confronts them and asks what exactly this is. And both of them are forced to admit that Anushka isn’t the kind of woman who will give everything up to marry a tour guide. And Shahrukh tells her when they are alone that she has to go back, it’s time. At the airport, she admits she found the ring 2 days earlier and has been hiding it. And Shahrukh admits how he feels as she walks away, too softly for her to hear. And then brief sad song, ending with Shahrukh realizing he has to fly to India and stop her wedding. And, mild twist, he gets there and discovers the wedding was already canceled. She couldn’t go through with it. But she is at the venue anyway, no doubt waiting to see if he showed up. And he proposes, telling her she filled a void in him and he thinks he can fill a void in her. And then they kiss. And it is SO HOT! Way way better than the Jab Tak Hain Jaan kisses. And finally, the happy ending song is going back to his village in the Punjab for the first time.
So, there are a lot of flaws. A lot a lot a lot. Mostly related to Anushka’s character, but a little bit with Shahrukh’s. First, the whole “one conversation and she is following him and asking why he isn’t attracted to her” bit of it is SUPER IRRITATING. Speaking as a woman who is definitely one of those “good girl” types that never gets hit on, this is something I know about myself and don’t really care about. And it’s also not something that I could really change about myself if only I was traveling alone or something. Like, I don’t even own the kind of outfits Anushka is wearing! This is a male fantasy, the good girl who is super hot and just wants men to find her sexy and “awaken” her. BOOO!
(I don’t go to bed in this. I go to bed in the nice PJ’s my Mom made me for Christmas. They’re comfy!)
Plus, she is way way inconsistent. There is one moment in particular, when Shahrukh is clearly in love with her and says, all serious, that she has to promise to get on her plane and not look back once they find the ring, and she laughs and insults him! Says that she is a strong confident woman and would never fall for him. I am fine with her thinking she will never/is not already in love with him. But the way it is set up as a competition, he will try to make her fall in love and she won’t be won over, means she has to come off as really really mean. Either that or Shahrukh has to come off as really really sleaze-y. And they went with making her needlessly cruel instead of him needlessly sleaze-y. This is also the INTERVAL break point. And it never comes up again. Which makes me think they wrote it in just for the interval, and decided to just ruin Anushka’s character for no reason right there.
(Especially jarring because it comes right after this really lovely song)
There’s also some stuff they really could have investigated more in her backstory. There is a wonderful moment after they have run from the club where Anushka was molested and hit her molester, causing his gang to chase there. Anushka falls down sobbing and apologizing for hitting him, and Shahrukh is all “what? No! It’s not your fault!” And Anushka confesses that she has gotten used to everything being her fault. Her boyfriend/fiance always blames her for everything. It’s so nice to hear someone say it isn’t her fault.
I think Anushka’s character is supposed to be like Kangana in Queen, or Ayesha in Socha Na Tha, or Kareena in Jab We Met. She seems to have it all together and know who she is, but that is just because she has been so determined to keep herself as the person her family/boyfriend/everyone want her to be. And we are witnessing a slow motion breakdown as she finally stops being that.
That would be a great character! The bossy spoiled selfish demanding rich Gujarati girl. Who secretly is insecure and scared and desperately afraid of disappointing people. Who has been trapped in the mold of the perfect daughter, and perfect fiancee, and never learned how to accept that she can be something less than perfect. And who instinctively immediately senses that she is what this sad difficult man needs in his life and won’t let him go.
But, that’s not exactly her character. There isn’t quite enough backstory, and those few inconsistent moments that don’t exactly make sense. She had to be sacrificed a little for the sake of Shahrukh’s character. And for the sake of lightness in the film.
I realized on my drive home, that his film is just Highway but as a rom-com. HIGHWAY SPOILERS FOLLOW Spoiled girl who has never seen the world stuck traveling with a damaged difficult man. Spoiled girl becomes obsessed with him and feels a strange closeness, eventually reveals and admits the tragedies of her life hidden under her perfect exterior. Man finds himself somehow healed and drawn to her at the same time. They finally admit-without-admitting how they feel and form an unofficial married partnership. And then in Highway, he is killed by her family and she lives a solitary life dedicated to his memory. Not so much in this one. SPOILERS OVER
(Look, they even have the same hand gesture thing!)
If you strip out all the specifics of the characters and the contrived situation, this is a classic May-December romance. Shahrukh is old, he is tired, he is lonely. Imtiaz and Shahrukh do an amazing job convincing us of that, that he has lost the ability to connect with anyone, including himself. And he doesn’t even know how sad he is any more because he has forgotten what it is like to be happy. And then there’s Anushka. She is young and full of enthusiasm and energy and ready to drag Shahrukh out of his funk. And also needs his resigned wisdom to take care of her and teach her how to be happy.
And “Radha” is the purest perfect expression of that. It happens after maybe the best sequence of the film for Anushka’s character. Not the beginning when, for never fully explored reasons, she goes out bar hopping. But post-molestation (and by the way, from my friends who have gone to/worked in these kind of sex dungeon places, there is like a whole thing you have to go through before you get in, and you certainly wouldn’t chase down an unwilling participant! Also, yes, super good girl types can have friends who work at sex dungeons and stuff. I just never felt the need to explore them), everything is perfect!
Shahrukh shows up to save her by talking fast and distracting the gang until they can run. Which fits with his character, a fast talker more than a brave hero. The hide behind a tree and Anushka asks what she should do if the gang catches them and attacks her, clearly fearing rape. And Shahrukh doesn’t really have a good answer and tries to dodge the question. But the scene works, it convinces me that Anushka is having a mental breakdown, terrified, finally found the danger she needed to feel alive and unlock something inside herself and now is changing. And Shahrukh is beginning to be unlocked as well, feeling a sort of responsibility and closeness with Anushka that he hasn’t before.
And then they end up hiding somewhere else, and Anushka has her breakdown about how everything is always her fault, that’s what is driving this ring quest, her fear of once again being blamed for everything. Which retroactively explains so much about her character! She is bossy and horrible to Shahrukh because she is driven by fear, fear of the family she has left behind and disappointing them. And she is driven to act out and go to bars while she can because something inside of her wants to break out and disappoint them once and for all so she can stop trying.
(It’s good, but Socha Na Tha still did the “good girl breaks free” thing better)
And it explains her relationship with Shahrukh, for him to be the guy who says “no, that was okay, I liked what you did.” Not because he is trying to make her feel better, but because he honestly approves of her first instinct, they are in synch, this is the guy who can appreciate her.
And then they are caught again and have to hide hanging off the side of a boat. This is the moment that was at the beginning of “Hawayein”, when his hand is on her head. But what I didn’t notice until I saw it on the big screen is how it is on her head. First, she is the one holding it in place, placing it there. And second, it is placed on top of her head more than the side. She is putting it there to bless her. A moment we will see a few more times in the film. She is giving him the position of husband, wanting him to be there and bless her actions and give her safety and security.
Finally, they escape again and Shahrukh leads them to a remote old church building. And then tears down some hanging banners, rips them in half, tosses one on a bench and another on the floor, and curls up on the floor. It’s a silent sequence, because the actions say everything. Anushka trusts him enough to follow him everywhere. He cares enough to break into a building and rip down curtains for her comfort. And, of course, he silently gives her the bench while he takes the ground. That is how he sees himself, no matter how much he protests, as a dog who sleeps on the ground, serving others.
This is Shahrukh’s biggest internal issue, he doesn’t feel like he is worth anything. He sees himself as having no pride, no self-respect, because of how he has to trail around and serve all the tourists for a living. His seducing of women is a transparent attempt to gain back some sense of self.
And Anushka, in the middle of the night, wakes up and sees him on the floor, and goes over the curls up next to him. She is tired of being the perfect princess, kept separate from the world (to the point that it is a running gag that she doesn’t even know which countries they visited on the trip, she was so sheltered). She wants to get on the ground and curl up with someone who she feels a real connection with.
And then in the morning, Shahrukh wakes up and goes off by himself and cries. We saw a few flashes of the Punjab before, but we could sense that he was struggling to hold on to them, to remember who he was and where he came from. But now, there is a moment when he is holding Anushka as she sleeps, and suddenly the Punjab appears in his head, brilliant and bright and real. And we know that somehow she has given it back to him, made him feel whole again. And his breakdown is as cathartic and hers was the night before.
And that’s when we get “Radha”! After Anushka finds him crying, while she is still recovering from her own breakdown the night before. He goes from crying and admitting his sadness, to suddenly standing up and asking if she has ever heard Punjabi singing. And then his song is a strong Punjabi folk song about a lothario who goes from woman to woman. And he challenges Anushka to sing back, and she sings a song of Radha, always perfectly faithful and devoted. The song her family would make her sing at family events.
And the two songs mix. Shahrukh continues to sing out his life of womanizing, never staying in one place. And Anushka sings her life of always having to be perfect and sweet and faithful. And slowly the two mix. Shahrukh’s song makes Anushka sing faster and rougher, and start to dance, really dance, not just the perfect poses, but enjoying herself. And, eventually, Shahrukh gives in and sings back to her that she is his “Radha”.
That’s what they both needed. Shahrukh needed this unquestioning devotion, someone in his life who is just there for him always. And she needed something more than the perfect empty poses her family had given her, something real that she could be, someone who wanted and needed the real her.
And then the rest of the movie happens. But it really doesn’t need to after that. Once “Radha” is over, we in the audience know they will be together forever and they kind of know it too. The rest of the film is just a slow swimming towards admitting that to themselves.
Oh, also, one thing that I couldn’t find anywhere else to mention and was super weird! Shahrukh lands in Bombay at the end, at the same airport where I landed 3 years ago and I totally recognized everything. But they had to skip one of the hallways he would have run through, because there is a massive mural including Shahrukh (and Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh) right before you get to security I think. So, very strange to watch him run down the hallway, and then turn, and then a sudden cut to avoid showing his own face on a mural in the background. Kind of took me out of the movie for a moment.
(This. He should have been going by this)