This is a movie that came out right when I was first getting in to Indian film, and I really liked it. It hasn’t held up super well as the years have gone by, but it is still fun and the central performances are still great. Even if the ending is a wee bit silly.
It isn’t really a spoiler to say that this is based on When Harry Met Sally. But just barely based on it, purely in terms of the structural conceit of the time jumps checking in on our central couple. Even there it’s not quite the same structure, because it uses space as well as time. The couple happens to be in the same location geographically for brief periods, before separating again, only to see each other a second time years later with no contact in between.
I guess it’s also a bit of a time capsule, now you couldn’t have that sort of complete disappearance from your lives even with great geographic differences. Facebook, social media, a simple google search, you can always find someone if you are curious about them, or at the very least find out everything that happened in the intervening years when you meet up again. But 2003 was the time when communication was easy, yet voluntary.
And it’s a bit of a time capsule for a certain type of romance. The “mature woman, immature man” thing is kind of played out now. At least, I am sick of it! But this was one of the first Indian films to use the idea, instead of the more familiar “perfect wise manly hero, fragile needy heroine” dynamic. At the time, it felt radical. Now it is irritating. Although this movie does question the idea a little bit, if you watch closely and focus on what is shown instead of said, you can see that Rani is just as immature as Saif, only expresses it differently.
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Like I said, it’s When Harry Met Sally. But, different. In the original, we had two humorous meetings between our leads, both of which only take about ten minutes and make minimal impact. They share a car ride from college to New York, talk and fight and don’t like each other much. And then 5 years later, they run into each other while both in serious relationships, still don’t much like each other, but are less obvious about it. And finally, the “real” movie begins when they run into each other a third time, admit that both of their serious relationships are now over and they are in a transition point, quickly become best friends, spend loads of time together, try to set each other up and the set up ends up just bringing their two friends together, then sleep together impulsively in a weak moment, he doesn’t know how to handle it and pulls away, and then finally realizes he does love her and rushes to her and everything is easy from then on. It’s a great classic romance, showing how you have to find each other at the right time, how sometimes love can be hiding behind close friendship, and how the waspy proper girl can grow up to be the one who appreciates the funny snarky guy instead of the “perfect” guy.
This movie takes that idea of multiple meetings and growing up, and a lot of the little details, but uses a very different structure. It isn’t two intro meetings and then the “real” relationship, they are all equally “real” moments between them. And they build on each other, in When Harry Met Sally it felt like 3 totally different people meeting each other (6 different people?) in each era. But in this film, it is only because they meet at those important moments of their lives, that they can fully open up and understand each other by the end of the film.
It starts with Saif and Rani meeting on an airplane on the way to their two different schools in America. They have an awkward bond, as the two young desis on the plane, plus they are sitting next to each other. Saif is immediately funny (not on purpose) as he awkwardly tries to pick her up. But then Rani has her own thing, being needlessly embarrassed about her mother’s blessing when she was leaving, being needlessly rude to Saif on the plane, and revealing that she does kind of want to be friends by agreeing to spend the layover with him. It’s during the layover that things really get going, when Rani and Saif have their little fight song about “boys are like this” and “girls are like that”. And both of them are awfully immature about it, trying to draw false differences between the two genders. It culminates in Rani humiliating Saif in front of a crowd, and then him kissing her. And an epilogue where Rani sees Saif in the park in New York with his girlfriend and reveals that he hit on her on the plane. It’s just all around immature. Rani is being mean and making fun of him when he has been nothing but nice to her, Saif reacts by kissing her which is also not great, and than Rani goes out of her way to sabotage his relationship. It’s just all immature and stupid all around.
Their next meeting is far more interesting, to me. Saif is kind of a doofus, very excited about his “Tom Cruise look”, and hitting on girls. But Rani really crosses the line this time. It’s her wedding, and Saif’s mother (Rati Agnihotri) is her wedding planner. Saif is trapped helping his Mom, and Rani takes advantage of the situation to make fun of him mercilessly. And Rani reveals her own immaturity in full flower for the first time, her confidence that her life will work out as planned and everything is perfect. She is going to marry her best friend from college Abhishek Bachchan because he asked and she likes him and friendship is a perfect basis for marriage. She is going to be happy and her wedding will be perfect and her life will be perfect. And Saif just listens to all her confidence and lets it go. She marries Abhishek, Saif lets some tinge of regret show on his face, and then the important part, he rushes Rani’s mother Kirron Kher to the airport so they can have a final good-bye. Thanks to their brief meeting years earlier, when he saw Kirron give her an airport farewell, he had a special knowledge of this tradition and their closeness. And thanks to his ability to see through her confidence, he knew she really would miss her mother and want her there. Abhishek, her new husband, is her friend and a nice man, but Saif knows her better. He is a doofus, he hits on girls, but Rani isn’t perfect either, she thinks she can organize her whole life and avoid emotions, but Saif can see through that.
These two sections each have a full song and dialogue and several scenes. They aren’t just “ships that pass in the night” moments in terms of length, or meaning. Saif really shook up Rani on that first plane ride, and she shook him. At the wedding, along with the little fun teasing, they had some serious conversations and got to know each other better, and Saif showed a true sensitivity and understanding of her. They build on each other, bringing us to the start of the next meeting, the meeting when they become best friends.
This is one of those feminist/not feminist movies where you have to remember to look at it with Indian eyes, not Western. Saif is a manboy, he flirts too much, he teases, Rani puts up with a lot, it’s all stuff that a standard Western superficial read of media will make you go “ooo, bad, not good!” But this is not a western product and those tropes are not the problem in India that they are in the West. What is a problem is the “one true love” trope for women, a modern version of the same old Widow problem. And this movie rejects that idea forcefully.
Rani and Saif run into each other again in Paris, and Rani is widowed. Abhishek wasn’t her “one true love”, he was a nice man that she was excited to marry and that was all, we saw that at the wedding. But after 5 years of marriage, he become someone she loved deeply and she is crushed by his death. If he hadn’t died, Rani would have been happy with him for the rest of her life and Saif would be just an old friend who gave her a bit of a “what might have been” feeling. But he did die, and now Saif is back in her life. And Rani’s mother tells her “open yourself up, be happy again, don’t feel guilty for smiling”. In a Western context, this sounds like “no duh, of course”. But in an Indian context, to have the older relative of a widow tell her “don’t feel bad for being happy” is a BIG BIG DEAL. Heck, having her living with her mother again instead of with her husband’s relatives, that alone is a Big Big Deal!
And the movie commits to this idea. Rani and Saif had a spark in all their previous meetings, and a special connection now because of their long history. But they don’t fall in love right away. Saif feels bad about the whole situation and can see how depressed she is and tries to cheer her up because he cares and is nice. She lets him in and enjoys his company. And, very very slowly, it grows into something more. Not in a lightening flash of magic, but as just one of many possibilities in her life. This isn’t like Dil To Pagal Hai or 96, this isn’t a love that transcends time and space, this is two people who just happen to run into each other a few times and end up falling in love when they are both unattached and have the time to build something. This time, Rani has been shaken out of her surety and is willing to be a little vulnerable and open, Saif is caring and sensitive enough not to push too much, and they are both in the same city for months at a time. That’s what makes the difference, not some sort of amazing Grand Plan for anything.
And then we have the final section, the return to India. This time, they chose to stay in touch between meetings and across space. They become real good friends in Paris, and in the months between then and meeting in Bombay, they wrote and talked and can pick up where they left off, even build on it. And they build into a far more complicated relationship than the standard “love at first sight” would have given us. All those years of misunderstandings, Saif pushing to hard and Rani holding herself apart, have lead to them not being able to confess their feelings.
This is the first Indian movie I saw that had sex before marriage. And sex that was treated appropriately, as a Big Deal, but not the end of the world. Too often, sex is too little a deal for the hero and too much for the heroine. The hero is seducing and abandoning women left and right, ha-ha, what a stud. And the heroine is pure and perfect and chaste. That’s where this movie starts out, Saif being all crass and flirty and Rani shutting it down. That’s their first song, “girls are like this, guys are like that”. But now, at the end, there are no generalizations, just these two people. Rani knows she loves Saif and he loves her, she has come to understand her own heart. They had a big fight, they made up, they go for a long walk, they are both a little drunk, they have sex. Rani initiates it. It’s a big deal, because it’s a big step for their relationship, the close friendship between these two people. But Rani doesn’t feel guilty or devastated, it’s just a thing that happened that she wanted.
I talked about the fight after sex in my Band Baaja Baarat review I think, because this is the fight I wanted in BBB. Saif does the right thing, or at least tries to do the right thing. He’s stupid, but stupid in a caring way, not a selfish one. He proposes, because that’s what he “should” do after getting drunk and having sex with an old friend. And he knows Rani, she isn’t a woman that just casually has one night stands, if they had sex then it means something to her. And Rani is rightfully angry with him, because he is making the decision for her instead of thinking about what she wants, or acknowledging his own feelings.
Let’s pause here and think about Rani’s character’s journey. She is a young woman who neither marries in a romantic elopement nor a straight forward arranged situation, comes to love her husband deeply, is widowed, starts a new life and a new business, is encouraged by her mother to open up to love again, falls in love with an old friend, initiates sex with him, and then walks away from this potential new relationship when he isn’t offering her what she wants. Any other movie, that first marriage would either a) not have happened at the last minute, or b) be fully arranged and without love, or c) be a passionate love that she will never get over. Her widowhood would have been about sadly living with her in-laws and never feeling joy. Her new relationship would only happen against her will and/or because it was the One True Love all along. And she would definitely not have initiated sex, or walked away after sex.
I’ve seen all those other movies! Baabul, with Rani again, her first husband is her One True Love, she only marries again because her father-in-law insists on it, but she certainly can’t feel love again on her own. Prem Rog, Rishi and Padmini Kolhapure are One True Love, which is why her first marriage is arranged (not in any way a love match) and never consummated. And she has to rebel against everyone in her life in order to be allowed to marry again, or even return to her family home. The idea of a woman who can really truly love two men, that is about as radical and feminist as you can get in the Indian context, especially when you add on that she does all of this with the full support of her mother.
And this is why I still have a soft spot for Hum-Tum. Some of the humor hasn’t aged well, and the songs may be a bit trite, but the central idea of two people eventually coming to love each other is wonderful. Especially when one of those people is a widow who spent time fully in love with someone else. Heck, this movie is even less romantic than the American original! When Harry Met Sally includes talking heads of people discussing their love at first sight moments, and ends with a grand romantic gesture, seemingly confirming that this was a One True Love all along, just took them a while to see it. Most importantly, “Sally” is not a widow. She never had a grand good love before Harry, she was “waiting” (blech) for him. And in the Western context, this is all fine. We don’t get enough romances, and the idea of a man and a woman being friends and getting to know and appreciate and just like each other before they fall in love is original. But if you move it to the Indian context, it’s going to fall into a lot of messy baggage.
So, that baggage is cut off! These aren’t characters who are “meant to be”, they are just two people that ended up falling in love. And if any number of things had turned out differently in their lives, it might not have happened.
Oh, and the ending is SUPER stupid. I have to acknowledge that. Probably because it is the one “Grand romantic” moment of the film. Rani walks away from Saif after he says “I guess we have to get married”, that’s all good and right and real. But then they didn’t know how to end the thing, so they tacked on this idea of Saif writing their story into a book and her coming to a book signing. LAME! Simply following her to the airport and saying the right thing (“I love you, that’s why I want to marry you”) would have been far more believable. And even a nice little closing of the circle, since they first saw each other in the airport. Oh well, I guess the tie in to the comic strip (did I not mention that before? This is all connected to the irritating “hum-tum” comic strip?) meant there had to be some kind of book thing.
But mostly, I still like this movie! It isn’t as deep and hasn’t held up as well as some others, but it is still plenty good and plenty interesting.