I watched Khoobsurat for the 4th time last night (I missed it in theaters, but have seen it 4 times on DVD after a friend told me I HAD to watch it). It’s just as good as it ever was, but it’s also a whole different experience watching it having just seen Neerja. In all sorts of ways.
First, there’s Sonam. She has a very particular talent, but it is one that works for a surprising number of movies. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen her in Neerja, Khoobsurat, and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, and she’s worked perfectly in all of them. I think what is, is that she needs to be a confident and self-reliant character. She’s got to much strength of personality and it radiates out of her in her posture, her way of holding her head, her eye-contact, all of that. She can’t be believable as an unsure, out of control, or oppressed character. Basically, Saawariya was the worst possible debut for her. She is not believable as a young girl driven mad by love, aimlessly wandering the streets and unsure of what she wants. It’s not that she seemed to confident for the part, it’s that she seemed to nothing for it. She removed all her natural confidence and spice, and didn’t have anything to put in its place.
(I still love this song though. Both the visuals and how it sounds. But notice that Ranbir is emoting and acting all over the place, and Sonam is just kind of there)
Delhi 6 was a much better role for her. Her character starts out almost fading into the background, just one of the many characters in the neighborhood, but then the director pulls a twist on us and shows that she was just pretending to fade, that she has her own goals and life plan and is barreling ahead on her own path. Much more Sonam!
(Check out how she completely drops her personality and just turns into a girl you wouldn’t look at twice at about 2:20 and again right at the end)
I guess what it is, is, she has no medium setting. It’s either huge personality barreling towards you, or absolutely nothing. Which is why both Neerja and Khoobsurat work so well, and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo as well.
In Neerja, she is supposed to be sweet and kind and conciliatory, but with an inner strength. More than that, she has to convince the audience to see and love her as her own family did. To that end, her face is always moving, her eyes are emoting, her mouth is trembling, her posture is changing. Through her body language, she is practically yelling her feelings out of the screen at the audience. And the inner strength comes through clearly in the things that Sonam can’t change about herself. Her height, her posture, her strong features, her huge eyes, her wide mouth. They all tell a story of a powerful in charge person who won’t take “no” for an answer. In the roles like Saawariya where she’s had to change that, to play immature or unconfident, it just turns into this awkward thing where she has to hide her height or keep her mouth pursed or her eyes still and unfocused, hair covering her face, make-up de-emphasizing her jawline.
Her best roles lean into it, making the self-confidence and outsized personality part of the character. Neerja used Sonam’s natural confidence to subliminally tell the viewer about Neerja’s hidden strength. Aisha, Khoobsurat, Dolly ki Doli wrote it right into the character, that she is a bit too much for anyone to handle and most of her problems come from that. And Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and Delhi 6 had it both ways. Showing how wrong and crippled she felt when that confidence was turned off, and how she lit up when it was put back on again.
Which is why I think Khoobsurat missed an opportunity at the end. Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but the ending just feels rushed. I can practically feel the scriptwriters hurrying up as the stopwatch comes closer and closer to the 2 hours no doubt mandated by Disney and their global audience ambitions.
(see how hard Disney is pushing their brand for this film? And what an ugly shirt they are making Sonam wear?)
But what I would love is if we actually got to see the 3rd act that had been teased through out the film. The whole movie, Sonam had been saying that she wouldn’t and couldn’t change for a man, that she has to be herself, anything else would make her miserable. So, why didn’t we get to see her try to do that and fail? Especially because the movie was billed as “A remake of Princess Diaries.” Where is the Princess Diaries plot of an ugly duckling being turned into a swan only to realize that she was perfect from the start?
It would have solved so many problems in the film! For one thing, it would have let Sonam interact with Ratna Pathak’s Queen character a lot more, which would have let Ratna play a few more notes in the role, which would have made her ultimate reconciliation with her husband (who already had plenty of scenes with Sonam and depth shown, he doesn’t need any more) more believable. And the little sister character could have been part of it as well, giving us a little more sense of her relationship with her mother and with Sonam, which again was barely touched on. And it would have given Kirron Kehr more strength as well, if she could have been the person to provide a wake-up call to Sonam that this just wasn’t working and she had to be herself. Basically, all the female characters could have had more to play if there had been a discussion about what kind of woman Sonam should be.
More importantly, it would have solved the problems with the resolution of the romance. We go from a completely dreamy and sympathetic flirtation between the two, straight to Fawad throwing her out of his house and declaring they could never be together! And then like 24 hours later, showing up at her house to apologize and all is forgiven. It makes him look like a huge jerk, and also kind of unstable. What if, instead, this all played out over several weeks and at least 15 minutes of screen time? What if they were in love and got engaged and she tried to change herself, and then they broke up because they could both see it wasn’t working? The resolution could even still be the same! He goes to Delhi and shows he is willing to change too and get outside his comfort zone so they can meet in the middle. But instead of having him just describe what would happen and why they shouldn’t get together in dialogue, the audience could have actually seen Sonam’s inability to change and still be happy, and Fawad’s struggles as result.
Especially since, as I said above, that would have played right into Sonam’s strongest tool, the way she just turns into a non-entity once her natural personality is squashed. Basically, it would have been Prem Ratan Dhan Payo! I really noticed on this watch how careful Sooraj Bharjatya was to build her character. We see her first in Dilwale Prem’s memories, happy and in control, running her charity. Then we see her arrive at the palace, and it is immediately clear that something is wrong. Her blankness and meekness strike the audience as wrong, just as they do Dilwale Prem, and it is only as the notebook song progresses, and she begins to regain her footing in their relationship, that we can see the “real” Sonam emerge, the personality that is familiar from other roles and public appearances, just as it is from her first arrival in this film. And then we get to see it disappear again at the end of the film, when the Prince Prem returns. Only to re-appear in the end credits song.
Now, imagine that same sequence happening in Khoobsurat as we watch Sonam try to change herself for Fawad and lose herself in the process, finally with a happy medium being shown in the credits tag. They even have the perfect end credits song to show it!