OH THIS MOVIE!!!!!! Mad me so angry at how they ended it! But I only got angry because I cared, the rest of the film was good enough to make me care. If you want to know what happens and why I am angry, you can read the rest of the review. If you want to go in fresh, you can read the No Spoilers review.
Whole Plot in Two Paragraphs:
In the valley around the Kedarnath temple, Sushant is a local boy working as a porter carrying tourists up to the temple. And he is Muslim, part of the ancient Muslim community there. Sara Ali Khan is the daughter of a Brahmin Priest who runs the hostel for pilgrims by the temple on behalf of the temple committee. She is engaged to another Brahmin, nephew of the head priest. He was meant to marry her older sister, but he dumped the sister and switched to her when she grew up to be prettier. And her father agreed. In rebellion (since there is no other way to rebel), Sara flirts with the local boys and convinces them to come to her house and propose in order to embarrass her father and fiance. But Sushant is different, they both notice each other and then Sara makes the first move and hires him as her regular porter as she goes from her family home to a neighboring village to help at her uncle’s shop. She talks and talks to him and flirts outrageously and finally gets enough of a reaction to know he feels the same way. They are trapped in the rain together, share stories of their childhood, and then kiss. Her jealous sister tells Sushant that Sara is just flirting with him as she has flirted with all the other boys. Sara can’t defend herself when he confronts her, but starts following him around everywhere, finally sitting in the rain outside his house. Her sister tries to cover for her, but she is found out and her family and the rest of the Brahmin community come for her planning to throw out all the Muslims. Which, not-so-coincidentally, will also open up space for the new luxury hotel they are planning. INTERVAL
Sara is taken home by her family who move up her wedding. Sara insists that Sushant will come for her. The Muslim porter community prepares to leave the valley, but Sushant won’t leave without Sara. Sara is married and then tries to kill herself. Her family saves her, and her now-husband taunts Sushant with the news. Sushant runs to Sara and promises he will come back for her that night when she is recovered, so they can leave the valley together. Her husband plans to take his band of priests and kill Sushant and drive out all the Muslims “in Shiva’s Name”. And then the rains and the floods start. Sushant sends his mother with the other porters into the mountains and runs towards Sara. Sara and her family are trying to gather the guests of their hostel in a top floor, her husband and his mother arrive driven in by the storm and Sara refuses to go to him. And then the floor crashes down and her sister and mother are swept away along with half the other people. Sara and her father and a few others make their way to the temple, Sushant finds them there just as the water sweeps down. He grabs her hand in the flood, and her father holds on to her and all three are saved. After the water goes down, they make their way to a house that is still standing and wave at an Indian army helicopter that is coming to save them. Sushant sends up the woman and child who are with them first, then Sara’s father, then Sara, and finally prepares to go himself. But there is only space for one more person and the father of the family hasn’t gone yet, so Sushant sacrifices himself and sends him instead. 3 years later, Sara is still living with her father and running the hostel, dressed in white like a widow.
Do you see why I really really hate the end? Maybe not. It’s not just that Sushant dies, it’s that he dies so that Sara’s father can live. Sara’s father is saved before Sara herself even!!!! Because the older Hindu man is the most important person for India. Women, children, young men, they should all be sacrificed so he can live. And that is the happy ending. This cowardly short-sighted shallow man, he is the one who lives. And the film showed us, over and over, why exactly he did not deserve to live. Or, to put it another way, why his survival was not a happy ending. We see him waffle and fail to speak up at committee meetings when he knows what is being planned is wrong. We know he sold out both his daughters by breaking the engagement of one and forcing the engagement of the other. We know he stood by and did nothing while his future son-in-law planned a mini-genocide. We know he doesn’t seem to care that his daughter tried to kill herself. And we know that, just this exact second, he took the place in the helicopter before giving it to his daughter.
(Love is a pilgrimage, and there is no reward at the end because an old powerful man blocks your entrance)
There is a clear ending I was expecting here, a last minute touching redemption moment when he would dive out of the helicopter thus making space for Sushant. Admitting he was wrong to be against Muslims, admitting he was wrong to be against their love, a metaphorical sacrifice of stupid old patriarchal prejudiced India for a better version of young India. And then, it doesn’t happen. At the end of the film, Sara is broken and sad, Sushant is dead, Sara’s mother is dead, Sara’s sister is dead, maybe Sara’s horrible husband is dead (we are cheated out of his death scene, I am guessing another cut because they thought it would make us sad to watch the abusive murder die), but by golly her father is still alive and chugging along unchanged!!!!
(You know who made the right change and died so his daughter could live with the man she loved? The heroine’s Nazi father in Foreign Correspondent. An actual NAZI was more unselfish and understanding than the father in this.)
And retroactively, this ending says that the whole meaning of the film is wrong. What has been going on around the central love story is a discussion of if the future of the valley is to become more profit focused and purely Hindu, or if it will maintain the balance between small local businesses, hardworking porters, and Muslim and Hindu living in harmony.
What this is getting at is the competing concepts of India. There is a wonderful beautiful ideal of India as a place where religion blossoms and and grows together, where Hindus celebrate Eid and Muslims play Holi, and everyone loves Christmas. Where everyone loves their own God and everyone else’s God too. Where Amar Akbar and Anthony are all brothers, where Humanity is the only religion, where the most popular religious symbol is one combining all of the religions together and the most popular hymn is “Raghupati Raghav”. Each religion does not take from the other, but adds to it.
(Did not realize there is now a version that cuts the “Allah is also his name” line. Yuch!)
That is what Sushant’s character and his friends represent. Sushant is a devout Muslim, that is his identity. But when he is carrying pilgrims to the temple, he sings a hymn to Shiva, and he rings the bell when he gets there. He respects their pilgrimage, he respects Shiva, even if they aren’t pilgrims from his religion and Shiva isn’t his God. Sushant’s friends include a Shiva Bhakti devotee, a poorer Hindu, and other Muslim porters. They all live happily together, and are earnestly devoted to serving the pilgrims who come to them every year. The Hindu temple committee wants to develop them away, purify the valley. Sushant stands up in the meeting to defend his friends and himself, reminds them that it is not “their” valley, it is “our” valley. The Muslims have been there for generations, they love the pilgrims and the temple and the community. It’s a powerful speech.
And then the film tells us that none of it matters. Sushant dares to fall in love with a Hindu woman, and that’s all the excuse needed to get rid of them all. The Brahmins threaten and beat Sushant (while Sara’s father, shocker, stands by and does nothing) and the Muslims realize it is time to leave, pack their possessions on their backs and wander away looking for a place that will still accept them. This is not their home after all, nor their people.
The only place the Muslim has in this society is to die so the Hindus can live. To serve the Hindus and go away when they are not wanted. While the whole film uses Sushant’s character and his relationship with Sara to argue for an open society, it takes a sudden veer away from that in the last third. After building up a strong argument for how Sara is taking control of her own life and fighting the patriarchy on behalf of both herself and her sister, for how her father is useless and wrong, for how Sushant’s simple sincere love for all people is the right way to live. All the way through Sara’s forced wedding, her determination that Sushant is the one that will be strong enough to fight for her, right up to when the floods start. And then suddenly it turns from Sushant fighting the world to save Sara, to Sushant sacrificing himself to save the world (well, the Hindu world, the one that matters).
It didn’t have to go that way!!!! There was another option built right in. The Hindu and Muslim communities that have been fighting each other, the family that has been fighting each other, coming together to help everyone survive. The floods start, Sara and her family fight through them, her icky husband is selfish and reveals his true ugliness, Sushant saves Sara and her family and other pilgrims, at the end Sushant and Sara are married with the blessings of everyone in a beautiful Muslim-Hindu marriage as a new Kedarnath rises from the floods.
But instead, beautiful independent in love Sara loses her sister (the only person in her family who truly understands her), her mother, and the man she loves. And is left with the horrible passive father. Left to live her life in living death, no smiles and no flirtation and no colors any more. Just listening to the radio as it plays songs that remind her of her lost past.
(“Lag Jaa Gale” is the song, of course)
I suppose there is a possible interpretation of this plot as less about a scared last minute shift to avoid having a Hindu Brahmin woman marry a Muslim man, but instead a lament for the way the world has failed. Instead of this young couple being able to be together, the world destroys them. Sara is left empty and colorless, all possible happiness and future is gone. Not because of the floods, but because of the misunderstandings that surround them, that allow this tragedy to sweep them apart. We are meant to end the film with this feeling of emptiness and wrongness, because the world is empty and wrong.